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Boxing’s Great Leap Forward

Pro boxing is taking off in China, helped by the emergence of a home-grown star.

Boxing’s Great Leap Forward
Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Macau – When boxing great Manny Pacquiao put Chris Algieri on the canvas for a sixth time at the Venetian Cotai Arena in Macau, 15,000 fans leapt from the edge of their seats. Pacquiao’s status as one of the fight game’s greats was secured and victory raised the tantalizing prospect of a showdown with Floyd Mayweather – the world’s highest paid athlete.

The smart money, however, already had their victory, and with an eye on China promoters were already counting the cash as a hopelessly outgunned Algieri struggled to his feet.

Also on the card was WBO flyweight champion Zou Shiming (6-0) of China, who also has two Olympic gold medals. The 33-year-old from Zunyi won the WBO title in July and according to Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, Zou is the poster boy of Chinese boxing.

“Zou is the engine behind all of this activity in China,” he said.

Little known outside of China, Zou put on an incredible display of boxing and showmanship, which has ranked him among the top sporting draws inside China, along with tennis superstar Serena Williams and basketball players LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

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In defeating Kwanpichit Onesongchaigym (27-1-2) of Thailand, a bruised and bloodied Zou set himself up for an IBF title fight against Amnat Ruenroeng (14-0), also of Thailand, which has promoters – desperate for inroads into a potentially highly lucrative China market – champing at the bit.

The sheer numbers of fight fans that Zou could command through pay-per-view television in a country with a population of 1.36 billion people would rewrite the record books, at least from a financial perspective.

In his last, bout Pacquiao (52-5-2) earned a reported $25 million purse plus a share of pay-per-view sales while Algieri was apparently paid no less than $1.5 million. But pay-per-view buys on HBO, for that fight, have been put at 300,000, far below expectations. The news prompted boxing writer Chris Williams to question whether the Mayweather (47-0) contest should go ahead.

“Unfortunately for Pacquiao his declining pay-per-view numbers put him in a bad position to get a fight against Mayweather, because it doesn’t make good business sense for Mayweather to fight a guy who recently pulled in low pay-per-view numbers,” he wrote in Boxing News 24, adding it was the lowest numbers in the Filipino’s career.

Those numbers do not stack-up when compared with a touted purse of about $200 million for Pacquiao-Mayweather bout – which has been hyped up elsewhere in the boxing media with backing from a Middle East investment group and promoter M. Akbar Muhammad, who is eager to capitalize on Mayweather’s status as the world’s highest paid athlete.

Career earnings for the 37-year-old Mayweather – once called “Pretty Boy” by his fans but now known simply as “Money” – have topped $420 million, according to Forbes.

A $200 million purse is an extraordinary sum in anybody’s language but Zou – who some fight analysts say can reach a free TV audience of 300-350 million – could provide a payday that dwarfs any purse that came before him when he fights for the IBF Flyweight title in Macau.

The bout had been scheduled for March but could be delayed due to injuries from the Kwanpichit bout which required stitches around Zou’s left eye. “My eye really bothered me, but I fought through it. It was the toughest fight I ever had,” said Zou, who suffered a headbutt.

Some extra time would not hurt event organizers and the Macau tourism industry either. Hotels outside the Cotai-strip have been accused of price gouging by fight fans who failed to make an early booking. A four star hotel room that might fetch $100 a night in Bangkok can go for six times that amount on fight night in Macau.

Beijing-based sports journalist Charles McDermid even cast some doubts over Macau’s ability to handle the scale of Shiming’s next event, despite broad praise for the Cotai-strip and the operators at the Venetian, who have emerged as the fight game’s strongest supporters.

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“If Zou Shiming’s upcoming title fight is, as some suggest, the key to unlocking the Chinese audience, I doubt if Macau can handle the wave of interest – let alone fight fans – coming from the mainland. Immigration alone would be nightmare,” he said.

Zou’s profile has also been helped by a series of endorsements, including Beats headphones, a cameo role in Transformers 4, and he is often seen dining out on Western pizzas and hamburgers, which has annoyed some Chinese fight fans who’d prefer to see him on a homespun diet.

His wins have also forced sporting authorities in China, known for their heavy emphasis on the all-important Olympics and amateur boxing – to sit up and pay more attention to the professional ranks.

“The mass Chinese audience for a Zou Shiming fight – nearly 350 million viewers per fight – would also require a larger stage. Even if pay-per-view is the answer to watching such fights, I can’t imagine the city or arena equaling the atmosphere surrounding them,” McDirmid added.

Like Pacquiao, Zou is trained by Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, who was impressed by the Chinese fighter’s ability, speed and strength, and has focused on turning Zou into more of an offensive fighter. Zou has to date only knocked out one opponent.

“He really can punch,” Roach said in Macau. “He just hasn’t had the confidence of using his power correctly. He’s still young and doubtful a little bit about power.”

As a boxer, Zou will mature and he has China at his feet. Still, doubts remain over whether Zou can connect with audiences outside of China, particularly in the West where flyweights simply don’t attract the same attention as boxers from the heavier weight divisions.

“Right now I am just learning about professional boxing and the glories that are available … and I want to inspire the new generation of boxers in China,” Zou said.

And that’s exactly what most people in the fight game want: an inroad into China and a shot at the untold billions of dollars that might be around the next boxing corner.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.