By Tim Dahlberg
AP Boxing Writer
MACAU (AP) — Bob Arum learned something about Chinese boxing fans earlier this year at the promoter’s first fight card in Shanghai, where the crowd yelled and cheered for the home country boxers all the way up until the main event.
Then, with no Chinese fighter in the ring, they suddenly went quiet.
“There was nothing,” Arum said. “Halfway through the fight half the crowd walked out.”
That they stayed that long is an indication that Chinese fans are at least beginning to understand a sport once banned in the country. That wasn’t the case in April last year when two-time Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming made his pro debut and professional boxing made its debut in the gambling enclave of Macau.
“The first show we did with Zou you could have heard a pin drop,” the longtime promoter said. “They didn’t know how or when to cheer or seem to understand much about it.”
They will be much louder Sunday morning when Zou is the featured undercard fighter as Manny Pacquiao returns to the ring in the main event against New York’s Chris Algieri. Hotel officials expect the arena at the massive Venetian resort will be filled with bleary-eyed gamblers long before the main event.
“The fact it’s on Sunday is a little inconvenient. The fact it’s on in the morning doesn’t seem to matter,” said Ed Tracy, president and CEO of the Venetian. “Most of them have been up all night anyway.”
On the state sanctioned CCTV network, a staggering 300 million people are expected to tune in to a broadcast that, unlike in the U.S., will be free of charge.
If boxing isn’t exactly exploding in China, there’s little doubt it’s beginning to find its own niche. Pacquiao and Algieri are being counted on to fill hotel rooms this weekend and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue from visitors who are as eager to spend money in the resort’s lavish shopping mall as they are in the crowded casinos.
It’s welcome money at a time Macau’s gaming revenues are in a five-month slump that casino executives attribute to a government crackdown on corruption and conspicuous consumption among the wealthy.
Macau may not be Las Vegas, but the concept is the same. Just like the casinos here began as copies of Vegas resorts, the fights follow the same pattern of appealing to sports fans with deep pockets who enjoy a wager or two.
And Chinese fans are not only learning when to cheer, but how long to stay.
“They’re beginning to know boxing,” Arum said. “It’s a relatively easy sport to understand, which is part of its beauty. But it’s really a universal thing. The Chinese people are becoming boxing fans.”
Zou is the biggest reason for that. He won Olympic gold medals in 2008 at home in Beijing and in 2012 in London, becoming a national hero in the process and introducing the sport to millions of Chinese more accustomed to martial arts contests.
Still, when Arum was first presented with the idea of paying big money to a 112-pounder making his pro debut, he had to think twice about it. With a chance to enter the potentially lucrative Chinese market, he ponied up $300,000 for Zou to fight in a four-rounder.
Zou has fought all five of his pro fights at the Venetian, and reportedly has drawn the attention of Chinese president Xi Jimping. Should Zou win as expected on Sunday, the plan is to have him fight Thailand’s Amnat Ruenroeng for a title as a headliner Feb. 14 in the same arena.
“You can look for a very, very different event then that is going to be very Asian centric,” Tracy said. “It’s a hell of an opportunity for us to put on a very good show.”
Zou isn’t the only home-grown fighter on Sunday’s card. Rex Tso from neighboring Hong Kong is 14-0 as a super flyweight, while 154-pounder Kuok Kun Ng is a Macau native. The Chinese boxing roster isn’t exactly deep, but it’s growing relatively fast.
Pacquiao also seems quite at home here, where he doesn’t have to battle the effects of jet lag to Las Vegas. His 350-member entourage managed to cram on two planes Monday for a short flight from the Philippines to watch their own national hero, who is guaranteed more than $20 million and won’t have to pay millions in taxes that would come due from a fight in the U.S.
That doesn’t mean Macau will get the biggest fights. It won’t, even if they involve Pacquiao, who Tracy envisioned fighting three of his last five fights in Macau when he made the deal with Arum.
The lights of the Las Vegas Strip still shine brightly when it comes to the biggest events. Pacquiao’s fight here last year against Rios was a pay-per-view disappointment in the U.S., partly because Rios was not considered a credible opponent by many in boxing and partly because few bought in on paying money for it because of the mystique of a fight coming from China.
There’s increased talk about Pacquiao finally fighting Floyd Mayweather Jr. next year in what could be boxing’s richest bout ever. But no matter who he fights, his next bout will not be in Macau.
“Manny’s next fight will be in the states,” Arum said. “To be relevant in the states you want him to train in California for at least one fight a year.”
Update: The Filipino boxer defeated Chris Algieri of the United States to retain his WBO world welterweight crown. Aside from boxing, the hugely popular Pacquiao has entered politics and ventured into professional basketball, business, the movies, singing and product endorsements. He is a member of the powerful House of Representatives and some of his supporters are clamoring for him to seek a higher office. (end)