Zou Shiming, 31, is arguably the most popular boxer in the world that no one has heard of in the Western hemisphere. Just a couple weeks ago the Chinese fighter was working out in the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, preparing, in anonymity, for his fight, this coming Saturday in Macao. Yet, while an estimated 18 million United States sports fans will watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, it’s a good bet that more people in the world will be talking about Zou.
Even in the tight-knit boxing world, no oneseemed to know much about the 5’5″ athlete who will make his professional fighting debut in the non-title fight this weekend. He has quick feet, excellent defensive skills, has won three world amateur championships, and two consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. But the dominating fact is that he is from the People’s Republic of China, where he is tremendously popular. And that popularity is what gives Zou the potential to change the economics of professional boxing—in a big way.
All that, however, doesn’t matter much in Wild Card, the legendary strip mall gym that prides itself on training professional world title holders. In his first week training the fighter, Freddie Roach, his American trainer, had to teach the newly-minted pro how to punchproperly (Zou kept curling his wrists) and how to hit a speed bag, basic skills that any American fighter masters as a pre-teen. Roach started tightly wrapping Zou’s hands to prevent injury and to force him to straighten his wrists. China has very little history in western style boxing, and its trainers are not always as sophisticated as their Western counterparts. He will be facing Mexican flyweight Eleazar Valenzuela, who has a five fight record, winning two by knockout, losing one by knockout and drawing twice.
Mao Zedong’s government banned boxing for decades because it was too Western, but in the mid-1980s Chinese authorities realized that the sport’s 11 weight classes would give China a chance to win more Olympic gold. Zou is the star of the program, and his Olympic success made him into one of the most recognizable faces in China.
“I don’t think I’m a superstar in China, I just want to make my dream come true,” says Zou who says he wants to win a professional world title, and eventually headline a big fight in the United States.
But first he wants to establish his foothold in China (population: 1.35 billion). Estimates vary widely but theevent’s promoters (they have dubbed the fight “Fists of Gold”) promise that 200 million to 300 million households could watch Saturday’s fight, and many will, which will be their introduction to the professional game—one without the head gear of the amateur versio; and one where knockouts are encouraged. That’s a lot of potential consumers. There will also be the people watching live at the Sands China Venetian Theatre, and the audience—probably minuscule–in the United States (HBO2 will broadcast the fight at 2 p.m., EST). They are almost an afterthought in the grander strategy at play.
The real battle is the effort by foreign sports leagues and promoters to establish themselves in China, which apart from its huge population is the world’s pre-imminent gambling center. Macao, which is a Chinese special territory, has already dwarfed Las Vegas as the globalgambling capital. The money flowing through Macao exceeds that of Vegas eight times over. On the most recent Chinese New Year, 250,000 people passed through the doors of the various casinos run by Sands China, which owns the Sands Macao, The Venetian Macao-Resort Hotel, The Plaza Macao, and Sands Cotai Central. “It’s a phenomenal place to be doing business,” says Ed Tracy, CEO of Sands China. The properties in Macao generate 60% of Las Vegas Sands revenue.
For years, Las Vegas gambling proprietors used boxing to bring in customers to their casinos, and Macao is taking a page from the same book. Many of Macao’s casino owners learned their trade in Vegas and Atlantic City. And they are bringing sporting events, including off-season NBA events (Kobe Bryant has run a basketball clinic) and UFC fights to its arenas to attract more high stakes gamblers. “Macao is Las Vegas on steroids,” says veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum, excited by the prospects of Asian riches. He says many of the gamblers coming to Saturday’s fight have casino credit lines starting at $10 million.
Much of professional boxing’s future in China rests on the not-so-broad shoulders of Zou. It is difficult for most amateur boxers to transition to professional status. They were trained to go for volume punching but not knockouts, so fighters are not used to delivering and receiving power punches. Trainer Freddie Roach is optimistic about his fighter’s chances. Zou has been sparring, and holding his own, against Brian Viloria, the reigning flyweight champion, who is on the undercard in Macao. “Zou had a lot of amateur habits, but talented guys learn fast,” says Roach. “He has very, very good defense, and he has power but he doesn’t have the confidence to use it yet. But he is getting better every day. At first I thought he was a little soft, but he has shown to be a tough kid. He’s definitely not soft. Within a year he will be fighting for a world title and at the pace he is going he’ll be ready.”