NEW YORK (AP) — As Muhammad Ali went from "pariah" to "beloved figure," Bob Arum was along for the ride.
The Hall of Fame boxing promoter recalled on Thursday, the day before Ali's funeral, just how hated Ali was for refusing induction into the Army. And, Arum added, how revered Ali eventually became.
"People would say he was a coward," Arum said. "The truth is, he was the most courageous person I have ever seen, willing to give up his livelihood for what he believed in. A man of conviction willing to sacrifice everything, and his spirit really permeated around the world."
An attorney, Arum was familiar with the business of boxing when his friend, Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown, told him he should do more than "being a lawyer" and should become a promoter.
"I said the only fighter who means anything" is Ali," Arum said. "And he's tied up."
Not quite the case, Brown told Arum. Two months later, Arum was meeting with Ali, Brown and Herbert Muhammad, Ali's adviser from the Nation of Islam. After meeting the leader of the Black Muslim movement, Elijah Muhammad, in Chicago, Arum was hired as Ali's promoter — on the condition that the first fight of their agreement take place in Chicago.
Thus began a lengthy promotional whirlwind for Arum and Ali.
The initial fight was scheduled against Ernie Terrell, but Chicago Mayor Richard Daley squashed it. Indeed, nearly every city in America barred Ali from fighting.
"Fortunately, because he was not convicted, Ali had a passport," Arum said.
Still, finding a venue that would welcome him was difficult.
Arum set up a bout at the renowned Montreal Forum, only, he says, to have the American Legion threaten to boycott that city's World's Fair."
But Maple Leaf Gardens owner Harold Ballard stepped up, telling Arum he would "make this fight happen."
"I was out of options," Arum added. "What else was I going to do?"
Then, Ballard's co-owner of the building and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe, said he wouldn't allow a "draft dodger in my arena." With Arum desperate, Ballard — "quite a character," Arum noted — borrowed enough money from Canadian banks to buy out Smythe.
The fight was on ... until Terrell pulled out.
Luckily for Arum and Ali, the setting was Toronto, so Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo replaced Terrell, ramping up interest as well as saving the card.
The hurdles didn't quite disappear, though. The Ontario Parliament announced it would discuss and need to approve the bout. It did, by one vote, Arum said.
Ali battered the courageous but outmatched Chuvalo. Now what?
"We got wind a promoter in England wanted Ali against Henry Cooper, who had knocked down Ali in an earlier fight," Arum said. "We held it at the old Arsenal stadium and had more than 30,000."
Arum also found a new ally in ABC Sports President Roone Arledge. Although boxing had become a non-starter on network TV for perhaps a decade, Arledge saw Ali's fights as prime programming for "Wide World Of Sports," the pre-eminent sports anthology series.
"They paid me $50,000 and had better ratings by far than they ever had on Wide World. Now, we had an avenue to go."
So they went back to England for Ali-Brian London. Then to Germany for Ali-Karl Mildenberger.
At last, a U.S. site stepped up.
Judge Roy Hofheinz, owner of the Houston Astrodome, guaranteed there would be no interference for an Ali-Cleveland Williams fight in November 1966. His building was billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," and Hofheinz felt Ali's return to American soil belonged there.
Ali knocked out Williams in three rounds, then fought twice more in the U.S. before his 3 1-2 years of exile.
Getting Ali to promote a fight never was a chore, Arum said. It was an education.
"I was just following along with Ali," Arum explained. "Everything was Ali; I learned how to be a promoter from Muhammad Ali."