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ARUM’S CHINESE ADVENTURE BEGAN WITH MARCO POLO

Bernard Fernandez

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Even with modern jet travel, it takes nearly a full day to journey the 7,321 miles from Bob Arum’s headquarters in Las Vegas to Macao, China, where the 81-year-old founder of Top Rank is doing his 21st-century replication of the legendary Marco Polo.

Polo was the 13th-century Italian merchant whose adventures in the faraway lands of Central Asia and China, recounted in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, did much to introduce Europeans of his day to exotic destinations they previously knew little or nothing about. It is said that Marco Polo even served as the inspiration for another Italian with wanderlust, Christopher Columbus , to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. Columbus’ intention was to more easily facilitate his nation’s lucrative spice trade with Asia, principally Japan, but he “discovered” the New World instead. Of such mistakes is history sometimes made.

Or maybe Arum’s growing fascination with China, the world’s most populous nation (1.34 billion), and an increasingly important player on the world economic stage, also owes to other, more recent influences. You could say that Saturday’s six-round matchup in Macao of the newest and most intriguing addition to the Top Rank stable, Chinese flyweight Zou Shiming (1-0), and Mexico’s Jesus Ortega (3-1, 2 KOs) is as attributable to Ping-Pong diplomacy, NBA commissioner David Stern and former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming as it is to Marco Polo.

Heck, you might even include the Boxer Rebellion, which took place in China from 1899 to 1901 and pitted the secret society of “Boxers” – a common reference to the martial artists who were members of something known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists – against foreign imperialism and Christianity. The particulars of that scrap were recounted in a 1963 film, 55 Days at Peking, which starred Charlton Heston as a steadfast American Marine officer.

But while the 5-5, 112-pound Zou Shiming, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world amateur champion, represents the home front in a vast country Arum views as rich and fertile territory from which massive profits can be reaped, the notion of the People’s Republic of China as a preferred boxing destination will really gain traction if the Nov. 23 pairing in Macao of Top Rank’s longtime superstar, Manny Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs), and Brandon Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs) sets off box-office fireworks.

If Pacquiao’s appearance in China is a resouding bottom-line success, and if Zou Shiming proves to be the pugilistic and financial success envisioned by Arum, don’t be surprised if more and more megafights wind up in China’s opulent gambling palaces (the anti-imperialist Boxers are already spinning in their graves) instead of the MGM Grand, Boardwalk Hall, Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. The money-hemorrhaging United States is on the hook for $1.1 trillion in public debt to China, one of its largest creditors, a fact that Arum and his bookkeepers no doubt are aware of.

“Zou is an incredible talent who is beloved in the People’s Republic of China,” Arum said of Saturday’s second appearance on familiar turf by the Chinese bell cow he expects will do for his company what the 7-6, 311-pound Yao Ming did for the NBA. “We at Top Rank will make every effort to make certain that he has a spectacular career as a professional boxer.”

The idea of some enterprising boxing entrepreneur establishing a foothold on the Chinese mainland has been floated for some time, predating even Arum’s expansionary vision for his Top Rank empire. But someone had to take the bold step of converting theory to reality, which is always the hard part, isn’t it?

On Jan. 25, 2000, when Mike Tyson was in London to hype his bout with England’s Julius Francis four nights later in Manchester, Tyson’s adviser, Shelly Finkel, dreamily spoke of a “world tour” in which the former heavyweight champion would travel the globe, for fun and profit, like a latter-day Marco Polo.

“South Africa and China want Mike, too,” Finkel said of his plans for the fading but still-popular Tyson. “The list is endless.” But Tyson, who had already fought twice in Tokyo and would later ply his trade in Scotland and Denmark, never got around to a business trip to China. Maybe the timing wasn’t quite right then.

Arum’s then-archrival, Don King, also publicly announced his intention to go to China right after Evander Holyfield reclaimed his WBA heavyweight title from John Ruiz in the second of their three bouts, on March 2, 2001, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay. His Hairness’ plan was for the Holyfield-Ruiz rubber match to be promoted as the “Brawl at the Great Wall.”

“I’m going to do what I did in Zaire, Africa, 26 years ago,” King harrumphed, a reference to the Oct. 30, 1974, “Rumble in the Jungle” in which Muhammad Ali scored a stunning, eighth-round knockout of George Foreman. “We’re going to the great People’s Republic of China, where there hasn’t been a heavyweight bout of this magnitude in 5,000 years!” But while there was a third pairing Holyfield and Ruiz, it instead was staged at the Foxwoods Resort, in Mashantucket, Conn.

The slight opening of doors from the outside world to China, which had been mostly closed since the eight Western legations withdrew after the Boxer Rebellion, and were further locked down as a result of Mao Zedong’s establishment of Communism as mainland China’s official governmental organ on Oct. 1, 1949, probably can be traced to something which has come to be known as “Ping-Pong diplomacy.” It was major news when the U.S. Table Tennis team, which was on tour in Nagoya, Japan, in April 1971, surprisingly received an invitation to visit China. The trip to the PRC made by American ping-pongers and accompanying journalists helped thaw icy relations between the U.S. and China, and led to that now-famous handshake between American President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, in Beijing.

China is still a communist country, but its leaders of late have discovered there are certain benefits to crass capitalism. David Stern, with his grand plan to widen the NBA’s reach to worldwide proportions, so succeeded that some of the league’s most luminous stars have hailed from such far-flung outposts as Germany, Argentina, Croatia, Spain, Italy and, yes, China. Basketball boomed in popularity behind the erstwhile Bamboo Curtain when Yao Ming was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, going on to become an eight-time All-Star Game and five-time All-NBA selection before chronic foot and ankle injuries forced his retirement in July 2011. When he finally bade his farewell , not only were Yao jerseys big sellers in America, but Kobe Bryant jerseys were worn by millions of Chinese kids who had developed a crush on hoops and the NBA’s hip-hop culture.

If Yao proved to be basketball’s strongest link between China and the U.S., why can’t the same hold true for a fighter who is 25 inches shorter and 200 pounds lighter than his gigantic countryman? Isn’t it a maxim that good things often come in small packages?

Zou Shiming is, in his own way, is as much of an ambassador for his sport as Yao was for his. China competed in its first Summer Olympics in 1952, in Helsinki, Finland, but the People’s Republic did not make another such appearance until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad. The Chinese, despite being a bit late to the party, have enthusiastically come to view athletics as a means to international prestige and national prosperity; since ’84 they have amassed 201 gold medals, 144 silvers and 128 bronzes, and in 2008 Beijing was the site of the Summer Games.

Among China’s foremost sports figures is Zou, from Zunyi, in southwest China’s Guizhou province, who became his nation’s first Olympic boxing medalist when he took a bronze in the 2004 Athens Games. Since then he has added golds in 2008 and in 2012 in London, each victory expotentially increasing his popularity and prestige in his homeland. Although he is no kid at 32, Zou, who lists his personal heroes as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Chan, presumably has enough tread on his competitive tires to make a run at a professional world championship, which also would be a first for his country.

With Freddie Roach, the Boxing Writers Association of America’s five-time Trainer of the Year, to smooth his transition from the amateurs to the pros, the hope was that Zou could be fast-tracked to a title shot within two years of his signing by Top Rank on Jan. 23, 2013. It still might happen, but his debut in the punch-for-pay ranks met with mixed reviews as he scored a desultory four-round decision over Mexico’s Eleazar Valenzuela on April 6, also in Macao.

“Though I have been in boxing for many years, it was mainly in the Olympics,” Zou said in a story that appeared in the South China Morning Post. “I showed many shortcomings in the first fight, but I think that I will be more mature after more bouts.”

Roach theorized that “the crowd got to him. He didn’t perform as well as I thought he would. He got nervous and a little gun-shy. These things happen, but now we need to see that go away. If he looks sensational in this fight (against Ortega), as he should, then we will talk about moving out (toward a hoped-for title shot before the end of 2014).”

If Zou proves to have the goods, it would mark another breakthrough for Arum regarding the lower weight classes, which typically have had difficulties finding an audience in the U.S. Most fighters from bantamweight on down are almost obliged to seek bouts in Asia or Central America, regardless of their country of origin, because Americans tend to overlook the little guys. But Arum proved it is possible to pound a square peg into a round hole when he promoted the junior flyweight unification showdown between Michael Carbajal and Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez on March 13, 1993, at the Las Vegas Hilton. The diminutive dynamos each earned million-dollar purses, become the first fighters in their weight class to do so, and the classic bout – in which Carbajal went on to win on a seventh-round stoppage after twice climbing off the canvas following knockdowns – was named “Fight of the Year” by The Ring. Carbajal also was selected as the magazine’s Fighter of the Year.

As was the case with Yao Ming, Zou’s hope is to make his mark not only in China, but in America. He said it is his dream to fight in places like Vegas, New York or Los Angeles, where the fighters he worshiped as a youth – not to mention the legacy of Marco Polo — taught him that the world is indeed a very large and interesting place.

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Conor McGregor vs. Pac-Man: The Circus is Back in Town

Arne K. Lang

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MMA superstar Conor McGregor stole some of the thunder from a busy Saturday in boxing with his announcement that his next fight would come against Manny Pacquaio. “boxing Manny Pacquiao next in the Middle East,” McGregor tweeted on Friday, Sept. 25.

Jayke Johnson, a representative of Pacquiao, confirmed that there have been preliminary talks. Johnson hinted that this would be Pacquiao’s final fight and said that Senator Manny would be donating a large chunk of his purse to COVID-19 relief in the Philippines. The situation is bad there. As of Sept. 22, there were 291,789 confirmed infections in a population of approximately 109 million. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that travelers postpone all travel to the Philippines, including essential travel.

The best guess is that the fight will take place early next year. Pacquiao is unlikely to leave his homeland until the pandemic has abated there.

Pac-Man, who turns 42 in December, last fought in July of 2019 when he further cemented his great legacy with a 12-round decision over previously undefeated Keith Thurman. McGregor, 32, last fought in January of this year. His fight with Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was over in 40 seconds. Cerrone left the ring with a fractured nose and orbital bone.

In June, McGregor announced his retirement, but few people gave it any credibility. McGregor was just making noise which he is very good at. But like him or loathe him, the fellow is certainly adept at selling his brand. In the world of combat sports, the Dubliner is Mr. Charisma.

In 2019, McGregor was reportedly the 4th wealthiest sports personality in the world, trailing only Mayweather, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. And his bank balance was growing in leaps and bounds because the whiskey he was promoting was flying off the shelf. Proper No. 12, a three-year-old blended Irish whiskey bottled at Ireland’s oldest distillery, was launched in September of 2018 and reportedly attracted $1 billion in sales in its very first year. (The “12” refers to the postal code of the neighborhood where McGregor grew up.)

McGregor started the company; he wasn’t merely the spokesperson. The parent company of Tequila maker Cuervo recently upped their stake in Proper No. 12 to 49 percent. Without a punch or a kick, McGregor made a big score.

(By the way, the popularity of Conor McGregor’s libation isn’t matched by the reviews. A bottle was sent complimentary to a business magazine in London with instructions to pass it around the office. No one liked it. “It smelled like ethanol and tasted only marginally better,” said one imbiber.)

McGregor’s fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in June of 2017 attracted a whopping 4.3 million pay-per-view buys. The match at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas drew 13,094 paid and a live gate of $55.4 million, the second highest in Nevada history (albeit well short of the $72 million gate generated by Mayweather vs Pacquiao in 2015).

McGregor plainly won the first round in that fight and won the first three rounds in the eyes of many observers. But by the ninth round the Irishman was clearly fatigued and Mayweather stopped him in the 10th.

Many people, including this reporter, believe that there was a gentleman’s agreement in place whereby Mayweather agreed to fight the first few rounds under wraps to give the paying fans more bang for their buck. In a recent tweet, McGregor said that he was disgusted with himself for not following up his early advantage and that, if he could go back and do it over, he would give Floyd a good kick in the neck because getting disqualified wouldn’t have stung as bad as getting TKOed.

The preamble to the McGregor-Mayweather fandango was a four-city promotional tour that began in Los Angeles and coursed through Toronto and New York before concluding in London. At each stop, the public was invited to come and witness the fighters’ vent their mutual enmity and the circus was live-streamed on several social media platforms.

Each session was marked by an orgy of F-bombs. Veteran boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, after tuning-in to the Toronto segment, articulated the feelings of many as he voiced his disgust: “(The show) defiled whatever remained of the nobility of combat sports, and in a broader sense the fabric of civilized society.”

If there is a promotional tour for McGregor-Pacquiao, it will take a different tack. Manny is deeply religious; he won’t play that game.

Historically, some fights for charity have been little more than exhibitions. A writer for an MMA site speculates that McGregor-Pacquiao may be contested under a modified rule set, whatever that means. Regardless, if this event comes off, it wouldn’t command my patronage if I were anything other than a boxing writer obliged to give it a look-see.

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Emerging Heavyweights: Three to Watch

Ted Sares

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Victor Faust (Viktor Vykhryst), a 6’6” 232-pound Ukrainian heavyweight (and long-time amateur) is a product of the great amateur program in the Ukraine–one that has produced the likes of the Klitschko brothers, Oleksandr Usyk, Vasily Lomachenko, and more recently Sergiy Derevyanchenko.

At first glance, his amateur record does not appear stellar, but a closer review indicates several SD’s or MD’s.

Earlier this month, on Sept. 20, he scored a frightening one punch KO when he fought the more experienced Gabriel Enguema (10-9) in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. It was his third KO victory in three professional fights—all in 2020. The end came as a result of a Doctor Steelhammer-like perfect straight right to knock the Spaniard out cold. It brought back memories of Wladimir’s KO of Calvin Brock in 2006. Faust displayed skills, size, a solid chin, and power in dispatching his opponent.

“…Soon everyone will …see how skillful he is. He’s the complete package and will compete in massive fights sooner rather than later.” Erol Ceylan (Faust’s German promoter)

Oh yes, Faust beat Romanian Mihai Nistor in the amateurs and the talented Nistor in turn halted Anthony Joshua in the amateurs back in 2011. (Nistor also went 1-2 with Filip Hrgovic and lost to Tony Yoka in 2012.) Of course, one must be circumspect when using logic in boxing. Now that Nistor has turned pro, he will be worth following as his style is very much Tysonesque.

There are others who have—at a minimum– the same potential as Faust.

Tony Yoka

tony

Hard-hitting Frenchman 6’7” Tony Yoka (8-0) has beaten far better opposition than Faust and has a far better amateur record. In fact, he beat Filip Hrgovic and Joe Joyce in the 2016 Rio Games on the way to a Gold Medal. Recently, he dismantled veteran and fellow Frenchman Johan Duhaupas, a fringe contender with some notable notches on his belt. The end came in the first round by virtue of a crunching right uppercut.

Yoka perhaps could be slotted above Faust at this point.; he just might be the best of the new guys on the block. However, there are some dicey anti-doping issues that have tainted his reputation, though they do seem to be mostly resolved at this point.

Arslanbek Makhmudov

Arslanbek

This Russian “Lion,” 6’5 ½”, 260 pounds with an imposing muscular frame, is still another hungry prospect ready to break into the next tier. Nicknamed the “Lion,” — he also has been called “Predator” and “Beast — he is 10-0 (10 KOs).

He now lives and fights out of Montreal. The holder of two regional titles, he stopped a shot Samuel Peter in one round this past December.

“I’m confident that with my team, Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions, I will reach my goal of becoming heavyweight champion of the world,” —Makhmudov.

This all said, The Lion needs some work on his technical skills as size can only go so far.

Makhmudov’s next opponent is Canadian heavyweight Dillon “Big Country” Carman (14-5) whose claim to fame is that he KOd comebacking Donovan Ruddock in 2015 in Toronto. This one will end differently for “Big Country.”

Others

Arguably, classy Americans Stephan Shaw (13-0), and Jared Anderson (6-0 with four KOs in the first round) could be added to the above. Filip Hrgovic and Efe Ajagba, both 6’6”, have already moved up.

A good yardstick is 6’5” American Jonathan Rice who lost a 10-round bout to Ajagba, was TKO’d in the seventh round Makhmudov, lost a 6-round decision to Tony Yoka, and a lost 6-round decision to Shaw.

Have I missed any?

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com of on Facebook.

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Jermell Charlo Unifies Super Welterweights Via Solar Plexus Punch

David A. Avila

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WBC super welterweight titlist Jermell Charlo knocked out IBF and WBA titlist Jeison Rosario with a knockout punch delivered to the solar plexus on Saturday to add two more belts to his collection.

“I’m definitely bringing home the straps,” said Charlo.

Shades of Bob Fitzsimmons.

Back in 1897, Fitzsimmons used the same solar plexus punch to dethrone Gentleman James Corbett for the heavyweight title in Carson City, Nevada.

In another casino city Charlo (34-1, 18 KOs) floored Dominican Republic’s Rosario (20-2-1, 14 KOs) three times at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. He and his brother co-headlined a heavy duty pay-per-view card with no fans in attendance on the Premier Boxing Champions card.

Charlo jumped on Rosario quickly in the first round when he charged and clipped him with a left hook to the temple. Down went the two-belt champion for the count. But he got up seemingly unfazed.

For the next several rounds Rosario was the aggressor and put the pressure on Charlo who was content to allow the Dominican to fire away. Occasionally the Houston fighter jabbed but allowed Rosario to pound up and down with both fists.

After allowing Rosario to get comfortable with his attack, suddenly Charlo stopped moving and connected with a short crisp counter left hook and right cross in the sixth round. Down went Rosario again and he got up before the count of 10.

Charlo said it was part of the game plan.

“I’m growing and I realize that the knockout will just come,” he said.

Charlo was in control with a patient style and allowed Rosario to come forward. But the Dominican was more cautious in the seventh.

In the eighth round Charlo jabbed to the head and then jabbed hard to Rosario’s stomach. The Dominican fighter dropped down on his seat as if felled by a gun shot. He could not get up and convulsed while on the floor. The referee Harvey Dock counted him out at 21 seconds of round eight.

“That jab that got to him must have landed in a vital point,” said Charlo after the fight. “I hope he recovers and bounces back.”

Charlo now has three of the four major super welterweight world titles.

WBC Super Bantamweight Title

Luis Nery (31-0, 24 KOs) captured the WBC super bantamweight title by unanimous decision over fellow Mexican Aaron Alameda (25-1, 13 KOs) in a battle between southpaws. The war between border town fighters was intense.

Nery, a former bantamweight world titlist, moved up a weight division and found Alameda to be a slick southpaw with an outstanding jab. At first the Tijuana fighter was a little puzzled how to attack but found his groove in the fourth round.

But Alameda, who fights out of Nogales, Mexico, began using combinations and finding success.  A crafty counter left uppercut caught Nery charging in a few times, but he managed to walk through them.

In the final two rounds Nery picked up the action and increased the pressure against the slick fighting Alameda, He forced the Nogales fighter to fight defensively and that proved enough to give the last two rounds for Nery and the victory by unanimous decision. The scores were 115-113, 116-112 and 118-110 for Nery who now holds the WBC super bantamweight world title. He formerly held the WBC bantamweight title.

Roman Wins

Danny “Baby-Faced Assassin” Roman (28-3-1, 10 KOs) managed to rally from behind and defeat Juan Carlos Payano (21-4, 9 KOs) in a battle between former world champions in a nontitle super bantamweight clash. It wasn’t easy.

Once again Roman fought a talented southpaw and in this fight Payano, a former bantamweight titlist, moved up in weight and kept Roman off balance for the first half of the fight. The jab and movement by the Dominican fighter seemed to keep Roman out of sync.

Roman, who fights out of Los Angeles, used a constant body attack to wear down the 35-year-old Payano and it paid off in the second half. Then the former unified world champion Roman began to pinpoint more blows to the body and head. With seconds left in the 12th and final round, a left hook delivered Payano down and through the ropes. Sadly, the referee missed the knockdown. It didn’t matter as all three judges scored it identical at 116-112 for Roman after 12 rounds.

“I made some adjustments and picked up the pace and got the win,” said Roman who formerly held the WBA and IBF super bantamweight world titles.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / SHOWTIME

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Featured Articles3 weeks ago

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