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Boxing promoter Don King. Getty Images/Doug KANTER (DOUG KANTER)
Boxing promoter Don King. Getty Images/Doug KANTER (DOUG KANTER)

Stephen Brunt

Don King, Bob Arum collide one last time Add to ...

Entering a ninth decade on planet Earth can apparently bring a new sense of perspective, and tolerance, and peace.

Bob Arum will turn 80 this year. So will his long-time nemesis, the shock-haired Don King. They were briefly in the spotlight this week, working together as they have on rare occasions, banging the drum for a fight between Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Mayorga on March 12 that, like the sport of professional boxing itself in the 21st century, will cause hardly a ripple in the mass culture.

"When we were younger," Arum said, "we used to get under each other's skin."

Quite the understatement, that. During the decades when a much more vital business was divided nearly equally between them, Arum and King were polar opposites and mortal enemies. When they did collaborate (the first time for Roberto Duran versus Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal in 1980), it was a shotgun marriage - the shotguns cocked and pointed squarely at each other.

"King is a real street guy who doesn't understand morality," Arum said back then.

"He sticks so many daggers in your back," King countered, "you look like a porcupine."

(The late, great trainer Cus D'Amato put it this way: "I don't know this Don King guy, but I know Arum. King can't be as bad as Arum because I don't think God could make two mistakes like that.")

The truth is that they were merely part of a continuum, the latest in a long line of promoters who ruled a sport that has always been a bastion of Wild West free market capitalism. The great boxing kingpins, dating back to the business's origins in the early 19th century, were never sentimental souls. Instead, they survived on cunning and ruthlessness and greed, always understanding that there were competitors ready and waiting to take them down.

Arum and King were both of that tradition, and in many ways cut from the same cloth - though stylistically, culturally, it's hard to imagine two people more different.

Arum is a Talmudic scholar who graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude and then became a so-called Kennedy Raider, one of the mob busters in Robert Kennedy's treasury department. He first encountered the business of boxing while investigating a potentially dirty promotion, and first got into the business himself by staging the Muhammad Ali-George Chuvalo heavyweight title bout in Toronto in 1966 - a fight that was run out of the United States because of Ali's draft resistance.

King, 79, was a Cleveland numbers runner who did hard time for kicking to death a much smaller man who owed him money. He emerged from prison, sporting what he liked to call "a PhD from the University of the Ghetto," and somehow convinced Ali to appear at a benefit for a local hospital - the beginning of a relationship that eventually produced The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila. King played the race card in a business in which generations of African American boxers had been exploited by white promoters. Not that he wouldn't exploit them just as badly - his gifts for manipulation, for being able to produce a suitcase full of cash at just the right moment, are legendary.

Now, they are both lions in winter. The heavyweight division, where King made almost all his money, is as lacklustre as at any time since John L. Sullivan became the most famous athlete in North America. And though Arum promotes the single most marketable figure in the sport, Manny Pacquiao, his glory days with Leonard and Duran and Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler are very much ancient history.

There is competition - most notably from Arum's former charge Oscar De La Hoya and his Golden Boy promotional company - but there's hardly anything left to divide. Much has been written about the rise of mixed martial arts under the UFC banner, and how it has supplanted boxing, but often underplayed is that Dana White and company enjoy a de facto monopoly, because there are no Kings and Arums fighting each other to the death, even when it was extraordinarily detrimental to the sport.

So these two may well represent the end of an evolutionary line, and this promotion, however forgettable, may be their last act together. Retirement doesn't seem to be an option. What's coming, instead, is better described as extinction.

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