Manny Pacquiao, a seven-division title claimant and perhaps the best-known boxer on the modern global stage, will headline a pay-per-view fight card this weekend that also includes Vasyl Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who won a professional championship in just his third match.
So, to say the card has got some star power would be dead-on accurate.
But if you’re looking for the show’s true bridge-builder, look no further than Zou Shiming.
Though it seems ludicrous to suggest a 33-year-old flyweight with one knockout in five fights is anything beyond an off-television card-filler, such a suggestion fails to take into account what Shiming—himself a three-time Olympic medalist (two gold medals and one bronze)—represents to his homeland and, by extension, the sport.
Shiming is Chinese. And his status as an athletic rock star in China—his first gold medal came at the 2008 Games in Beijing—has prompted burgeoning power brokers in a heretofore untapped pro sports environment to throw open their limitless checkbooks in an unabashed effort to lure promoters away from traditional been-there-done-that U.S. fight locales like Las Vegas.
Top Rank kingmaker Bob Arum plucked Shiming from the amateur ranks in January 2013 and immediately paired him with veteran Pacquiao confidant Freddie Roach, with the charge that the trainer enhance the attraction with some acumen and transition him into a legitimate professional fighter.
His pro debut, a unanimous win over one Eleazar Valenzuela, came three months later in a four-rounder on an Arum-assembled card at the Venetian resort in Macao and was followed in another three months by another win—this time over one Jesus Ortega—in a six-rounder at the same venue.
Shiming, incidentally, was paid $300,000 for that debut. And it drew nearly 300 million viewers on free TV in China—roughly three times the number who watched the Super Bowl in February.
In the ring, he's more fencer than fearsome while still relying on quickness of hand and foot to duplicate the success he found as an amateur.
Roach has worked him with sparring partners whose aim is to force more sustained exchanges, to see if he can handle the punishment and reply under duress. The cerebral style is more closely aligned with his personality, though, and he's suggested in the past that he'd have been a fashion designer if boxing hadn't been a long-term option.
The globe-trotting Pacquiao was shipped over as the headline attraction against Brandon Rios on the night of Shiming’s third fight in Macao in November 2013, and the New Year brought with it both the prospect’s first win by stoppage (over Yokthong KKP) in February and his first 10-round win (over Luis De la Rosa) in July.
He’s now considered a top-10 contender by the WBA (fourth), WBC (seventh) and WBO (fourth) and is ranked 12th in the world by the IBF.
Saturday night means a second dovetail with the Pacquiao brand in Macao, as Shiming will be the No. 3 hitter in a four-bout PPV lineup to be broadcast live by HBO. He’ll engage in his first 12-round fight—deemed a world title eliminator by the WBO—against unbeaten 29-bout Thai veteran Kwanpichit Onesongchaigym, while PacMan will face Chris Algieri in the main for the WBO welterweight belt.
During a recent media conference call, Arum said Pacquiao is getting a $23 million guarantee, in large part because the site fee he can attract in China is more than double what he’d get in Nevada.
And, assuming Shiming gets to 6-0 on Saturday, the ground beneath him only gets more fertile.
“There's a lot of enthusiasm,” Arum said, “and it played into our long-term plan to build boxing in mainland China.”
That development, he said, has already yielded a televised weekly boxing show that both discusses the sport and shows tape-delayed fights. A card in Shanghai (Arum’s second) is scheduled for December, and the sprawling nation’s president, Xi Jinping, has been on board with the renewal of the sport after previous regimes had ensured it was banned.
Once the necessary infrastructure is built, Arum envisions creating a Chinese PPV market, too. Armed with the aforementioned 300 million figure from Shiming's curtain-raiser, the promoter is pondering a future that could require a nominal fee—$5 per buy, perhaps—that could mean significant revenues if an event were to yield even a small sliver of the country’s 1.357 billion people.
The phenom's mere presence has already helped make shows like Saturday's possible, and if he's able to secure a title fight and ultimately become a world championship-level commodity, the path forward will be paved with dollar signs.
“They had this kid Shiming, who won a gold medal in Beijing, of all places,” Arum said. “That's what really started any type of resonance for boxing. Now, it's carried over.”