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?

(Continued from Page 1)

Yet, even in this most individual of sports, Zou puts in a good word for the motherland. “I want to thank China as the country that has supported me and supported my success in the Olympics. It doesn't matter where I go, I will always be Chinese.”

His future success may be, in many ways, a joint Sino-American venture. Besides being promoted by Arum’s Top Rank Boxing, Zou is being trained by Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, whose roster includes Julio César Chávez Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.

Roach is confident about Zou’s viability as a professional—“champion within one year,” he says—but he’s equally voluble about the venue and what it might mean for boxing.

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“There used to be Vegas,” he says. “[But] every single casino you go into over here seems to be Vegas on its own … We’ve never seen anything like it, and you can see why the sport wants to come here. It needs to come here—there’s just not enough money in the States.”

Macau is awash in cash. Not everyone was convinced when the city first opened up its gaming industry to international investment in 2002, but it took just five years for Macau to take Las Vegas’ crown as the gaming capital of the world.

Home to more than 600,000 people, last year Macau welcomed an estimated 28 million visitors while collecting annual takings of more than $38 billion, a year-over-year growth of 13.5 percent and around five times Vegas’ earnings. The growth in its popularity as a destination among mainland Chinese—who come to escape the mainland’s ban on gaming—has begun to worry Beijing. Though travel curbs are rarely officially announced, media have reported numerous instances of the central government placing tighter restrictions on how many times people can visit and how much money they can bring when they do.

Loathe to be seen purely as Asia’s gambling capital, the Macau government—and the owners of Macau’s massive “integrated resort” developments who are at pains to please their overlords—are quick to emphasize everything else the city has to offer. Hence the stream of Asian pop stars and the hosting of such sporting events as its annual Formula One Grand Prix weekend and now Fists of Gold.

Like Vegas before it, however, Macau has had a tough time distancing itself from its shady past. Administered by the Portuguese for more than 400 years, the city reverted to Chinese control in 1999, a move that was preceded by a fierce turf war among the triad gangs that had long plundered the city and run its lucrative gambling operations. And while Macau’s leaders claim those wild days are long gone, all it took was the December release of Wan Kuok-koi after 13 years in prison (for multiple offenses, including loan-sharking and attempted murder) to bring the bad memories flooding back. “Broken Tooth,” as Wan is more commonly known, had been the very public face of Macau’s seedy side in the run-up to the 1999 handover and brazenly defied the police and his rival triad leaders.

It’s just another reminder that the path to boxing success in the Middle Kingdom is far from assured. Plenty of sports are trying to win over the Chinese market—even hockey is trying to establish a foothold there. But it’s one thing for millions of Chinese to tune in and cheer for Zou because he’s Chinese. It would be another if they simply rooted for him because they are boxing fans and he is a superb fighter. A truer test of the appeal of international boxing in China will come in November, when Arum’s company will stage a Macau fight between Manny Pacquiao and American Brandon Rios. Success will hinge both on good marketing and good behavior—no scandals, staying clear of the triads, turning out Chinese fans. And yet the potential rewards are clear.

“If it is done right,” Arum says on the podium, still aglow, “this will be the premier audience for the sport of boxing in the world.”

Mathew Scott is a Hong Kong–based writer and fight fan.

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