By Mark Butcher: For many years, US boxing promoters and sporting entrepreneurs speculated on the gold mine on the other side of the world. The lucrative gambling market in Macao (currently pulling in seven times the revenue of the entire state of Nevada) whispered Eastern promise and China’s extraordinary 1.3 billion population could offer a potential viewing audience like no other. But the Chinese needed one of their own to spark the revolution - this untapped market lacked a superstar. Enter Zou Shiming.
Double Olympic champion and three-time world amateur champion Zou, 6-0 (1 KO), has been the standard bearer for the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ taking place in the South-East Asian gambling mecca of Macao. Since Zou turned pro in February 2013 under the auspices of Bob Arum’s Top Rank organization, a potential boxing giant has risen.
On March 7th at the Cotai Arena that project approaches its realisation as Zou challenges old amateur rival Amnat Ruenroeng for the IBF flyweight crown in an glittering Asia-themed event dubbed the ‘Showdown at Sands’. It’s a significant moment for Macao, which has already staged seven Top Rank fight cards at Sands China’s opulent Venetian Macao, including two hugely successful promotions involving Manny Pacquiao.
“It really happened around Shiming,” explained Edward Tracy, the out-going Sands China President and Chief Executive, who will be succeeded on March 6th by Las Vegas Sands Corp Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson, one of the world’s richest men. “To have an opportunity to coalesce a program around somebody who is a national hero doesn’t happen every day and Bob had the foresight to see that. I was happy to go as his co-pilot to try to push this over the goal line. Shiming has delivered in a way that has really surprised me. He’s a great guy, but he’s a heck of a boxer. Where he goes is yet to be seen. He hasn’t disappointed yet and along the way we’re finding other Chinese boxers. We have three or four boxers from China who are really great entertainers and good boxers including KK Ng from Macao and Rex Tso from Hong Kong.
“Everybody in the gaming business knew about Macao,” continued Tracy. “They could see it was centrally located and attached to mainland China. Up until about 10 years ago, it was controlled by one operator. The Chinese government then decided to open it up and bring in big gaming companies. Boxing was not as well-known as we would have liked it to have been, but we took that on as part of the challenge, to educate people about boxing in Macao. All of my competitors, to a man, said they thought we would fail with boxing and they are stunned at the success we’ve had. We listen to our players, especially our higher end players – they love coming to the events – we make it easy for them to come. We’re really just out of the gate with boxing. Who knows where it could go?”
This rich gambling market will become even more accessible when a bridge connecting bustling Hong Kong to Macao opens in 2016, meaning the former’s Chek Lap Kok airport (which serves over 110,000 people a day and connects to 100 cities worldwide) will be a mere 22-minute drive from the resort, closer than downtown Hong Kong. China’s high-speed rail network opened in December 2012 and delivered a jaw-dropping 3.5 million gamblers to Macao in its first year – a love of gaming is imbued in the Chinese DNA. Three years ago, Sands China had 3,500 hotel rooms to cater for the emerging, affluent Chinese, now it boasts 9,300. Despite an annual downturn in gross gaming revenue in 2014 (the first since data was collected in 2002), new resorts are being built up and down the Cotai Strip at a rapid rate with the $2.7 billion Parisian Macao launching in late 2016 - introducing an additional 3,000 rooms as well as a replica Eiffel Tower.
Sands China’s mall business alone generates $2.5 billion in revenue annually and an eye-popping $270 million in profit. Pay-per-view across China is not a reality yet due to nuances with Chinese law, but assuming that issue is resolved the possibilities are endless. Zou vs Ruenroeng will be broadcast for free and on prime time on CCTV (Chinese Central Television) with 200 million plus expected to tune in. But what if the unthinkable happens and Zou loses?
“Every boxing story has its ups and downs, things you can’t predict in life,” admitted Tracy. “We are prepared for that and to support Shiming in his career as long as he performs, is honest about boxing and trains hard. He’s smart. We like everything about his profile. If there was no Shiming and he decided to retire tomorrow – we would move on to the next boxer. He opened the door but we went through it.
“Obviously, we want a bigger stable of fighters and Top Rank is working on that and we’re supporting this effort in China,” he added. “Bob’s got people on the ground finding fighters. Look at the sheer numbers in China – typically it’s an exit from a life of poverty. Sports are a big opportunity in China, to get out of that life. We think there are so many more [undiscovered] boxers. It’s just a case of getting out there and finding them.”
A Zou victory over Ruenroeng will surely inspire China’s stars of tomorrow.
The Zou Shiming - Amnat Ruenroeng IBF flyweight championship fight will be televised via same-day delay on HBO2 in the US, beginning at 5pm ET/PT and live on BoxNation in the UK at 12.30pm in the afternoon.