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T.J. SIMERS

The toughest time for Bob Arum

Boxing promoter suffers through the death of his mountain-climbing son.

October 23, 2010|T.J. Simers

From Las Vegas

Bob Arum sits alone. He's gregarious by nature, a man who truly loves his work as boxing promoter, but right now no one knows what to say. He's left to his own thoughts.

Across the hall in a Beverly Hills hotel two months ago, the noise speaks of anticipation. In a few minutes the boxers and their entourages are going to arrive and Arum will orchestrate the circus, his specialty.

Lee Samuels knows someone has to say something to Arum. He's worked for Arum for decades, been witness to all the staged hype and hoopla that keeps Arum going at age 78.

But he has to ask. "Bob, are you sure you can do this?"

It has been less than an hour since the telephone call that he had not been expecting. But he knows right away when he's told his 49-year-old, mountain-climbing son, John, is missing, "he's dead."

In retrospect, he says while raising a fist in front of his face, the blood drained from his fingers as if he's tightly clutching something, "I wanted to hold on to hope.

"I was just sitting there in that room praying I was wrong. Maybe it's just a broken leg, I told myself, or something like that and we'll all laugh about it later."

His gut tells him differently, but he's open to anything as a search for his son continues in Washington. Someone suggests he talk to a spiritualist, so he does.

The spiritualist tells him John is alive, but stuck in a crevice. "You feel stupid," Arum says. "But it does raise your hopes."

There are clues, but no answers for four days. The family gathers nearby the mountain in a house. It's a place where no parent ever wants to reside.

Arum waits with his wife; his ex-wife who is John's mother; his son Richard; and his daughter Elizabeth. They try to find something to talk about, but it always comes back to John.

"Sometimes there are moments of elation," says Arum, his family hanging on every word from park rangers. "But when they spot his fanny pack from a helicopter, some of the rangers think maybe he fell, and it came off.

"The head ranger won't give up," Arum says. "She brings in dogs. She says maybe he's down there but can't walk out on his own."

No one wants to make the case she's wrong.

One day later Arum is looking out the window and notices the dogs are back. A ranger is crying.

"It's not supposed to be this way," Arum recalls telling the ranger, a parent outliving their child.

It's been almost eight weeks now and while some folks tell him, "it will get better in time," he says, "I think it gets worse. You lose a child and it's like losing a piece of yourself — never to be replaced."

The family asks that no one risk their life in retrieving John's body. It takes another 10 days or so. There is a memorial service in Seattle and a time of sitting shiva here so friends of Arum can pay their respects. It's a torturous month.

"The first reaction after the grieving is anger," he says. "How could he be so stupid to put his life at risk like that?

"But I realize right away the anger I have is directed at me, that I didn't stop him when he was a kid. Why didn't I do or say something to dissuade him? You know what happens if I say, 'this is nonsense,' and don't let him go to wilderness camp when he's 16? None of this happens. I believe that."

Yet he knows intellectually it's foolhardy to wrestle with a decision made so long ago, saying, "Dead is dead and there is nothing I can do about it now."

Two friends, who have lost sons, advise him to return to work. It's good advice, he says. He throws himself into promoting Manny Pacquiao's fight next month in Dallas.

"Work takes your mind off of it," he says, "but every four or five hours there's a flashback. But at least for four or five hours you're occupied."

John was Arum's oldest son, married for almost 11 years "to a lovely lady," Arum says, but no kids. "With the risks he took, he didn't want to do that. His idea of a honeymoon was to kayak from Washington to Alaska."

Most people know Arum as the boxing magpie, success with Ali, Foreman and De La Hoya. There is also time served early with Bobby Kennedy.

"Let me tell you, John was so much smarter than I was and what he was doing was far more important than anything I ever did," Arum says with pride, while also rattling off the accomplishments of his two other kids.

"John argued successfully before the Supreme Court on behalf of an Indian tribe. He was an environmental lawyer and one of the country's leading experts on water rights. He found those topics interesting; I found them incomprehensible."

Arum also found his son's passion for climbing mountains appalling, so much so they could not talk about it. The kid set a goal of climbing the top 100 peaks in Washington, no problem with the first 81.

"When I think of John now I do so in the present tense," Arum says. "It keeps him alive. That's the important thing to keep him alive in my mind.

"We had some pictures of him blown up and I have them in my office at home. It comforts me to look at them. I find I can even have conversations with him."

He talked to his son two weeks prior to John's fall, saw him for a last time in L.A. at a summer family reunion. A lesson learned, he says, "spend as much time as you can with your children and grandchildren," and so Saturday he left for New York to do just that.

"Someone says I was lucky to have such a great son for 49 years," Arum says. "And what more could I want as a parent?

"More time," he says.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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