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Bob Arum talks ESPN ratings, making big fights in a pandemic, and much more

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The Hall of Fame promoter chatted about the ESPN numbers and much, much more.

Shakur Stevenson v Felix Caraballo Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank via Getty Images

He’s 88 years old, and there he was ringside, mask on, take that Trumpduring those “Bubble” shows at MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Yes, Bob Arum is a character, with a capital C, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for “promoter.” He’s top of the heap, an ATG, if you combine effectiveness with longevity.

But even legends still learn lessons, and the Brooklyn-born deal-maker admitted he figured out some things he hadn’t banked on after doing shows for six weeks during the strangest time period anyone alive on this earth has experienced.

I chatted with The Bobfather on Friday afternoon, and he said he’d been catching up on his rest after the first round of “Bubble” shows finished on July 21.

He’s still consummate Bob. So, what is more important to you, I asked — is rest or recreation more useful after going through such an obstacle course? He thought about it for a quarter second, and then said, “Who knows?” He wasn’t going to bother making a pick. “There’s no rest here, I’ve been on the phone all day,” he said.

And yes, he’d not really have it any other way. A few weeks into quarantine, and Arum admitted that he made the right decision staying in the fray, and not selling off and taking it easy, living a chill retired life. And no, he didn’t go back on that assertion when we talked about what went down in that strange milieu that was nicknamed “The Bubble,” because anyone who entered had to get tested for COVID, and test negative, so they could stay inside. He didn’t think it would be easy, but yes, he and the Top Rank gang now have some intel that could only be gathered by having been in the arena. It’s like the knowledge gained going 12 hard rounds in a step up fight. You know you did it, and that success can positively inform you moving forward.

“We learned what the world is about, that ‘The Bubble’ and the system we have is the best anyone can have, that the testing protocol is absolutely state of the art,” Arum shared.

“This coronavirus is a bitch,” he continued. “These kids get exposed, right after the first week we told them to get a test where they live, so they wouldn’t come to Vegas to get turned down, waste their time. Some did and we had to cancel or postpone their fights.”

He knew that some fights would fall out, of course, so the TR top staffers understood that they’d have to assume fallouts, probably more last minute than is typical. Book five fights, probably four would end up making the cut, right? But getting more wiggle room became a necessity, because you could easily lose two bouts off a card.

“But we got through the 13 weeks in the bubble, and now it’ll get a lot easier,” Arum said.

Starting in August, Top Rank will be placing one show a week on ESPN, and so the Brad Goodmans and the Bruce Tramplers won’t be losing hair at the same rate.

“We learned we have to book seven fights and hope to have four at the end!”

No, Arum admitted, he didn’t think back in May that the nation would be where it is today, in context of the virus. I think most everyone agrees with him. Who among us thought that people in Texas, Florida, and the like weren’t watching things play out in California and then New York, and wouldn’t take lessons from those hot spots? Who thought that there’d be a massive confederacy of dunces, the “Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death” crew, who refused to wear face shields, and made it an issue of civil rights?

“I really was optimistic that by October, we could be doing events with a limited number of spectators,” said Arum. “And now look at the landscape. I don’t think even in the fourth quarter, and the end of the fourth quarter, we can do events with spectators. We’re in the same boat as all these pro sports teams.”

Two plus months back, Arum talked to the steering gang about using the new Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium to hold the third Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder fight. It looked like the Raiders could do a game on Thursday, Dec. 17, then a crew could configure the spot for a boxing match, with limited patron seating.

“Now they tell us they’re not optimistic they’ll be getting any spectators.”

Yes, things are tough all over, though, it must be said, worse in America than compared to many other regions.

“The problem is we don’t have leadership, we have a guy (Trump), obviously, who cares about getting elected, which is alright, OK, but then he becomes unduly optimistic — ‘the virus is going away,’ that’s not the case. If you had a real leader, who had advocated face masks, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” Arum said. “In the UK, which had bigger percentage of deaths than we did (earlier on), they seem to have it under control, in places where they had and have proper leadership.”

So, yes, it does change his thinking about where to place fights, especially those bigger ticket ones that we fans crave.

“Everything is possible, we’re looking at other places in the world, because we’re not deluding ourselves.”

Arum had a certain level of confidence that a Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Teofimo Lopez 135-pound showdown could go forward with limited spectators. But the curve overall in the US isn’t getting flattened. So an Oct. 3 young gun vs master craftsman scrap really can’t get made in timely fashion, because the equation changed so radically. No fans means no gate take. And the closed circuit circuit is in shambles; bars and taverns aren’t operating everywhere robustly, so now that’s two revenue streams blocked.

“And if the creeps in the Senate don’t do relief packages, and people get thrown out of their homes, that will affect the number of people who can afford it, if something is put on pay-per-view. So, then the question is, how do you adjust the purses to make these events happen?”

Arum said when he and his guys talked to most boxers who did “Bubble” fights, they got it, the virus’ impact trickles down and really does undercut bottom lines. Top Rank had the only game in town, there wasn’t the same degree of room to maneuver for many of the athletes, they couldn’t see what maybe Hearn or Haymon were offering for a gig.

“And people got paid really well,” he told me. “And we got the events on, but man, I’ve never had the situation where we lost so many main events.”

That brings us to a point of conjecture, for many people. Nope, Arum didn’t load up the first “Bubble” run with coin flip fights and bouts that had hardcores and even sub-hardcores drooling. And, we heard and saw media and Twitterati saying, that is being reflected in the ratings.

Here is Arum’s take on that: his bottom line is that if ESPN is happy, he’s happy. And, he told me, ESPN suits were indeed pleased. No, the numbers weren’t home run city. But, Arum said, knowledgeable sorts are not expecting stratospheric ratings in the summer.

“Sets in use are way down, people like to go outside, even in the pandemic,” he explained. And yes, that applied to me. Especially in the pandemic. I probably chose to get fresh air and blew off boxing more so this June and July than I would have if I’d not been locked up with family during March and April. Those 300,000s rating, that reflected me not wanting to watch any sort of screen, because I’d done too much of that in months preceding.

“That’s why the networks don’t run their series during the summer,” Arum said.

And here’s more numbers for ya; Arum said that the Top Rank shows were for 13 days the highest rated program on ESPN.

“Significantly more than ‘First Take,’ with Max Kellerman, than for live sports they had, like soccer, we doubled those numbers,” he stated.

And when people brought up how well UFC was doing, Arum noted this: running on a Saturday will help your cause considerably.

“But when UFC went during the week, their numbers were just slightly above ours. The numbers were fine, I don’t care what anyone thinks or says about the numbers, ESPN, they were delighted.”

That delight is being reflected in the number of shows that Top Rank and ESPN will offer looking forward.

“We’re supposed to do 30 a year, and in two months we did 15, half a year’s shows. Now in this period, through the rest of the year, we’ll probably do a year’s worth of shows.”

And, OK, it seems like they will be ramping up, they used the first Bubble series to gain intel, and the next batch of shows will be of a glossier grade. I did mention that I monitor social media chatter, and that MMA fans like to note how Dana White serves up more coin flip fights.

“You have to remember, UFC has, like, 500 fighters under contract, and we have maybe 60. So, it’s not the same thing.”

It’s not; White has a near monopoly to have fun with, and he uses it to his advantage, but dozens of his fighters will tell you that the talent doesn’t make out as well. UFC paychecks have MMAers looking at boxing, and wishing they had more freedom with employment options as pugilists do.

Circling back some. I think maybe we will see, moving forward, that the Top Rank method, more low-key fights, gets regarded with more merit in the rear view mirror. And why is that? Because there is less blowback when a fight that isn’t featuring two B or higher guys or gals gets cancelled, because of COVID positives.

Hey, maybe this nation gets its act together in August, and the fall offers up pleasant surprises, more returns to norms because citizens start banding together and acting for a common good, instead of portraying themselves as the Clint Eastwoods of the coronavirus. You know them, too tough and too independent to be told what to do. I confess, I’m not at all optimistic that these science scoffers will see the light, however.

“This virus is a bitch, it’s a clever sonuvabitch,” Arum said, and I could hear him shaking his head. Poor Jamel Herring, he can second that emotion. That’s another lesson, now TR will wait longer to re-set a fight with someone who tests positive, to let the virus particles in their system dissipate.

“Now an old guy like myself, I’ve been in the bubble, learned about it, I’m gonna apply to get a medical degree. I’ve got more experience with it than a lot of people,” Arum quipped.

And he has experience with me, pestering him, asking about updates on next fights for his top draws. Is he close to locking down that Lomachenko-Lopez marquee matchup?

“We’re doing everything we can, I’m talking to ESPN, talking about October 3rd. We may have to do it pay-per-view. But maybe, for example, if college football doesn’t go, maybe ESPN buys that fight, and puts it in place of a major game, a Big 10 game.”

That could potentially happen for a fight at that level, but no, not for a heavyweight super-fight, in case you were wondering.

Arum is still talking to Eddie Hearn about that Kubrat Pulev challenge of Anthony Joshua.

“And Eddie is stalling for time. I’m not being pejorative, he’s looking at November, he really believes that in the UK, he’ll be able to do a fight with limited spectators,” Arum said.

Again, removing the gate from the equation is a real game changer, a limiting factor on making numbers work for all parties.

“A $17 million dollar gate, like Fury-Wilder 2 did, how do I replace that number?” asked Arum. The $2 million collected for closed circuit, that goes to zero with theaters shuttered and bars unable to invite masses of imbibers in to take in some libations and combat sports.

“No more Buffalo Wild Wings. Now what do I do, with that $20 million dollar hole?”

Kick the can down that road, I guess, and hope that there is a radical shift in thought, that Trump decides to make masks cool, and this nation gets its head out of its ass in responding in mature fashion to a severe public health crisis? Nope, can’t rely on PPV to be the bail out answer, not when some 40 million folks are dealing with unemployment, and the average discretionary income pot has shrunken.

“They gonna be willing to pay for an $80 pay-per-view?”

Arum had to wrap it up, he thought he might be getting a call back from Bud Crawford, the welterweight pack leader from Nebraska.

“I called him this morning, we’re making headway for his next fight, and I think maybe by the end of next week there will be a big announcement. November 14th or November 21st. It’s likely to be outside the US. Because we can’t be assuming we will have this thing cleaned up.”