LAS VEGAS – Bob Arum was where he wanted to be Saturday, where he feels the most comfortable, where he feels he belonged. He was sitting at ringside at a fight card at the Palms Hotel & Casino, nothing seemingly different than what he has done on so many Saturday nights in nearly 50 years of promoting boxing.
Something was different, however; dramatically so. Saturday's card, which featured a featherweight championship fight between Yuriorkis Gamboa and Orlando Salido, was Arum's first public appearance since the tragic death of his 49-year-old son, John, during a hiking trip in North Cascades National Park in Washington earlier this month.
John Arum was born and raised in New York City, but at age 16, he asked his parents to send him to wilderness camp.
"After that, he wasn't a New York kid anymore," Arum said.
John Arum fell in love with the environment, so much so that he decided to make protecting it his life's work. He was a brilliant student who, his father said, began to read before he was 2. He was passionate regarding environmental and conservation issues and did much work on behalf of Native Americans.
He won a landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case, Minnesota v. the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, that preserved hunting and fishing rights for the tribe. The ruling came on a 5-4 opinion, with Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter ruling in Arum's favor.
Bob Arum, himself a Harvard-trained attorney who worked in the Kennedy administration before becoming a boxing promoter, beamed as he recounted his son's work.
His son died while attempting to scale an 8,500-foot peak in the Cascades, falling 300 to 500 feet to his death. A year or so earlier, John Arum had told his stepsister, Dena duBoef, that if he were to die, he'd want to do so in the mountains. This was a man who so loved the outdoors that for his honeymoon, he and his wife, Susan Hormann, kayaked from Washington to Alaska.
He was in the middle of a personal quest, attempting to scale Washington's 100 highest peaks, when he fell to his death. He died in the land he loved while living his dream, but it was of little solace to his father.
"Everybody tells me I should take solace in that, that he died doing what he loved and where he wanted to be more than anyplace else," Arum said. "I guess that's what everybody believes. Last year, he had a long conversation with Dena and he told Dena that if something were to happen to him and he were to die young, he wanted to die in the mountains, because that's what he loved. But to me, that's no solace.
"As a father, I don't get it. It's hard. I'm trying to accept it, but it is a very difficult thing to understand."
Bob Arum is 78 and said he briefly considered retiring in light of John's death. But he said he spoke to two close friends, Atlantis Hotel owner Sol Kerzner and former Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, each of whom lost sons.
Each of them recommended to Arum to mourn for a short period of time and then to get back to work. At first, Arum was conflicted and wasn't sure he could bring himself to do it. As time passed and he mulled their words, though, he realized that no matter how devastated he was by his son's tragic death, he couldn't quit promoting.
"I love it," Arum said. "It's in my blood. It's part of me. It's part of who I am. This is where I wanted to be and, quite frankly, where I needed to be. I'm very excited by a lot of the innovations that are part of the sport now. What people don't realize is that they watch fights and they see fighters and that doesn't change very much. But everything around it changes tremendously, all the technology and the communication.
"Today, I was at home and I watched the [Wladimir Klitschko-Samuel Peter] fight on ESPN3.com on my iMac. It was incredible. It was like I was watching my television set. Everything is changing and everything is really interesting, stimulating. I just love being a part of this. Remember, when I first started, we didn't have satellites. None. No international, no domestic. We used to have to fly the tape of the fight over to England. All the changes are fascinating to me and keep me interested and keep it fresh and exciting for me. And so as horribly as I felt about what happened, the best thing for me and the best thing for my family was to get back at it, to come to this fight and then to go to the office on Monday morning."
As he spoke, a small procession of well wishers approached and shook his hand. Referee Joe Cortez. HBO broadcaster Max Kellerman. There were others. Throughout the lower level seats, many kept whispering, "How's Bob?"
Considering what happened, he was doing as well as could be expected. He's a tough, resilient man, but he's also a man with a big heart.
That big heart was broken when he learned his son was missing and, later, found dead. But his family came closer as they waited for news of John's fate. Arum and his wife, Lovee, along with his ex-wife, Barbara, and his son, Richard, and daughter, Liz, all stayed in a home on the park grounds as they awaited news.
Being surrounded by his family, even in tragedy, proved uplifting for him.
"There are so many ups and downs when they do a search," he said. "Our hopes were raised a number of times when they'd tell us something and we all shared that together. And that was great that the family could be together like that, all there for each other. It wasn't the kind of circumstances you want to get together under, but being with them and being there for each other was something very comforting."