Hopper (top) and Samuels (bottom): by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
Bob Arum and Don King aren't ordinary people. They're brilliant and demanding, focused and driven; admired in some circles and disliked in others. They've dominated the sweet science for longer than most of today's fighters have been alive. And each of them relies on a savvy director of public relations to help achieve his goals.
Lee Samuels has been with Top Rank for the better part of two decades. Alan Hopper has served Don King Productions since the turn of the century (although given the demands of working for King, Alan could be forgiven for not knowing which century).
Hopper and Samuels have very different personae. Lee tends to be soft-spoken and reserved. Alan is more gregarious and outgoing. Each is a tireless worker, who stays out of the limelight and always keeps the best interests of his employer in mind. Either can take what looks like the worst situation in the world and somehow make it better. And in an era when the "relations" part of public relations is becoming a lost art, both men understand that public relations is not just about sending out press releases and booking appearances. When someone in the media or anyone else asks for help, Lee and Alan look for ways to help them. They're unfailingly polite and treat everyone with respect; not just the representatives of major media outlets.
So how did two guys as nice as this end up in boxing?
Samuels was born in Pennsville, New Jersey, on February 2, 1947. His father unloaded trucks for a linoleum flooring company. One of Lee's brothers served two tours of duty in Vietnam and died in the mid-1970s after suffering complications from exposure to agent orange. His other brother designs automobile-bodypart blueprints for Chrysler. His sister is a factory worker.
"Growing up, I read a lot," Samuels says. "As a kid, I devoured the newspapers; particularly the sports section. When I was a junior in high school, I told myself, 'Someday, I'm going to write for a Philadelphia newspaper."
As a high school senior, Samuels covered high school football and basketball for the Pennsville Progress, the local newspaper. "They were paying me fifteen cents a column-inch," he remembers. "So the first football game I covered, I wrote up every play in the game. The story took up the entire back page. I measured it with a ruler, and they paid me for every inch."
Samuels graduated from Pennsville High School in 1964 and Salem County Institute (a two-year college) in 1966. While in college, he wrote for the Pennsgrove Record (Pennsgrove was six miles north of Pennsville). Then he spent four years with the Glouster County Times before moving to the Camden Courier-Post.
"With each of those jobs," he notes, "I was inching closer to Philadelphia."
In the mid-1970s, Samuels was hired to write sports for the Philadelphia Bulletin. It was his dream job. He started with high school competition; then was elevated to Big Five basketball and auto racing in addition to serving as the Bulletin's back-up boxing writer. "I loved every second of it," he says. But the paper was plagued by declining circulation and closed in January 1982.
"So my problem was, what do I do now?" Lee recalls. "I knew Frank Gelb, who had promoted some fights with Bob Arum. Frank told me that Bob was looking for a publicist to help him with a new boxing series on a new sports network called ESPN. On Frank's recommendation, Bob hired me to do publicity for his east coast ESPN shows. Jim Hunter took care of the west coast. Anything major, Irving Rudd handled."
After working on Top Rank's ESPN cards for several years, Samuels got his first big-fight assignment: Sugar Ray Leonard versus Marvin Hagler. "I was assigned to the Hagler camp," Lee says. "Marvin was the first superstar I worked with, and you had a superstar feel when you were around him. It was a very confident camp. Goody and Pat Petronelli [Hagler's trainer and manager] weren't particularly concerned about Leonard. During negotiations, they conceded virtually everything from the size of the ring to the type of gloves that would be worn in the fight."
Samuels left Top Rank in 1993 to work for Art Manteris at the Las Vegas Hilton sports book. He returned for the 1996 fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez and has been with Arum ever since.
Alan Hopper was born in Reno on September 9, 1961, and is a third-generation Nevadan. His father turned five hundred dollars, a mop, and a pick-up truck into one of the largest janatorial services in Reno before opening a car-wash facility with eight bays. His mother was a lifelong Democrat, who ran for the state senate in 1972. "She lost," Alan says. "It was societally unacceptable for a woman in Nevada to do something like that at the time. But she was a trail-blazer." She also helped found and was on the board of directors of Omega House, one of the first drug treatment programs for teenagers in Reno.
Hopper enrolled at the University of Nevada at Reno and, while in school, worked as a disk jockey for KOZZ-FM. In 1985, after graduating with a degree in journalism, he moved to California and went to work in the mailroom at The William Morris Agency.
"I wanted to get into rock-and-roll, and that seemed like the place to be," Hopper says. "I started going to clubs and hanging out with music agents. Very quickly, I realized that rock was a tough business. William Morris also had a Fair and Festival Department, which was mostly country music. In my opinion, which might have been right and might have been wrong, the people in country music were more honorable than the people in rock. And the Fair and Festival Department had only two agents, so I decided to carve my niche there."
"The way it worked at William Morris," Hopper continues, "was, you worked in the mailroom for a certain number of weeks and then you went to a training desk, where you apprenticed to an agent who trained you to become an agent. It was a high-pressure environment. People got fired left and right. At every level, you were competing with the guys you worked with to see who would take the next step up the ladder. About five percent of the people who started in the mailroom actually became an agent."
But Hopper played the game and, in January 1988, was promoted to full-fledged agent status. That same day, he resigned. "Chuck Morris Entertainment in Denver wanted me to manage a group called the Desert Rose Band," he explains. "I wanted to manage the band, and the salary William Morris offered me when they gave me my promotion was insulting. Chuck Morris appreciated me more and offered to pay me more, so I went there. But I have to say; the training I got at William Morris was flawless. It was my masters degree in entertainment and I still benefit from it every day."
Four years later, Hopper left Chuck Morris. He wanted to sign an act called Boy Howdy and Chuck didn't, so he moved back to Reno and formed Alan Hopper Entertainment. "Boy Howdy exploded out of the gate," Alan recalls. "We got big real quick. Then we got small even quicker, and Boy Howdy fired me."
After that, Hopper moved to Las Vegas and became a tour publicist for Credence Clearwater Revisited. He applied for a number of PR jobs on The Strip and, in 1996, was hired as public relations manager for Circus Circus. That job lasted for fourteen months. Then his boss moved to the Las Vegas Hilton and brought Alan with him as public relations director for The Hilton. The Hilton organization was involved with boxing at the time and had just signed a multi-fight deal for its properties with Don King. That's how Hopper met his future employer; but their inaugural meeting was inauspicious.
"Don and Bob Arum were co-promoting Felix Trinidad against Oscar De la Hoya," Hopper remembers. "It was a joint venture between Park Place Entertainment [which owned The Hilton] and Circus Circus [which owned Mandalay Bay]. The final stop on the media tour was a press conference at The Hilton. I went over to Don and gave him a credential so he could be on-stage. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'I don't need no credential.'"
"I thought I wasn't going to like Don King," Hopper acknowledges. "I believed a lot of the negative things I'd heard about him. But when we met, I liked him immediately. And coming from show business, I understood right away how good Don is."
After that, Hopper and King crossed paths on a number of occasions. In March 2000, at the final pre-fight press conference for Felix Trinidad versus David Reid, the promoter buttonholed him. "I love what you do," King said. "Will you come to work for me?"
Hopper responded that he was happy with the job he had, and King told him, "Well, if you ever find yourself out of work, call me."
"Not long after that," Alan says, "there were some personnel shifts at the Hilton, and I called Don. There was no interview; no ifs, buts, or maybes. Don asked, 'Can you be on a plane tomorrow?' It was like being shot out of a cannon. I had no idea what I was getting into."
Top Rank and Don King Productions have very different working environments. At Top Rank, a strategic plan is formulated for each fight. Bob Arum outlines his thoughts on how the fight should be promoted and there are a lot of conference calls in the early going. But once the plan is in place, Arum doesn't micromanage the publicity. He trusts Lee Samuels and gives him discretion.
"Lee is incredibly dedicated to what he does," says Arum. "It's more than a job; it's his life. Lee will say, 'Oh, God; this is awful. We're in trouble.' And it turns out that it's something some schmuck on some Internet site I've never heard of wrote that isn't that bad to begin with. Or Lee will be floating on air, saying, 'Bob, I've got great news. This is huge! Are you ready?' And it's the same thing, except this time the schmuck's article is nicer."
Samuels is assisted by a team that includes Ricardo Jiminez (Top Rank's Spanish-language publicist) and veteran Bill Caplan (who's brought in for big events). Their work includes producing press kits and orchestrating a schedule of happenings such as press conferences, gym visits, and conference calls. At any given time, there are several fights in different stages of development, and something is being done on each of them.
"The world of communications is constantly changing," says Samuels. "And Bob changes with it. When I first started, there was an intense rivalry between the print media and the television media. Now, with the rise of the Internet, there's another factor in the equation. Our core efforts are still aimed at newspapers. Five years from now? I don't know. And Bob is very big on research. After a fight is over, he always asks, 'Where did we spend our marketing money? Where did the fight sell? What should we do differently next time?'"
"You don't need great writing skills to be a publicist," Samuels continues. "You need good communication skills and good people skills. Writers are looking for three things: a fight credential, hotel accommodations, and a story. My job is to facilitate all three and make it as easy as possible for them."
"Sometimes, there are disappointments," Lee acknowledges. "Everyone at Top Rank put everything we had into promoting Oscar. We had a rule; Oscar always came first. Whatever anyone on staff was doing, we put it aside for Oscar. For the relationship between Oscar and Bob to end the way it did saddens me. And not all promotions work. We had meetings every day on 'Million Dollar Lady' [the ill-fated match-up between Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker]. And before it fell out, we found to our dismay that we just couldn't sell it."
Bob Arum is often the first one in the office at Top Rank and the last one out; but basically, he keeps business hours. Alan Hopper works in a different environment. Much of what happens with Don King is unplanned, and Hopper has to be as flexible as mercury.
"Working for Don is crazy," Alan acknowledges. "He keeps no schedule. Everything is subject to change. He does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. He might call up and say, 'We're having a press conference in China in two days', and he expects you to get it done. I never know what will happen when I go to work in the morning."
"But Don is a wonderful guy," Hopper continues. "And after three or four months of working with him, I realized unequivocally that he's the smartest person I've ever met. He's a master planner and a master builder. He sees everything and remembers everything. On a personal level, Don is either on or off. He's on most of the time but, when he's off, he's impenetrable. He takes very good care of his people. And for those who don't know it, and not many people do, when Don is in his highest thinking mode, he whistles."
"Don's reputation precedes him; the good and the bad," Alan says. "Things being the way they are, he expects to get more than his fair share of criticism and blame. But Don's worldwide fame is a clearly plus for what I do, and he's a public relations genius. Whatever 'it' is, Don has it and Don gets it. He values the media, which makes my job much easier. And he has an absolutely amazing ability to create sound-bytes off the top of his head. Nobody in boxing since Muhammad Ali has come close."
As director of public relations for Don King Productions, Hopper's job is to field media inquiries, write press releases, and maintain updated versions of materials such as DKP fighter biographies. He's not responsible for organizing press conferences but is an important presence at all pre-fight events.
"I learned a long time ago at William Morris that there's a way to perform even the simplest tasks better," Alan says. "When you copy a document for a press kit, it can be lighter or darker and the staple can be in just the right place or a bit off. When you write a press release, it can wander all over the place or it can be written in a way that enables the media to extract what it needs quickly and easily."
"I've always done my job as though I work for the media as well as Don," Hopper elaborates. "I return all calls. I answer my emails. I'm sensitive to the fact that people in the media are often on deadline. I'm an upbeat guy who tries to be as friendly as I can to the people I meet. As far as I'm concerned, all of those things are part of being a professional."
King calls Hopper "Mr. Enthusiasm." Bobby Goodman (DKP's vice president for boxing and public relations) is more fulsome in his praise, saying, "Alan works non-stop. Don has him on the road all the time and he's tireless. I call him Hyper-Hopper. Once Alan has a project, he'll choke it by the neck until it's done."
Hopper's professional enthusiasm was sorely tested during the build-up to the 2001 fight between Felix Trinidad and Bernard Hopkins when Hopkins developed the nasty habit of throwing Puerto Rican flags on the ground. "Omigosh," Alan says of those occasions. "The first time Bernard did it was in New York. Then we went down to San Juan, and we begged him not to do it again. He promised he wouldn't, and he did. He put us all in harm's way; our lives were in danger. It might have helped get publicity for the fight, but it was the wrong thing to do. And Bernard didn't do it for publicity. He did it to get inside Tito's head. Then September 11th happened, and that became far more important than anything Bernard had done with the Puerto Rican flag."
Hopper's greatest tour de force might have come last year when WBC heavyweight king Vitali Klitschko announced that, due to injury, he was postponing his long-awaited championship fight with Hasim Rahman for the third time. Rahman then signed to fight Monte Barrett in an 'interim" title bout, after which Klitschko's physical condition improved markedly and he sought to make a "voluntary" defense against a lesser foe.
"Don asked me, 'How can we put the heat on this guy?' Alan recalls. "I don't have any magic dust, but I think the plan I came up with was pretty good."
Better than good.
The boxing media was critical of Klitschko because it appeared to some that he was ducking Rahman. Hopper gathered every negative word that was written about Vitali and circulated the articles (often with laudatory comments about the writer) to everyone on his email distribution list. That played to writers' egos and engendered more negative commentary by other writers who wanted their work to be similarly circulated. Ultimately, Klitschko abandoned his plan for a voluntary defense, agreed (for the fourth time) to fight Rahman, and retired from boxing when yet another injury postponed their scheduled encounter.
"I still think that Vitali is a better man and a better boxer than people gave him credit for." Hopper says. "But he was being annointed as the true heavyweight champion of the world, and he wasn't fighting."
It's a matter of record that Bob Arum and Don King are often at each other's throat, but that hasn't filtered down to Samuels and Hopper. The two men met during the build-up to Trinidad-De la Hoya in 1999 and have been friends ever since.
"Lee was the one who taught me how to be a boxing publicist," Hopper says. "He sees all the publicity angles for a fight. He understands where boxing and journalism intersect. And on top of that, he's a great guy. We represent two competing iconic figures in the world of boxing, but working with Lee is like working with a friend. I feel like I can trust him with anything."
Samuels, for his part, responds in kind, saying, "Alan and I are brothers-in-arms. He's intensely loyal to Don and I'm intensely loyal to Bob, and that's the way it should be. But I like Alan a lot. Don is very lucky to have him."
Meanwhile, the fondness that Hopper and Samuels have for one another is reinforced by shared values.
"The best thing about being in boxing," says Hopper, "is the opportunity to work with those brave young men who step between the ropes. I loved the sport from a distance when I was young, and there are times when I still can't believe that I'm part of it. It makes me happy when a fighter we've worked with has success in the ring. That's more gratifying to me on an emotional level than generating a lot of pay-per-view buys. But the most important things to me in my work are my honesty and integrity. I might not be the best in the world at what I do, but I want people to know that I'm honest."
Samuels shares those views. "I enjoy my job." Lee says. "I look forward to going to work each morning. I love the pageantry of boxing. There's nothing in sports that rivals a great champion walking into the ring for a big fight. At Top Rank, we expect our fighters to fight for world titles, and those fights are high points for me."
Samuels pauses before continuing with his thoughts.
"After each fight, I go in the ring to get quotes from the fighters. I can't tell you how many times I've looked down and seen blood all over the canvas. It makes me realize again and again what these guys go through. But whatever happens, there's one rule of thumb I never violate. I never lie to a writer. Never. In my job, if I do that, I've got a big problem."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.