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Boxing breaking new territory

boxing
Oliver Fennell explores the vast potential of expanding boxing’s global footprint

BOXING promoters have always experimented with exotic destinations. Sometimes, they have uncovered new markets. Sometimes, they have flopped. And sometimes, they have created history.

Arguably boxing’s best-known fight came about when Don King did a deal with a dictator and took the most famous man in the world to fight on the fringes of the West African jungle.

When Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight championship, beating George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974, it instantly became part of sports folklore.

While the Rumble in the Jungle was only ever intended to be a one-off – an outrageous propaganda piece by Zaire’s autocrat president, Mobuto Sese Seko – its commercial success did not go unnoticed. Nor did the wider potential of its setting.

Africa has always been viewed as an untapped goldmine by prospectors in various industries. It draws boxing promoters, too.

“The boxing talent in Africa is in abundance, but it’s very challenging to produce world class events,” says Scott Farrell, the British-born CEO and founder of Global Boxing Stars (GBS), a Botswana-based promotion launched in 2019 and which has staged three shows in Tanzania.

“However, recently there has been a shift and companies like Probellum have started adding international branding, including many parts of Africa. This is a good step to showcasing the talent in Africa.

“One reason we don’t see more African stars on the global scene is the visa process. If they had passports that allowed them to go pretty much anywhere, I would confidently say African boxers would hold most of the belts.

“But this isn’t going to change any time soon, so the best chance we have is to build our own promotions and broadcast African talent to the world.”

GBS is therefore looking to develop boxers – and a fanbase – inside Africa, and then branch out.

★ ★ ★

That was what Bob Arum attempted in the world’s most populous nation. While historically China has had very little tradition in boxing, the logic was that among its massive population, there could be a pugilistic diamond waiting to be unearthed. This boxer could be marketed to the emerging middle class of a country with a rapidly rising economy.

Arum found his man in Zou Shiming, China’s three-time Olympic champion. Arum’s Top Rank signed Zou after his 2012 gold medal win, turning him pro the following year. Arum hoped not only to make Zou an international star but to also awaken an appetite for pro boxing among China’s 1.4 billion citizens.

It started well enough, with Zou debuting on HBO in 2013. Top Rank based the Shiming show out of Macau, an autonomous territory of China with a casino strip as glitzy as Las Vegas.

It looked the perfect set-up, attracting moneyed Chinese, foreign press and other big-name boxers. As well as Zou, Top Rank’s Macanese run brought in the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Vasyl Lomachenko, and Nonito Donaire. But, with the exception of Pacquiao, none had crossover appeal in China and so, when Zou ultimately failed at world level, Top Rank lost their enthusiasm.

Arum had put all his Chinese eggs in one basket. Zou came up short in a 2015 IBF flyweight challenge, and there was no Plan B. Top Rank only promoted in Macau once more.

Pro boxing nevertheless now has a much greater presence in China than in decades past. While none of them have been on the scale of the Top Rank/HBO affairs, according to Boxrec there have been 548 shows there since 2015, compared with a total of just 65 before that, and none before 1993.

This is certainly a result of Zou elevating the sport. However, Macau-based Samson Iu, who was executive director for the Professional Boxing Commission of China at the time of Top Rank’s Macanese venture, believes the local enthusiasm had more to do with Zou’s celebrity status than any wider appreciation of boxing.

“Zou was a national hero,” says Iu, “so he attracted Chinese people to his shows. But it’s different to the western world in that people only supported Zou, but knew nothing else about boxing.”

While boxing has continued to grow in mainland China, it has come to a virtual standstill in Macau, with only a handful of gym shows since Top Rank’s exit.

“For sure, we can attribute it [the growth of Chinese boxing] to Zou’s success,” says Iu, “but the sad truth about Macau is without Zou, nobody really cares. [Because Zou lost], they didn’t gain what they wanted.

“China is a very interesting market. Promoters are doing shows all around China, although ticket sales are not great. But the internet gives boxing fans a chance to watch without having to travel and there are some good regional-standard boxers. There are thousands of people watching any boxing show online as a minimum.”

★ ★ ★

China may have upped its output in recent years, but most of those 548 shows have been grassroots affairs. The bottom-up approach is also being applied in India. The same logic applies – that its similarly immense population might yield both major talent and a mass market to back it. After China, India would seem the next most likely potential cash cow.

Vijender Singh is a three-time Olympian and took bronze in 2008, making him India’s first Olympic boxing medallist. He was the obvious choice to lead Frank Warren’s charge into Indian professional boxing and turned over in 2015 at super-middleweight.

Singh’s first six paid contests took place in the UK or Ireland, before he headlined in New Delhi in July 2017. There had already been a handful of pro shows in India – though none before 2015, when the Indian Boxing Council licensing body was established – but this was the country’s big-time boxing debut.

Things continued according to plan as Singh won four home appearances and then switched to Top Rank, for whom he debuted in the US in July 2019. Unfortunately, Singh would spend most of this contract sidelined by the Covid-19 pandemic, and then disaster struck when he returned to India in March last year, as he was stopped by Russian underdog Artysh Lopsan in Goa. Singh has not boxed since, and big international promoters have stayed away from India.

But local promoters have not been put off. “Professional boxing will be the next mainstream sport in India,” predicts Arif Khan, president of The Punch, a promotion based in Greater Noida which has run seven events since June 2018.

“With a population of 1.3 billion and three Olympic medallists [Singh was followed by female bronze winners Mary Kom in 2012 and Lovlina Borgohain in 2020], the talent is there. Lots of amateurs are turning pro.

“Before 2018 we had something like three or four shows a year; now we are having three or four a month. Very soon we will be having three or four a week. Within two years, it will be the most discussed sport in India.”

Khan adds: “Local enthusiasm is really good. We have boxers from every corner of India. All we need is global exposure. We are trying to connect Indian boxing to a global audience, and global boxing to the Indian audience. With its population, Indian boxing can be a game-changer.”

★ ★ ★

Sport often best catches the attention when it involves long-standing geographic rivalries. Arguably the greatest of these is between India and Pakistan in cricket.

World Cup, Test and One Day International fixtures between India and Pakistan are thought to draw television audiences of more than a billion people. Even the Taliban are said to lay down arms to watch. For the last India-Pakistan World Cup encounter, at Manchester in June 2019, there were 800,000 applications for 21,000 tickets.

Imagine if that passion could be replicated in boxing.

It helps that India and Pakistan are among the world’s best cricket teams. There are no equivalents in boxing. But this is where grassroots investment comes in. Today’s Indian promoters are operating with one eye on the future, and while a significant step behind, their Pakistani equivalents are similarly minded.

There was no professional boxing in Pakistan until 2017, when the country’s first licensing body, the Pakistan Boxing Council, was established. There have been 46 shows since.

Its president, Rasheed Baloch, was a 1996 Olympian and later a journeyman professional based in New Zealand.

It is Baloch’s hope that today’s Pakistani boxers can build their records and reputations at home, but with the paid code of the sport in its infancy there, it is a long way from profitable.

“Nobody pays to watch boxing yet in Pakistan,” he says, “and media is not interested unless you pay them to cover you.

“But some locals love it and take it seriously. We have a good standard of amateur boxing, but until 2017 our boxers had to go overseas to get a pro licence.

“I pay most of the expenses myself. I do it for the love of boxing and because I believe we have a good future and can bring world titles home.”

★ ★ ★

Elsewhere in South Asia, an even newer arrival to pro boxing is Nepal. The Nepal Professional Boxing Commission (NPBC) was established in 2017, though didn’t stage its first recognised event until January last year.

Manohar “Max” Basnet, claims the idea to launch pro boxing in Nepal was due to a flawed amateur system.

“There was no professional boxing in Nepal, so amateurs had to depend on the government’s Nepal Boxing Association, which was a monopoly,” Basnet says. “They took our fees but provided no good facilities. I raised my voice against them, so I was kicked out of every international tournament, even though I was a 12-time national champion.

“I was out of boxing for three years. I was so depressed. I tried to leave the country [to fight] and when I couldn’t, I thought to myself, why not start pro boxing in Nepal?”

The NPBC was thus formed in 2017, with Basnet its first chairman. “Our first four events were not recognised by Boxrec, because some of our members didn’t really understand pro boxing,” he says. “I then left the [NPBC] board to set up Max Boxing Promotion. We did our first show in January 2021 and this was recognised by Boxrec.”

It was a modest affair, featuring 10 debutants in an empty hotel function room, coming as it did amid a coronavirus lockdown, but the first step is often the most important one – albeit not the most lucrative. “I get by with help from my friends and a bank loan,” says Basnet. “I sold my motorbike and my jewellery to secure a better life for fighters in Nepal.”

★ ★ ★

The theme of struggling promoters is a common one, and not only in countries where pro boxing was until recently barely heard of. It happens in some parts of Europe, too.

“People want a Swiss world champion,” says Leander Strupler, managing director of Swiss Pro Boxing, which has run 12 shows since forming in 2016. “But I am more realistic. My medium-term goal is to organise European title fights in front of 3,000-5,000 people.

“More TV would help boxing in Switzerland tremendously, because more viewers means more sponsors, but boxing has a very hard time getting on Swiss TV.

“Sporting success helps, but the last boxing match shown on state television was David Haye vs Arnold Gjergjaj in 2016, which was a disaster from a sporting point of view.”

Gjergjaj was a good-looking Swiss heavyweight who fought almost exclusively at home and took a 29-0 record into the Haye match in London. Unfortunately, Haye brushed him aside in two embarrassingly one-sided rounds.

Before Strupler founded Swiss Pro Boxing that same year, the country’s biggest recent pugilistic occasions were two Klitschko fights in 2009 and 2012, and Nikolai Valuev against Evander Holyfield in 2008, which was handled by the Austrian Boxing Federation.

While any heavyweight title fight is a big deal for its host destination, these events did not kickstart wider enthusiasm for boxing in Switzerland. With no local talent in the main events and barely any on the undercards, there was little to hold the attention of the casual viewer once the big names left town.

Strupler understands the key to growing the sport is investing in its rising talents, but says Switzerland lacks the classic motivator that pushes so many into boxing: poverty.

“Switzerland offers prosperity and social security,” he says. “Everyone has access to good education and careers. A small country with this attitude lacks big amounts of young people willing to sacrifice everything.

“So, boxing is a niche sport. Still, I am convinced a lot of people in Switzerland are interested in pro boxing events if they are done properly. At my events, I meet everyone from workmen to professors. Boxing fascinates people from all social classes.”

★ ★ ★

Perhaps a better bet at cracking a latent market would be an attempt to resurrect it somewhere the sport used to be popular.

When Boxing News spoke to former heavyweight contender Sherman Williams last year, he told us of his dream to turn his native Bahamas back into a major fight destination.

Now a promoter and coach, Williams says his goal is to return the Bahamas to its boxing heyday of the late 1960s to early ’90s, when televised shows were headlined by the likes of WBC super-welterweight titleholder Elisha Obed, middleweight contender Yama Bahama, Commonwealth rulers Gomeo Brennan and Ray Minus – and even Muhammad Ali.

“Boxing was a big deal there,” Williams said last May. “Muhammad Ali had his last fight in the Bahamas [in 1981]. A lot of people forget that.
“There’s a lot of potential, it just needs to be grown. It’s not easy, but we’re restarting something that used to be big.”

Part of Williams’ vision is for the Bahamas to become a hub for the sport in the Caribbean, so islanders can build their reputations and fan bases without being thrown to the wolves in the US and Europe.

In pursuing this, he may well involve Bharrath Ramoutar of Fine Line Fight Factory, the only active professional promotion in nearby Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidad had its own high point in the ’80s, with Leslie Stewart rising through the ranks at home before claiming the WBA light-heavyweight belt against Marvin Johnson in the nation’s capital, Port of Spain, in 1987.

Ramoutar has staged “about 30” events since 2000 and, just like Williams, he wants to create better opportunities at home so boxers are not compelled to fight at a disadvantage overseas.

“If you go outside to fight, you’re always at a disadvantage,” he says. “I had one guy, Prince-Lee Isodore [a 17-3-1 lightweight who boxed from 2009-2019], spent a lot of time and money on him, but he fought outside one time and he got poisoned, which damaged his eyes, and then suffered a blatant robbery. You just can’t win.”

“Prince-Lee was doing well but too much inactivity and politics cost him. He just had to wait, wasting his prime years on the shelf. Things like that, that’s why now we don’t really have any pro fighters in the country.

“But this year we hope to build some prospects, get some other promoters interested, develop something people will look forward to. It will be difficult, but everyone here enjoys boxing.

“We can have another world champion, but it will be a very long process.”

★ ★ ★

The open-air arena reverberated to chants of “Bomaye! Bomaye!” as the fan favourite put the finishing touches on a title-winning performance in Kinshasa.

But this was not 1974, the country was no longer called Zaire, and the new champion was not Muhammad Ali.

More than 45 years after Ali’s iconic win, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo had a new hero.

On January 31, 2020, Ilunga Makabu lifted the WBC cruiserweight belt by outscoring Poland’s Michał Cieślak. This made him the DRC’s first major titleholder.

His title-winning effort was broadcast to millions on state TV, with a large, paying crowd in attendance (VIP tickets cost $50; almost a month’s average salary in DRC). It was a commercial success even in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“People enjoy the sport and will pay to watch it,” says Eric ‘Dax’ Kapia, a 22-4-2 welterweight boxer and recently licensed promoter.

“Especially Makabu is a very big deal. When he fought in DRC, everyone wanted to watch him.

“The Rumble in the Jungle still influences local boxing. Every October we celebrate it with a fight night.”

Kapia did that last year, with his D.Fire Promotions debut on October 31 in Goma.

“Bomaye!” chants were not the only echoes of the Rumble in the Jungle. Don King loomed large over proceedings again, even in his absence.

King had, two months prior, signed Makabu and was looking to stage his own return to Kinshasa. But local promoter Ferdinand Luyoyo had already set this bout up prior to King’s deal, so King, with his thunder about to be stolen, unsuccessfully lobbied the WBC to cancel the bout.
It all worked out. Makabu got his belt, King got his man, and the DRC was back on the big-time boxing map.

With Makabu still holding the title, might King yet deliver a sequel to the Rumble? “DRC has so much talent, but there are no promoters or investment,” says Raymond Kupula of RKL International Boxing. “We don’t have much equipment; you see people training outside in the heat and they don’t even have punchbags.

“Yet there are so many fighters with potential, and the people love boxing. They come out and support it. People are buying tickets for our shows even without much marketing.”

Kupila attributes this to Makabu’s success. “Makabu is a superstar,” he says. “He’s motivating people, even the government, to put money into boxing, because look what happens when we do – we make world champions.

“We want to surprise the world and show them what we can do. If people can help RKL International Boxing, we can do things just as big as the Rumble in the Jungle.”

★ ★ ★

It’s easy to look at the Rumble in the Jungle and imagine it could be replicated, or to assume a fight card on a tropical island would be an easy sell, or to think that a country with more than a billion people, or an affluent populace, is an obvious market. Or you might simply believe that persistence and passion will eventually pay off, that your enthusiasm will prove contagious.

These contrasting characters dotted around the world vary in their visions, methods and markets, but all share a love for boxing, and in many ways typify the action between the ropes: they are working hard, applying strategy, taking hits and refusing to give up.

Most importantly of all, they are all looking for an opening.

SUCCESSES, FAILURES AND ODDITIES
Other Rumbles and Thrillas

While the Rumble in the Jungle remains the biggest fight in the most unusual location, there were plenty of big heavyweight bouts in the ’70s that strayed far from the sport’s typical stomping grounds.

Probably the sport’s second-most iconic tagline was the Thrilla in Manila, the concluding part of Ali’s tumultuous trilogy with Joe Frazier. Unlike Zaire, the Philippines has a long and proud boxing history, but even so, it was an odd location for a world heavyweight title fight. Similarly to the Rumble, the fight was bankrolled by a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, seeking to burnish his regime’s reputation.

Ali also fought in the unusual settings of Switzerland (vs Juergen Blin, December 26, 1971), Japan (vs Mac Foster, April 1, 1972), Indonesia (vs Rudi Lubbers, October 20, 1973) and Malaysia (vs Joe Bugner, October 1, 1975). Meanwhile, George Foreman had beaten Frazier in Jamaica (January 22, 1973), José Roman in Japan (September 1, 1973) and Ken Norton in Venezuela (March 26, 1974) prior to his date with Ali.

Eubank of Arabia

While the United Arab Emirates is a fast-rising fight destination nowadays, it had never staged a professional boxing show prior to Chris Eubank’s March 1997 stoppage win over Camilo Alarcon of Colombia in Dubai.

This followed an even more unusual excursion five months earlier to Egypt, which had also never before hosted pro boxing. There, Eubank knocked out Argentinian Luis Dionisio Barrera.

Both fights were mismatches, poorly received by their host nations, and financial flops. Cash-strapped and coming off successive defeats, the now self-promoted Eubank had hoped to simultaneously reinvigorate his career and tap into a new market. Neither happened, and Eubank called off planned bouts in Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco.

Socialist revolutions

Germany is now a boxing superpower, but professional sport was once banned in its communist East. Unification in 1990 saw a wave of new pros who had excelled as amateurs, led by Henry Maske and Axel Schulz. This spurred a Germany-wide appetite for pro boxing, as the country went from an average of 20-30 post-war shows per year to well over 100 annually since the mid-2000s.

Similarly, pro boxing in Russia has thrived since its introduction in 1989. Always an amateur powerhouse, it was inevitable professional champions would follow. The paid code has been a commercial success, too, with an average 68 shows a year since 2000. Most big-name Russians have fought at home, and even some A-list foreigners have appeared there.

North Korea had four pro boxing shows between 2006 and 2008. They were mostly off limits to the outside world, but did involve several foreign boxers and some WBC women’s title fights. Jamaican Alicia Ashley, who fought there in 2005, reports large crowds of ticket-buying locals were in attendance.

Kingdoms and cults

Despite concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, promoters have found it difficult to turn down the millions on offer there. The kingdom is not taking the bottom-up approach; rather it is going all-in with some massive fight nights, such as Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz II in 2019 and Callum Smith vs George Groves in 2018. Amir Khan has fought there, too, as has Tyson Fury, albeit in a wrestling match.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, but of much lower key, was the bizarre run of shows in Yemen between 2011 and 2015. They were all headlined by a character called Ali Raymi, who despite being a strawweight in his late 30s, amassed a perfect record of 25-0 (25). Raymi fought nobody you’d ever heard of, in front of mere dozens, but developed a cult following online. Raymi was killed in a bombing in 2015 and there have been no Yemeni boxing shows since.

Coining it during Covid

The coronavirus pandemic forced promoters to come up with inventive workarounds to keep their boxers busy and businesses going. From bubbles to back gardens, the sport sputtered along with no or few fans in attendance.

But even a financial powerhouse like Matchroom couldn’t continue in that vein indefinitely, so when Dillian Whyte’s rematch with Alexander Povetkin went ahead in March last year, it did so in front of a small but appreciative crowd in Gibraltar. The promotion was so well received by the tiny British Overseas Territory – with a population smaller than the capacity of many sports stadiums – that it made special £2 coins to commemorate the occasion.

High farce in Hong Kong

Long before Bob Arum tried to crack the Chinese market via Macau, he was embroiled in a fiasco in neighbouring Hong Kong in 1994. High Noon in Hong Kong was to be a stacked pay-per-view featuring Herbie Hide vs Tommy Morrison, Frank Bruno vs Ray Mercer, Steve Collins vs Lonnie Beasley and Rafael Ruelas vs Billy Schwer. But the brains behind it, a British entertainment and sports mogul called John Daly, who 20 years earlier had co-promoted the Rumble in the Jungle, failed to come up with the cash guarantees and the event was cancelled at 5.30pm on the evening of the show after Arum, Barry Hearn and Mickey Duff all withdrew their boxers.

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