Punching through the Great Wall: How China is starting to become a force in boxing
Fa Zengshun is one of many mainlanders looking to make it big on the world stage and sparkling a revolution in the sport
Fa Zengshun is still looking a little shaken when he emerges from the change rooms deep in the bowels of the Shanghai Oriental Sports Centre.
There’s a broad smile on the 21-year-old’s face but the red welts that surround both his eyes show not everything has on this particular morning gone the way of the sometime policeman from Xiamen.
WATCH: Zou Shiming score an eighth-round TKO over his opponent
Fa takes a moment to take in the scene inside the stadium, then shakes his head and says he can hardly believe that he’s just finished his first professional bout – and that he has won.
“My heart was pounding when I stepped into the ring,” says Fa. “I have been training so hard but I never thought that I could do it, that I could get into the ring – and that I could win.”
History now records that Fa scored a unanimous points decision over Dalian’s Song Shuguang in his lightweight debut but that result will quickly be little more than a footnote if boxing’s power brokers have their way. Fa’s bout was the first on a day those money men hope has gone a long way towards cementing the sport’s future on the mainland.
But before we examine the state of play for pro boxing on the mainland, first let’s give the young fighter his moment of glory.
“I tried not to think about being in the first fight of the day,” says Fa. “I have been training hard every day and I think this is my reward. I am not saying I can go on and become a world champion, but every fighter has to start somewhere. I have shown myself that I can fight.”
Fa’s bout started at 10am on January 30. By the time two-time Olympian and poster boy for the sport in China Zou Shiming had claimed victory – and the WBO International flyweight title – with an eighth-round TKO over Natan Santana Coutinho around 12 hours later there had been a staggering 29 bouts staged in the 18,000-seater stadium.
The main, nine-bout The Return of the King card had attracted a crowd of around 10,000 but for the most part of the day there would have been at most a few hundred hardy fight fans gathered inside the stadium.
The 20 minimum-round League of Fists bouts that preceded the main event were primarily staged for television, and have since been broadcast around the country via Shanghai Five-Star Sports, Tencent Sports and CCTV5 to an estimated audience of around 10 million viewers. Like Fa, many of the fighters were making their debuts on the day, and the standard of the bouts reflected the sport’s current standard in China – there were flashes of undoubted skill but more enthusiasm than mastery of the sport, at this stage.
But if the sport is to succeed here, China needs homegrown heroes – and it needs to keep staging these events, now that Macau is pretty much off limits for any major events. After launching itself – alongside Zou’s professional career – in the southern enclave with much fanfare back in 2013 it would appear that boxing has moved on, put off by the dive in Macau’s gaming fortunes and the many and varied restrictions placed on the city by the Central Government.
Hong Kong is set to benefit from Macau’s malaise with Bob Arum’s Top Rank organisation last month announcing a three-fight deal with local super flyweight Rex Tso Sing-yu and DEF Promotions and the veteran promoter is in Shanghai, sitting ringside from bang-on 10am sharp with his Chinese partner Sheng Li of the Seca sports group and with George Foreman Jnr of Foreman Boys Promotions another of the interested onlookers.
Arum admits everything didn’t go quite according to plan in Macau. “Revenue is not what is used to be and so there is a not the same appetite for events in Macau as there was in prior years,” he says. “But you keep moving forward and there is an appetite for boxing in China. You have to take the sport to where the people are. We will keep putting on events like this and we will keep expanding the sport.”
The event in Shanghai marked the now-34-year-old Zou’s return to the ring after the 10-month layoff that followed his loss to Amnat Ruenroeng. In a perfect world – for local promoters at least - Zou would have won that fight, crowned himself in glory and China would have hailed both the hero and the sport. But reality sometimes bites, hard, and he was outthought and outfought on the night by a cagey and defence-minded pro who had racked up 15 wins compared to Zou’s six when they met.
When Zou sits down for a chat with the media before a training session at the Seca Academy on the outskirts of Shanghai two days before his return he’s quick to acknowledge how intrinsically linked his own fortunes are with boxing’s push into China.
“But having taken a break I have thought a lot about my career and about my life,” says Zou. “I know the role I have to play, and I knew that when I turned professional part of the plan was to win a world title but part of it was simply to help introduce the sport into China. I think we have done that and we will keep doing that, whether I win or lose.”
Trainer and one-time world heavyweight contender Justin Fortune was sent out from Los Angeles from Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach’s Wild Card gym to oversee Zou’s preparations and a six-week camp at the Seca gym gave him an insight into just how the growth of boxing is coming along in China.
“Look it’s early days here – everyone knows that,” says Fortune. “We’re seeing some talent, that’s true, but there’s a long way to go – a very long way.
“Can China produce world champions? Sure. No doubt. But the important thing first is that these guys learn how much work you need to put in before you can become a world champion. That’s what we’re trying to teach the young fighter here. There’s talent but there’s also a long way to go.”
Where boxing stands to benefit is in the fact that President Xi Jinping has gone public in his admiration for all that Zou has achieved across a career that saw the Zunyi-born fighter win Olympic gold in Beijing (2012) and London (2008), bronze in Athens (2004) and world amateur titles in 2005, 2007 and 2011.
Xi’s enthusiasm for sport in general (with the exception, it must be noted, of golf) has seen mass investment in the likes of the Chinese national football league as the country’s leader emphasies the need for long-term plans international successes. It’s a point not lost on Seca boss Sheng.
“We need to remain calm during this wave of large investment in sports,” says Sheng. “We all share the same targets. You can never predict the outcome in professional sports so you just have to keep working at it, keep investing and support the athletes. No matter what the outcome of Zou’s fights or any one fighter, we must make sure there is a long-term future for pro boxing in China.”
And that’s good news as far as China’s growing stable of professional fighters are concerned. Super middleweight Zulpikar Maimaitali was on the Zou undercard and is among the raw talents Seca and Top Rank are pinning their hopes on as the sport extends its reach and popularity.
The 21-year-old Urumqi-born fighter stretched his record to 6-0-1 (four knockouts) with an impressive third-round TKO over Steve Moxon, of Australia, and says with each success he has, more people are asking him what this fight game is all about.
“My dream is to fight for a world title,” says Maimaitali. “Boxing is a sport for real men. It’s about blood and sweat and never stopping, even when training is tough. There are many great boxers coming up through the League of Fists and they all have their dreams. In old times not many people in China knew about professional boxing but now, through events like this, people can see what can be achieved.”