Last week Shanghai held a rare professional boxing event. The show, dubbed the “Fists of Power”, incorporated seven bouts. Two title fights were fought by Chinese boxers but interest in the event was muted. The venue wasn’t full and most of the crowd had been given their tickets free.
Things were different in the 1940s, when boxing was a main attraction for visitors to Shanghai’s amusement emporiums like Dashijie (or Great World). Local boxers earned good livings by fighting foreign opponents or opening boxing academies. Some even became movie stars. “There was a popular saying: don’t claim you’ve been to Shanghai until you have visited Dashijie. And don’t claim you’ve been to Dashijie until you’ve watched the boxing bouts,” an 80 year-old former boxer from Shanghai told Sports Illustrated’s Chinese magazine.
Boxing was banned in socialist China, only resurfacing in 1979 when former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali visited China at Deng Xiaoping’s invitation.
But the sport’s development in China has been slow. Until recently Zou Shiming, a flyweight boxer who won gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics – and has been working his way towards a world title bout with a series of fights at a leading casino in Macau – had emerged as one of very few recognisable faces for most Chinese fans.
Now a couple of other Chinese contenders want a shot at glory. Unexpectedly, they compete in the marquee heavyweight division.
One is Dong Jianjun, who is 6 feet 11 and weighs in at 285 pounds. His ringname is derived from one of China’s five sacred mountains. “Here is the Great Wall: Taishan!” chimed the announcer as the 26 year-old towered over his opponent in San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall in July. Dong didn’t disappoint, knocking out his opponent in the second round.
“I came to the US because I hope to move to a higher level. The US is strong in sports. As a Chinese, I would like to challenge myself and prove to the whole world that we Chinese can also be strong,” Dong told China Daily after his professional debut.
The other contender, Zhang Zhilei, also made his mark last month. A silver medallist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he took just 17 seconds (and two punches) to flatten his opponent and have the referee wave the fight over.
Mismatches of this type are symptomatic of how promoters are trying to push Chinese boxers up the rankings, some pundits have suggested. All the top organisations are desperate to unearth a world class fighter from China as the commercial prospects in representing a new superstar are stratospheric. There has been similar grumbling about the flyweight Zou, who has fought some underwhelming opponents, as his management team tries to fasttrack him to a world title bid.
Finding a Chinese contender for a heavyweight title would raise the stakes even higher. Dong certainly qualifies physically. “He could become the best Chinese champion, the Yao Ming of heavyweight boxing in the US,” predicts George Gallegos, his manager. Zhang, who is training in New Jersey, is also backed by American promoters.
Even so, the state media is hopeful that fight fever will return to Shanghai, with Xinhua claiming that the “megalopolis atmosphere” in the city is similar to New York’s and that it will help boxing to thrive. “The more international Shanghai becomes, the easier for it to absorb something new,” an organiser at last week’s boxing event insisted. Perhaps. But boxing in China really needs a local hero if the sport is to become the commercial success that so many in the industry are predicting.
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