Fighting his corner: How Hong Kong’s own boxing ‘wonder kid’ Rex Tso went from lazy to sell-out bouts

He’s the first Hongkonger to make a sustainable full-time career out of his love for the sport, and now he faces his toughest challenge yet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2017, 6:06pm

In boxing, as in business, numbers talk. And by any measure, the pristine professional record of Rex Tso Sing-yu speaks volumes. His streak of 20 straight victories – 12 by knockout – dates to 2011 and places him in new territory among Hongkongers: that of a home-grown, self-supporting full-time athlete.

Next month, Tso, 29, will face Japanese boxer Hirofumi Mukai before a crowd of 8,000 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Tickets for the March 11 event went on sale last month for upwards of HK$1,800, and quickly sold out. Gate revenues are expected to exceed HK$6 million.

In his march towards loftier international boxing titles, Tso is blazing a trail for Hongkongers who aspire toa career in professional sports and a sustainable livelihood after their playing days are done.

But it takes more than just one person to build a boxer. While social media has helped build the young boxer’s brand, the engine behind “The Wonder Kid” is manager Jay Lau Chi-yuen, a Hong Kong native with a lifelong love for the sport.

To see those guys who were quietly training and hitting the bag with their friends suddenly performing in a big show, that was exciting

“Godfather of boxing”

Before deciding to try to introduce pro boxing to Hong Kong, Lau, 50, held over 16 jobs – the last one selling insurance. In 2002, he opened his gym, DEF Boxing, which relocated to a 5000 sq ft space in Sheung Wan in 2014.

Tso has trained at DEF since 2007 and in 2011, when he turned pro, Lau created DEF Promotions to focus on events, further advancing his quest to become “the godfather of local boxing”.

“Instead of just fitness boxing, I was thinking we could be the only ones to do professional boxing,” he explains. “If we had stature, it would set us apart.”

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Against the tide

Macau’s decision in 2003 to issue gambling licences was the breakthrough Lau was waiting for, but it took him a decade to stage a fight in the former Portuguese colony. He says a limited local understanding of how boxing could generate a following, much less revenue, was the biggest barrier.

“If you want sport to be popular in Hong Kong, you have to convince the parents,” he says. “They say you need to finish school. But all the boxers I know struggled in school. This is another option.”

Though his father and three older brothers all boxed as amateurs, Tso’s parents were still reluctant to let him work as a coach at the gym. And when it came to fighting and training, Tso admits he didn’t enjoy it for a long time. “Before, I was very lazy,” he says. “I wanted to quit.”

After losing an amateur fight in 2011, Lau took charge of Tso’s development. Eager to groom a local star to build the city’s boxing scene, he sent Tso to the Philippines to train with Rick Staheli, who once trained Philippine legend Manny Pacquiao.

“Two days later, Rick called and told me, ‘he’s good, he’s quick’,” Lau recalls. “I was surprised.”

Just a few months later, Tso, at age 24, made his pro debut against mainland-based Xian Qianwei.

A star is born

Though only 300 people came to watch Tso’s first professional fight at the Kowloon Bay International Trade and Exhibition Centre on September 22, 2011, and Lau lost HK$300,000 on the event, both agree it was a major turning point for the young boxer.

“The gym’s revenue for 2010 to 2011 was HK$2.2 million, and the net revenue was HK$300,000,” Lau says. “So would you want to do the next show?”

But Tso’s transformation was evident. The self-described “laziest guy ever” had demonstrated poise, focus and stamina far beyond his team’s expectations, and the adulation was intoxicating.

“To see those guys who were quietly training and hitting the bag with their friends suddenly performing in a big show, that was exciting,” Lau says. “I thought anything could happen.”

Although media coverage of the event was sparse, Tso’s likeable, telegenic and persevering image made him a public relations dream. And with his rise coinciding with political tension in the city, Lau says Hongkongers are primed for a role model.

World-class exposure

“Everyone is looking for a Hong Kong spirit,” Lau says. “Tso’s humble, he climbed to the top, and now he’s even more humble than before.”

Tso has overcome his lack of experience with an intense regimen, and often returns to train in the Philippines, home to many of the world’s best boxers in his super flyweight division (51 to 52kg). The time spent overseas not only toughened up the once-sheltered Hongkonger, but also opened his eyes to the tenacious drive of those who box with fewer resources.

But the perks of his ascent have also added vital doses of motivation. Tso has rubbed shoulders with Pacquiao and other luminaries of the sport, such as Bob Arum, head of US-based promotion company Top Rank, which has steered Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather Jr and dozens of others.

In 2013, after Tso’s tenth victory, Top Rank signed him to an undercard bout for an event that Pacquiao headlined. The company went on to sign Tso to multiple contracts, with Lau as its co-promoter in Macau.

Run it like a business

Pro sports in the US offer useful lessons for Hong Kong’s athletic scene, Lau argues.

“You can’t rely on the government. You have to rely on business people,” he says. “Professional boxing is commercial. Why? Because when everyone gets paid, everyone gets responsible.”

Lau says commercial backing had been another difficult hurdle for them to overcome. But that all changed when Tso signed an endorsement deal with Nike after beating Thai boxer Rusalee Samorat The Venetian in Macau in July 2013.

“Many enjoy witnessing a good old Hong Kong success story,” Vincent Lai Wing-kwai of Nike Hong Kong says.

Since then, other big-name firms, including Standard Chartered Bank and Hong Kong Broadband Network, have jumped on board Tso’s winning ticket.

Watch: Highlights of Rex Tso’s 20th victory

Nothing for granted

However, it has only been in the past year that Tso’s fights have turned a profit. And now about 60 per cent of his income comes from endorsements, with the rest coming from prize money.

Team Tso would not disclose the boxer’s current earnings, but Lau says DEF Promotions now pulls in more revenue than the gym.

Mindful of their unprecedented success, Tso and his team do not presume continued glory. And looking forward, Lau says events are the most vital ingredient for realising a full-time boxing career.

“You can have a hundred Rex’s, but if you have no shows, nobody will know about them... Without a show, the fighter has no motivation to train.”

What do you like about boxing?

RT: I like boxing because of the details. The movements are very detailed. The movements are beautiful. You have to use a lot of thought. You have to be really calm, not angry. If you’re angry, you can’t plan your next step and then no more skills can be used.

When you learn boxing, it is like chess. You have to think really quickly about your opponent’s next step. In my whole life up until I began to box, I never used here [he points to his head and chuckles].

How do you handle the pressure?

Every time I have a fight, I just want to focus on the [training] camp at that time. I don’t think about what will come next. Because if you can’t take care of what’s happening now, there’s no need to talk about what’s next. So each time I have to focus and prepare for right now.

What’s your favourite boxing memory?

I have a lot of good memories from a lot of fights, but maybe the first fight was the most important one. It really changed my whole life. I went from being super lazy to training hard. Before that I didn’t really understand what I could get from working hard. It was my first experience of working very hard and getting something that made me extra happy. After that I wanted to work more.

How did going outside Hong Kong help you?

If I didn’t see the Philippines and how [their boxers] train, how they live and work, maybe I wouldn’t have known what I could do.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to box professionally?

If you want to be a pro boxer, don’t think it’s easy. Maybe when people see me doing well and I win, it’s so happy. But behind that, there’s a lot of training, fitness and discipline. There are a lot of things you have to control ... The happy moments are just a small part.

How long will you box professionally?

No idea, really. I just try to stay healthy to make it last longer.

Do you have anything else you’d like people to know?

They might not understand what [being a pro boxer] is. I think, as in anything, you have to understand what something is first and then decide. Don’t be ignorant and say you can’t. This is a challenge not only for boxing. It’s true for a lot of people who aren’t in sports. Some jobs are not encouraged. Maybe in the movies, a job looks like it’s not good, but that might not be true.

If you never try, you’ll never know how far you can go. If you try, you’ll learn something.