Building a Billion New Boxing Fans: Arum, Zou and Manny Pacquiao Go to China

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJuly 26, 2013

Aug 11, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Shiming Zou (CHN) celebrates after defeating Kaeo Pongprayoon (THA) to win the men's light fly 49k final bout during the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL - South Arena 2. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest event in boxing, bar none, is Floyd Mayweather's Sept. 14 fight against rising star Canelo Alvarez.

The best fighter in the world takes on the most promising young star in the sport. It doesn't get much better than that. People will tune in all over the world in huge numbers—except in the most populous country on the planet, where the fight won't even be a blip on the radar.

That's what makes another fight, one being completely ignored in the American press, perhaps the most important bout of the year.

At the moment, it's meaningless from a sporting perspective—a rising amateur star in just his second professional bout. But when flyweight Zou Shiming, a two-time Chinese Olympic gold medalist, takes the ring once again in front of his countrymen, you're perhaps looking at the future of big-time boxing.

In 2008, Zou became China's first boxing gold medalist, just 16 years after it first entered Olympic competition in the sport and just decades since boxing training began in earnest in China after having been banned by Communist leader Mao Zedong in the 1960s.

Now a national icon, the 32-year-old fighter is what every promoter and the head of every sports league in the world wants—an in into China. Boxing promoter Bob Arum was intrigued.

"They produced one hero," Arum said. "That was Zou Shiming winning gold medals in two straight Olympics. That, I think, helped popularize the sport. It really piqued people's interest in China. I know when we started dealing with the Venetian in Macau, they became very, very excited when we were able to sign him to a professional contract."

Veteran boxing journalist Larry Merchant thought he had seen it all in his decades in the game. Then he called Zou's debut earlier this year in a packed house at the Venetian. Although he can't say for sure how the story will end, Merchant is bullish about boxing's potential in the world's biggest market.

"It's a new frontier," said Merchant, who will call the action for Zou's fight against Jesus Ortega on HBO2 Saturday. "There's no doubt Zou Shiming is the catalyst. A lot of people have talked about taking shows to China with the flourishing hotels and casinos there. Having a Chinese star is obviously a way to get it done. We'll see where it's another global venue for boxing and a chance to see whether the Far East becomes a major force of boxing the way Europe and some parts of South America are today."

Arum estimates upward of 200 million people watched Zou's fight with Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela. They weren't watching simply because they enjoy the sweet science. Zou's presence, Arum admits, is crucial to the enterprise.

"The probability is, without him, it would have been impossible," Arum said. "We needed some anchor, some athlete that they could identify with in the sport before we could get them to pay attention. To some extent, it isn't very different than the effect Yao Ming had on the popularity of basketball in China...with the emergence of Yao and his success, pro basketball became a hot, hot commodity."

Yao Ming is more than an athlete—he's practically a buzzword. Everyone with a scheme to capitalize on the Chinese entertainment or athletic market needs a version of Yao, and most plans are spoiled by a dearth of appropriate local stars. As yet, the Chinese haven't been producing athletes to compete in major professional sports like soccer, football and baseball. Their focus, instead, has been on the Olympic medal count.

Boxing, however, is the rare sport that offers an opportunity at both copious medals and potential follow-on professional success. Arum was intrigued by the possibilities.

"It's something that forward-looking people want to do—to open up new markets and explore new frontiers," the 81-year-old promoter said. "Look at what David Stern accomplished with basketball. The NBA is on almost continuously on sports channels in China. Now I have a similar opportunity to do something with boxing. Of course it excites me. It creates a lot of challenges that I really enjoy facing."

Malaysia and Indonesia have large Chinese immigrant populations, and Arum is already envisioning taking boxing there on Zou's back. Plans are in the works for shows in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia as well. Arum is even bringing his top star, Manny Pacquiao, to Macau for a fight in November.

Why, you ask? Follow the money, he replies. As Arum describes a potential future, casinos in Asia could replace Las Vegas resorts much in the same way Las Vegas once took the fight game away from arenas in the Northeast like Madison Square Garden.

"The casino operators realized that a big boxing match attracts the kind of customers they desire and enables them to entertain those customers and to have those customers use the casino and create gambling revenue," Arum explained. "Macau is the same situation. It's the only place gambling is permitted in China. It's the same theory. You do a big boxing match, and you have a star like Manny Pacquiao or Zou Shiming headlining, and the punters will come. They'll come to watch the event and stay to try their luck at the tables."

Pacquiao, however, is the past. At 34, even if he regains his formidable form, his days as a headliner are limited. Long term, boxing in China is contingent on Zou's success. But the likelihood of him repeating his amateur achievements in the professional game is a far from settled question.

We describe a lot of things in sports as "miracles," but it's rare when the superlative actually applies. Normally, a sports miracle is just the collision of luck and skill—particularly compelling play coming at a particularly compelling moment.

Zou's Olympic gold medals in boxing, however, were a remarkable achievement. All things considered, it was nearly a bona fide miracle.

A fabulous profile in The New Yorker described Zou as a child so delicate, his mother once had him photographed in girl's clothing. He failed the initial screening for entrance into China's Zunyi Sport School, a factory of sorts designed to produce Olympic champions. Bone scans and X-rays revealed he didn't have ideal reach for boxing success.

When there are thousands of applicants for each spot in the system, that spells automatic doom. According to science, Zou didn't have the physical tools to excel.

Perhaps that's so.

What he did have was the willpower and perseverance to continue forward, as well as the kind of blazing speed that made him particularly well-suited for amateur success—especially in the developing Chinese style that puts a premium on movement, deception and darting but hardly dangerous punches.

To transition into the professional ranks, only the best would do. Freddie Roach, trainer of champions, has taken Zou under his wing. He's trying to teach the Olympian to punch with power. The slapping punches that worked so well in the amateur world won't be enough to hold off a top-level professional.

Roach is teaching him to sit down on his punches and strike with force, something new for Zou who, at 112 pounds, will never be mistaken for Mike Tyson.

So far, according to Roach, so good—at least in the gym. The trainer, however, was disappointed in Zou's debut, feeling he played to the crowd too much. Blame it on first-fight jitters, Roach told the South China Morning Post, but this time out, Zou needs to settle in and fight to his ability. If he does, it's on to bigger and better things.

"I don't have to rush [Zou] into a title fight," added Roach. "If he progresses the way he has progressed in the gym and he shows me that in the fight, then we will go for a higher level."

If Roach is right, we'll learn a lot on Saturday about Zou's potential and, quite possibly, about the future of boxing in China as well. Right now, it seems the two go hand in hand.


Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. All quotes, unless otherwise mentioned, were garnered firsthand. Zou headlines a triple-header Saturday, July 27, beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on HBO2.