By Kieran Mulvaney
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, when Manny Pacquiao headlined the first boxing pay-per-view event in China, a dominant twelve-round decision over Brandon Rios, the location was as much of a storyline as the contest itself. There was a novelty to the experience, and something of a question whether it would be a singular one. Now, while fight week in Macau still lacks the familiarity of New York or Las Vegas, it has the air of becoming a permanent and important fixture in boxing’s traveling circus.
And yet, says Top Rank’s CEO Bob Arum, “like many things in life, it happened by chance. As a member of the Las Vegas community, I knew people in Sands [the company that owns the Venetian resorts]. Sheldon Adelson [Sands’ chairman and CEO] and I go back a long way. And they wanted me to put on a boxing card in Macau.” For Sands, which has operated the Venetian Macao on the purpose-built Cotai Strip for 10 years, the attraction was clear: it wanted as many events as possible to encourage members of China’s burgeoning middle class to visit the resort and spend large amounts of money at its casino. Arum, however, initially resisted, not seeing the value in staging an event in a country that has little to no historical involvement with the sport. But then he was approached by the agent for Zou Shiming, China’s most successful amateur boxer, who won gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and, after the London games, elected to turn professional.
“I thought what in the hell am I going to do with a 112-pound Chinese boxer?” chuckled Arum. “But I had my guys check out to see just how big he was in China, and it turned out he was huge.” Zou would prove the key to unlocking the door to Chinese boxing. “Without him, none of this would have happened,” Arum emphasized. Recognizing the Chinese fighter's importance, Arum rewarded him handsomely before he had thrown a single punch in the professional ring. “His first fight was a four-rounder, and I paid him $300,000.”
That first fight, in April 2013, served as a test run; his second bout, in July of that year, enabled Top Rank to build on what they had learned and to then take that knowledge into the Pacquiao-Rios event. There were plenty of logistical obstacles to overcome along the way.
“There was no boxing commission, so there was the challenge of getting an authority together to oversee an event,” explained Top Rank’s executive event producer, Brad Jacobs. “Then there was the question of ringside physicians; well, we discovered that there is a huge hospital on site here at the Venetian, so we were able to ensure that some physicians and nurses were hired from there.”
Some challenges will always remain, not the least of which is the huge difference in time zones (Macau is 13 hours ahead of the US east coast). “I’m doing business at 2AM every night,” said Jacobs. But Saturday’s contest between Pacquiao and Chris Algieri will be Top Rank’s seventh in Macau, and eighth in China (the company recently staged its first card on the mainland, in Shanghai, with a second upcoming), and with each successful venture, the comfort level increases, even if new issues are seemingly always around the corner. “With our Shanghai card, we had a great main event, but halfway through it, half the crowd stood up and left,” recalled Jacobs. “We wondered what was going on; it turned out that most people came by train, and the last train ran at 10:45, so at 10:20, everyone left to catch it.”
If there wasn’t much awareness of professional boxing before, says Sands China CEO Ed Tracy, then that is changing, to the extent that even if Zou, on whose small shoulders so much has thus far rested, were to suffer a shocking defeat on Saturday, the project would be able to continue.
“The challenge here is to create events that are memorable, that nobody else can do,” Tracy explained. “If you’re in my business, it’s no different here than in the US: you want to help people escape the mundane qualities of their everyday life by giving them experiences they can’t get anywhere else. And this plays into that so beautifully because of the people who follow boxing. Having Sylvester Stallone latch on to the Chris Algieri story and say, ‘I’m coming to the fight’ – that’s an extraordinary thing. He’s getting on a plane and traveling 8,000 miles because he likes boxing. But that’s the kind of appeal boxing has. All you need is the right fighters and the right venue.”