Boxing ambassador: Zou Shiming paving way for Chinese fight game with US debut
Zou Shiming is not the main attraction for US boxing fans on Saturday’s Madison Square Garden theatre card that includes rising star Vasyl Lomachenko. HBO won’t even show Zou’s fight.
Tens of millions of Chinese fans, however, will be watching live as the three-time Olympic medallist makes his US debut, and boxing officials hope he opens the door for pro boxing to reach that enormous market.
Training on Tuesday at Mendez Boxing in Manhattan, Zou worked the mitts with trainer Freddie Roach – already famous in Asia for his work with Filipino Manny Pacquiao.
Donning a blue NBA headband, neon green and grey shirt and yellow and black shorts with “Zou” emblazoned down both sides, the 35-year-old worked up a sweat as he prepared to fight in what he calls “the palace hall of professional boxers”.
Cracking a smile during breaks, Zou said he only dreamed of fighting at the Garden, a place where his idol, Muhammad Ali, fought as well.
“I will do my best to show myself and also for Muhammad Ali,” Zou said. “I will win this fight and also use his butterflies moving style.”
Of course, Ali was usually the headliner in the big arena. Zou will be on the undercard in the theatre adjacent to the Garden.
Zou won a bronze and two gold medals at the last three Olympics. He won his first six pro fights, building momentum that many fans thought would lead to big matches in Las Vegas and New York. But a March 2015 loss to Amnat Ruenroeng of Thailand stalled his progress.
The flyweight will try to get back on track on Saturday against Hungarian Jozsef Ajtai.
“He’s full of talent and he is a great amateur boxer,” Roach said. “He has a great amateur style. I’m just trying to get him to convert over to more of a pro style.”
Bob Arum, Top Rank chief executive and Zou’s promoter, remembered the first time he was introduced to Chinese boxing.
About three years ago, Arum got a call from representatives of a Macau casino interested in bringing pro fights to the enclave.
Coincidentally about a week later, Edmund Chu, managing director at Sports Entertainment Content Activation (Seca) in Shanghai, contacted Arum about Zou.
“This fellow said to me, ‘Would you be interested in promoting this two-time gold medallist?’ Arum said. “I said, ‘What’s his weight?’ and he said, ‘112 pounds,’ and I said to myself, ‘What am I going to do with a 112 fighter in the United States?’“
But Arum knew crowds in Macau would love to see their amateur hero as a pro, even if the mainland market isn’t ready for the US pay-per-view boxing model.
“It’s a question of education,” Arum said. “Eventually, hopefully we can introduce it and once it takes hold, because of the population and because it’s a fairly affluent population now, the financial rewards could be tremendous.”
Arum doesn’t expect this boom to happen overnight, or just with one prominent boxer like Zou. He thinks with more Chinese boxers rising in the professional ranks, the people in China would be willing to pay to watch a bout.
With Zou, Arum has already seen big numbers.
Zou’s January 30 fight in Shanghai reached 35 million homes over television and another 10 million over digital streaming. Although HBO won’t show Zou, CCTV-5 – a mainland national sports station – will show the fight live, and it will be available in China to stream.
“After 21 years of struggling and hard training now I can stand on the palace hall of professional boxing at Madison Square Garden and I want to prove to the world that China can also do well in the professional boxing,” Zou said.
Arum expects at least 50 times more people watching Zou’s bout in China than the people who will be watching any of the card in the US.
“I am not deluding myself,” Arum said. “I don’t think there will be virtually any reaction from the American market. First of all, he’s a flyweight. He’s not in a very popular division in the United States. Secondly, boxing is becoming more and more an ethnic sport.”
Chu says the potential audience in China is huge.
“I really think he is a caveat to put boxing on the map here,” he said. “Boxing had a historical presence here in China, but to see him do so well on the international scene previously as an amateur and now as a professional, he’s very well known.”
Arum said Zou has more endorsements than any Top Rank fighter other than Pacquiao. Big-name companies such as Pepsi, Beats by Dre, Anta, and Everlast endorse Zou.
“There’s certainly more excitement surrounding boxing [in China] and there are certainly more fights,” Chu said. “There are a lot more people getting involved with the sport so I think that bodes well for the sport here in China and Shiming is the perfect ambassador in introducing the sport to the masses.”