IS TOP RANK IN TROUBLE?
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One of boxing’s biggest and best-known promoters might be in dire straits while heading into one of the most uncertain financial situations of recent years. While it is always necessary to evaluate the validity of sources before jumping to conclusions, there is also rarely smoke without fire.
Bob Arum, of Top Rank Promotions, was recently accused of being on the ‘brink of bankruptcy’ by Dana White, of Zuffa LLC. In a scathing account of Arum on the UFC Unfiltered Podcast, White ‘teed-off’ on Bob Arum about his finances and negative impact on boxing. While White often speaks off the cuff, he also has unique insight as he deals with many of Arum’s business contacts, including ESPN.
So, what does Dana White know?
While White gave no sources, he explained that Bob Arum can’t afford to hold fights and to promote events without outside help. White said that the money Arum makes from his TV deals with various stations including ESPN were not bringing in enough money to adequately manage his stable of high-profile fighters.
White is effectively saying that the deals Bob Arum and his stepson Todd Duboef, who manages Top Rank’s relations with ESPN+ and its global facing strategies, were not good enough. With White having so many contacts in the business of event promotion, he likely has insider knowledge about Bob Arum’s business deals or lack thereof.
What evidence is there, outside of White’s word?
To find evidence of financial issues, we need only look back a few years back into boxing news. For at least the last decade, Top Rank has intermittently been involved in lawsuits and rumors of shady financial practices, far more frequently than any other top promoter would consider acceptable. After all, the promotion game is all about image and press. Just like politics, bad press is bad business.
Bob Arum has spoken on numerous occasions bout the financial stress that comes with staging big fights. While the promotional game is no doubt expensive, the costs are part of the game, and rarely do other promoters talk openly, even going as far as to complain, about the costs of holding fights. This is because big fights make huge sums at the gate, in-merchandise, and in PPV, so promoters are happy to write these cheques ahead of each event.
While Hearn and Warren often joke about the costs of title-fights and their prayers that PPV sales fill the purses, we feel that these are tongue-in-cheek and merely meant to break the tension when talking to the press about spending millions of pounds. Hearn and Warren are, after all, from working-class backgrounds and they know the majority of boxing fans and fighters are too. To brag about spending millions without making it clear it pains them deeply, could alienate their main audience.
Arum, on the other hand, has felt compelled to mention the financial burdens of the fight business at every turn, even going so far as to say he couldn’t afford to do everything needed to promote Terence Crawford. Recently, speaking about a possible matchup with Shawn Porter, Arum said: “Even if Crawford & Porter want it, how in the hell do you afford the fight?”
This is a ludicrous thing to say about one of your best fighters, a man who fights under your banner, and a potentially huge matchup for both men. Can you imagine Eddie Hearn saying the same thing about an Anthony Joshua fight? Or Frank Warren talking that way about Daniel Dubois or Tyson Fury? These men silently eat the costs and sign the deals because they know it’s simply the cost of doing business. For Arum to be so vocal, can only signal bad things behind the scenes.
Most recently, in February 2020, Arum announced he would be willing to sell his stake in Top Rank if it would allow the company to expand and focus on its global strategy. While this is not uncommon, it’s slightly suspect given that Arum himself built Top Rank from the ground up, it has been a family company since 1973. For the past 50+ years, Arum has helmed the company and been one of the biggest players in boxing, it seems odd that he would willingly give up his share, at the age of 88, to become a glorified manager à la Dana White and the UFC. Regarding this Arum said “Anything is for sale if I can stay alive in the business”, while Arum was talking about keeping his position as front-man, it was choice wording.
Many have called out Top Rank regarding finances
A number of boxers and other players have had issues with collecting payments from Top Rank in the past. Given that the boxing world is a relatively small place, with many deals being made based on existing relationships and inter-personal sentiment, having the reputation for backing out of deals or shady practices, is not conducive to continued success.
Many of the trainers, gym owners, promoters, and boxers grew up with one another and make business decisions based on loyalties. Top Rank, specifically Arum, has been called out by several people for failing to pay up in the past.
Manny Pacquiao, after his fight Lucas Matthysse, openly complained that Top Rank did pay him his cut of the TV rights within an acceptable period. Top Rank eventually did pay Pacquiao in full, but only once word of the situation had already hit the press. Paying someone in order to avoid negative attention, is not good business. Pacquiao’s team later released a statement saying they had no outstanding financial issues with Arum, before immediately signing with Al Haymon. If there’s one thing that’s true in both business and renting, it’s that happy people rarely move on.
Top Rank owes Chris Middendorf, who previously managed Terence Crawford prior to 2011, $520,000 as a result of a contract breach when Crawford signed with Top Rank. Instead of paying up immediately, Top Rank took the matter to court and only agreed to pay once a Nebraska court judge ruled in favor of Middendorf. Again, not business conduct that gives a company a good reputation in the relatively small boxing community.
In 2016, the then-undefeated Andy Ruiz, signed to Top Rank just before his Dec 10 fight with Joseph Price. In the process, Ruiz reneged on a deal with Los Angeles based Garden City Boxing Club and manager Joseph Gagliardi. Instead of paying a buyout fee, Top Rank again refused payment until the Nevada Athletic Commission rules on the matter. This shows a history of less than ideal conduct on behalf of Bob Arum and Top Rank. Far from behaving like a company that has been the business for over 50 years and been involved in many of boxing’s greatest fights, anecdotal reports paint Top Rank as cowboys. One of the main reasons a company holds such short-term views on business is a lack of funds, it is behavior born out of necessity over desire.
Boxing currently finds itself in a difficult and unsure situation. It was expected that many of the smaller fish would suffer and fail to emerge from the other side, it appears that the some of the bigger players in boxing might not be able to weather the storm as we had expected. Do you think Top Rank will make it through to another decade? Or will it be one of many casualties in the sport?
Let us know below.