Can One Man and One Gambling Enclave Save the Sport of Boxing?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
July 26 2013 7:00 AM

Asia’s Boxer Rebellion

Can one man and one gambling enclave save the sport of boxing?

Zou Shiming, the Chinese boxer with the Macau bout Saturday July 27.
Zou Shiming, center

Photo courtesy Venetian Macau

Each Friday Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

MACAU—At the podium after April’s multibout boxing extravaganza Fists of Gold at Macau’s Venetian, it’s hard to tell who just won the fight. Chinese boxing phenomenon Zou Shiming easily triumphed in his first professional match, beating a skinny 19-year-old from Mexico on points. But the biggest grin belonged to 81-year-old fight promoter Bob Arum—huge in Vegas but new to Asia—who had just taken a big swing at a far greater target: China and its 1.3 billion people.

An estimated 300 million of those Chinese watched Fists of Gold on free broadcasts across China—in addition to American viewers who watched on HBO. That made professional boxing’s first big push into China a resounding success. But as Zou prepares for his second professional fight in Fists of Gold 2 against another Mexican contender, Jesus Ortega, on Saturday, the pressure is on. Zou, and the gambling enclave that is hosting him, may be professional boxing’s last best hope. Because no matter the hype, the plight of boxing in the United States is well-known: Fans are fewer, scandals bigger, and paydays smaller. And everywhere is the sense that boxing can neither survive its reputation for brutality nor, ironically, compete with the no-holds-barred mixed martial arts craze.

Advertisement

But the outlook for boxing looks far different in China, in large part because of one man and one gambling enclave.

First, the man. That Zou Shiming rose to the top of this particular sport seems unlikely. His rise came, as with many Chinese sporting successes, from a combination of talent, determination, and central government planning. Boxing was actually banned under Mao Zedong—it was allowed again in 1986—and the sport only seriously became part of the country’s sporting landscape when its leaders set their sights on hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

They found their champion in the 5-foot-5, 110-pound fighter from southwest China. Zou grew up the son of an engineer and kindergarten teacher who taught at the defense industry factory where his father worked in Zunyi, famous as the place where Mao was first elected to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Like most of his friends, Zou turned to martial arts at a young age. But he disliked the amount of study involved. “I was impatient, and when I found out about boxing, I knew it was the sport suited to me because I can just get in the ring and go,” says Zou, as he shifts in his seat, speaking so fast the translator asks him to slow down.

Fist Of Gold poster.
Fist Of Gold poster

Image courtesy Venetian Macau

Speed is Zou’s hallmark in the ring, too. His lightning-fast combinations and dazzling foot speed were what first caught the attention of junior coaches in China. He won bronze at the 2004 Olympics and followed that with two world light-flyweight titles in 2005 and 2007, adding a third in 2011. His proudest moment probably came in front of the home crowd when he won gold in Beijing in 2008. Last year’s Olympics in London saw him win yet another gold medal to cap his amateur career.

He is, in many ways, the China’s ideal Olympian: successful, bankable, and unfailingly polite. He shows up to an interview before his April fight dressed in denim jeans and a leather varsity jacket zipped up to the neck, with only the flash of his golden trainers from under the table hinting at any sense of flair. He was every bit the celebrity in the week before the fight, appearing all over Macau—and across the Pearl River Delta in Hong Kong—through a series of promotional events and workouts with junior boxers, all held to the sound of the tinny techno beats of the Fists of Gold tribute song. But when he talks, it’s mostly about how much hard work he has put in since the Olympics and how much hard work he has ahead of him.

“I am learning every day,” says Zou. “I have to learn how to avoid getting hit. Amateur fights don’t go as long, so you don’t have to worry about that as much. But this fight is a new beginning for me. I have been world champion, Olympic champion, and now I want to be a professional world champion. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be the best in the world.”

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.