LAS VEGAS – Sometime in the early-to-mid 1990s, Bob Arum did a market survey to learn more about his customers.
The Top Rank CEO wanted to know who was watching and what kind of matches they were interested in seeing. To his surprise, boxing at that point was being carried largely because of the interest and passion of Hispanic fans.
The tragic death of Duk Koo Kim during a 1982 bout with Ray Mancini on national television was still fresh in the minds of many. The NBA, which playoff games had long been shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m., had entered the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird-Michael Jordan era and was gaining enormous popularity.
The NFL was catching up to Major League Baseball as the country's national pastime. Interest in boxing began to wane.
And so, as the 1996 U.S. Olympic Games approached, Arum felt he had to shape his company with a Hispanic tinge. He began to sign Mexican and Mexican-American boxers in droves.
When he looked at the fighters in the U.S. Olympic program as the 1996 Atlanta Games neared, the one who most fit with where he wanted to take his company was a fiery Mexican-American prospect named Fernando Vargas.
Top Rank had signed gold medal winner Oscar De La Hoya after the 1992 Games and by 1995 had already had great success with him. Rules at the time allowed promoters to financially support amateurs, and so Top Rank backed Vargas.
One of the other elite members of that 1996 team was a skinny and brash featherweight named Floyd Mayweather Jr. Main Events, the New Jersey-based promotional company which had great success with American Olympians such as Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker, backed Mayweather.
"To be honest with you, we looked at Vargas and Mayweather both as potential big stars," Arum said. "[Vargas] was a higher weight and he was Hispanic, and both of those made sense to us. We spotted Mayweather as a major talent, but we at first looked at Vargas as the guy who made the most sense.
"And of course, Vargas went on to have a great, great career. He was a terrific fighter and he was popular. What we saw in him wasn't wrong."
As great as Vargas was, he wasn't Mayweather. But things changed dramatically around the Olympics. Vargas decided he didn't want to sign with Top Rank. And Mayweather's family was in Las Vegas, which was where Top Rank was based.
So at the last moment, they switched. Vargas signed with Main Events and went on to a very good career. Mayweather signed with Top Rank and went on to become one of the sport's icons and one of the greatest fighters of all time.
Now, Mayweather will meet Top Rank's latest superstar, Manny Pacquiao, on Saturday at the MGM Grand in a bout that is going to break every financial record ever kept in boxing. Arum and Mayweather will be on opposite sides, their on-and-off relationship as much a part of the fabric of Mayweather-Pacquiao as anything.
"You know, I don't have anything bad to say about Bob Arum," Mayweather told Yahoo Sports. "He's a great promoter and he and [Top Rank matchmaker] Bruce Trampler and all of them, they did a good job. But I just wanted to be my own boss."
Mayweather split from Arum for good after he defeated Zab Judah in 2006. He was a big star, but hardly the icon that he became.
As Pacquiao rose to superstardom and calls began to rise for he and Mayweather to fight each other, Arum was stuck in the middle.
Talks of the megafight dragged on interminably for more than five years, and as they did Arum's relationship with Mayweather was often brought into the discussion.
Arum said he never had issues with Mayweather. His big problem, he said, came with Mayweather adviser Al Haymon. Haymon, who created the Premier Boxing Champions series that is on NBC, CBS, ABC, ESPN and Spike, among other channels, has become the sport's most powerful figure.
He's butted heads repeatedly with Arum, but because Haymon doesn't speak to the media and goes out of his way to avoid cameras, he's largely kept himself out of the public eye.
Few blamed Haymon when the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight couldn't be made. Many, though, laid blame on Arum.
"I never had any animosity with Floyd the whole time he was with us, and I didn't have any after he left," Arum said. "It was all Haymon. Here's what you have to understand about Haymon. He works to manipulate things. So when Floyd started talking and saying things, yeah, the mouth was Mayweather but the words were Haymon. That's how he operates."
Arum admits to some miscalculations along the way. One of them was in not seeing the value of a Mayweather-De La Hoya fight earlier.
For years, Mayweather wanted to fight De La Hoya, who was long the star of the Top Rank stable, and he chafed at the attention that Top Rank and the media lavished upon "The Golden Boy."
Mayweather talked of fighting De La Hoya as early as 1999, when he was in his third full year as a professional.
"I would agree that he was very jealous of Oscar," Arum said of Mayweather. "And he wanted to fight him and this and that. But Oscar had better opponents. There was [Hall of Famer Felix] Trinidad and Vargas, and guys who would do better business."
By mid-2005, Top Rank was trying to build welterweight Antonio Margarito into a star. He was slow, but big and strong for a welterweight and appealed to the Hispanic audience with which Top Rank was having success.
Mayweather, though, never had interest in fighting Margarito.
Top Rank kept pushing, and Mayweather kept declining. He wanted De La Hoya and asked for $20 million to make it happen. Arum scoffed, believing the money wasn't there. So not long after Mayweather defeated Zab Judah in 2006, Mayweather paid $750,000 to buy his way out of his contract with Top Rank.
He got the fight with De La Hoya in 2007, earning $25 million, and it was the fight that propelled him to stardom.
"When I became my own boss, I could do things the way I felt they should be done," Mayweather said. "… I don't think it happened overnight. The only thing I kept doing was I kept pushing myself and I kept believing. Like I said before, I had a brilliant team outside the ring. We had a great game plan. The game plan was for them to take care of business and make sure I was comfortable outside and I would go in and execute the game plan on the inside. That's what we did."
Mayweather has been largely quiet throughout the buildup for the fight with Pacquiao, and anyone who expected sharp words between Mayweather and Arum has been disappointed.
Mayweather is one of a number of superstars – including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Alexis Arguello, George Foreman and Pacquiao – that Arum has promoted.
But Arum said Tuesday following a fan rally for Pacquiao that he'll always have a soft spot in his heart for Pacquiao.
"I must say that I've never worked with a fighter like Manny Pacquiao, somebody who is so intensely dedicated to doing good for people, to making a difference in his country and to making life better for those less fortunate than he is," Arum said. "Manny Pacquiao really is somebody that I admire tremendously for everything he does outside of the ring."
The bottom line is that Arum was good for Mayweather and helped him build toward superstardom.
Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, agreed with that.
"They did a lot of great things building Floyd," Ellerbe said. "They did it the conventional way, the old-school way. Floyd just wanted to think outside the box and do it his way."
And despite the sometimes harsh words, Arum said he has no issue with the way Mayweather has moved on.
"Of course, we are one thousand percent behind and supporting Manny Pacquiao, but that doesn't mean that I hate Floyd Mayweather or that I have any problem with him," Arum said. "He's had a long and terrific career and he did what you want to see the kids who get into this business do: He had success and he made a lot of money.
"Manny Pacquiao is my guy, but I'm happy for Floyd Mayweather. I'm not rooting for him in this fight, but I'm happy for him and I'm proud we played a part in helping him to get here."