Zou holds key to boxing in China

Just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum watched a pre-Olympic exhibition between the United States men's basketball team and Lithuania at the CotaiArena at the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel in Macau, China.

Not long after the game, as he thought about the enormous potential marketplace for sports in China -- with its population of nearly 1.4 billion people and ever-growing economic muscle -- Arum had a dream. He wanted to pioneer big-time boxing in China, especially in casino-crammed Macau, where he hoped to tap the riches in Asia's version of Las Vegas.

In the years since, Arum has often talked about Macau as a possible location for one of his fights, usually drawing laughter from the legion of nonbelievers. It became something of a running joke in the business: Arum would mention the possibility of promoting a show in Macau, get all worked up, and then, to nobody's surprise, it wouldn't happen.

"I have been shooting my mouth off for years, and these bloggers were making fun of me about doing a fight in Macau," Arum said. "But I saw this tremendous number of people and I knew there had to be something there and I really had that dream."

Arum kept plugging away and now, thanks to a stroke of luck, he will realize his dream Saturday when he promotes the "Fists of Gold" card at the 15,000-seat CotaiArena (HBO2, 2 p.m. ET/PT, same-day tape delay).

"It took time, and here we are," Arum said proudly.

Arum's dream is coming true thanks to Chinese flyweight Zou Shiming, whose fame in his home country is massive thanks to his three Olympic medals. In 2004, Zou claimed a bronze medal to become China's first Olympic boxing medalist. In 2008, fighting in front of the home crowd in Beijing, Zou won his country's first boxing gold medal. He won gold again in 2012, cementing his legendary status in China.

Now Zou, at 31, is turning pro in Saturday's four-round main event against Eleazar Valenzuela (2-1-2, 1 KO), 18, of Mexico.

"I am so excited for Saturday night," Zou said through a translator. "As big a night as it is for me, it is even a bigger night for the sport of boxing and for boxing in China. My goal is to shine as bright a light on the sport in my country [as I can] and to help advance its development here for amateurs and professionals alike."

How big of a deal is Zou's opening night? He will earn a stunning $300,000 for his four-rounder, unheard of money for a debut. Valenzuela is making $15,000, more money than he would probably make in 10 fights at this stage in his career. But this isn't just any fight.

"What happened was, I was ahead of my time," Arum said. "I met with the arena people and they downplayed [doing a fight card]. They said they couldn't charge a lot and so forth. And then when they checked out Zou Shiming, that was the key. Then the money didn't matter. Otherwise, they wanted me to do fights, but I couldn't make enough money to pay the airfares."

With Zou topping the card and drawing thousands of wealthy Chinese gamblers, money for the show is basically no object.

Arum is going all-out. Besides Zou's debut, the promoter will put on two world title fights: junior lightweight titlist Roman "Rocky" Martinez (26-1-2, 16 KOs) of Puerto Rico against Diego Magdaleno (23-0, 9 KOs) of Las Vegas, and unified flyweight titleholder Brian Viloria (32-3, 19 KOs), a Filipino-American from Hawaii, versus Juan Francisco Estrada (22-2, 18 KOs) of Mexico.

In another featured fight, former junior featherweight titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (22-2-1, 19 KOs) of Puerto Rico will face Yasutaka Ishimoto (20-6, 4 KOs) of Japan in a bout that will be carried on same-day tape delay on UniMas' "Solo Boxeo Tecate" (11 p.m. ET/PT).

The card could be the start of something big for boxing in Asia.

"With the casinos doing what I've heard is eight times as much casino business as Las Vegas, all those zeroes bounce around the heads of promoters," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Larry Merchant, who was hired by Top Rank to be an analyst in his first gig since leaving HBO in December. "We know there's a billion people. Theoretically, this could be seen by more people than have ever seen a professional prizefight anywhere. It's intriguing for the sport. I'm very happy to see the start of something that could be very big."

The card is an enormous undertaking for Top Rank, which is handling the television production. Arum flew a crew of more than 100 to Macau, including big-name broadcasters Merchant, George Foreman and Tim Ryan, along with ring announcer Michael Buffer.

"When we talked to the Venetian people, we asked, 'How Chinese should we make the show?'" Arum said. "Should we have ring announcers doing it in Mandarin? 'Absolutely not,' we were told. They want to do it like a big Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas. [Top Rank president] Todd [duBoef] spent money like you can't believe on things, like the lights. They want the Las Vegas experience in Macau. That's the next step, bringing a Pacquiao fight."

As badly as Arum wanted to break into the Chinese market, he knows he wouldn't have been able to do it without Zou, who he wound up signing by sheer luck. It happened because Zou's agent cold-called Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler in search of an American promoter to handle Zou's professional career.

"I had never heard of [Zou]," Arum said. "And they didn't call me; they called Bruce and then Bruce ran it by me. They wanted an American. I checked with the Venetian and the Venetian said, 'You gotta get him.'

"Will he ever become a superstar in the United States? Of course not. Not a chance. But in China? Yes. I signed [Zou] because I realized that he was so famous in China that I could not only promote him, but I could also introduce fighters from all over the world and get the Chinese caught up in the sport of boxing. That's the plan. I know this is the start of that."

Zou, who trained for his debut in the United States under the guidance of Hall of Famer Freddie Roach, signed a four-year contract with Top Rank. Arum envisions huge possibilities for the fighter.

"I guarantee you that before he retires, he will make more money in a fight than Pacquiao has ever made in any single fight, more than $28 million -- because I know what is happening in that market," Arum said. "We know now how to institute pay-per-view not only in China but in Indonesia and Malaysia."

Zou's debut will be televised for free throughout China, both on national government channels and regional networks. That is why Arum believes it could be the most-viewed boxing match in history. He hopes to bring pay-per-view to China in the fall for Pacquiao's next fight. After that, he believes Zou will generate huge money on Chinese pay-per-view.

The Venetian is thrilled to have Zou headline, said Edward Tracy, the president and CEO of entertainment at Sands China Ltd., which owns the casino. The parent company is headed by multibillionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a longtime friend of Arum's.

"I've been asked 100 times in the last two days, why boxing? Why Shiming? Why now?" Tracy said. "And sometimes in life, things make a full circle. Having the chance to work with Bob Arum and Top Rank is one of those things coming full circle, having worked with them early in my career in Atlantic City. And to have that opportunity to bring this quality and level of athleticism to Macau at this point of its maturation as a market is really a privilege and an honor. We want to bring the best that's available in the world at a time when Macau is experiencing great success.

"Why now? Why Shiming? This young man's a legend in China -- the only Olympic gold-medal winner in the history of China in the fight game -- and we think he's one of the most exciting fighters to surface in the past 15-20 years. It's an opportunity to really separate Macau from the rest of the markets in Asia, and that's part of our ultimate goal."

So there's a lot riding on Zou's slim shoulders. Roach, who trained Pacquiao to greatness, believes Zou has what it takes to make an impact.

"He has a lot of talent. We have a great talent on our hands," Roach said. "Within one year, I predict he'll be world champion, and we're going to put him on the fast track because his experience [as an amateur] is really, really that great and he's learned how to be a pro fighter very well. He's amazed me every day. The harder I push him, the harder he works. I love that in a fighter. That's why he'll be champion -- because he has such dedication and desire and he has great material to work with."

Said Zou: "Freddie has taught me a lot -- including how to launch my power from my legs, how I can give my opponent body shots. A lot of things. He has made me more skilled. I constantly need to remind myself this is not Olympic-style games. This is real. This is professional boxing."

Arum watched Zou train at Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., and was impressed.

"Viloria can't handle him in sparring," Arum said. "Freddie is over the moon. We got to make sure he can go 12 rounds. That's what we're working towards. His next fight will be six. Then the fight after that eight."

So far, it seems that the people of Macau have embraced boxing.

"It is an extraordinary event," Viloria said. "I have never experienced a vibe like this at any promotion I have fought in or attended. The marketing of the event and the fans who come up to me -- wow."

Because of Roach's association with Pacquiao, the trainer is famous in the Philippines. Now he's also famous in Macau.

"I never thought I would ever say this, but more fans come up to me here to shake my hand, ask for an autograph or have their picture taken with me than in the Philippines," Roach said. "To say Macau is ready for boxing is a huge understatement."

That is music to Arum's ears.

Arum is 81 and has been promoting fights for 47 years. He promoted more than two dozen Muhammad Ali fights and numerous fights involving the 1980s four horsemen of Sugar Ray Leonard, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. Arum oversaw the comeback of George Foreman to his improbable second heavyweight championship at age 45. He helped build Oscar De La Hoya into the pay-per-view king, promoted 35 of Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s 42 fights, and helped guide Pacquiao to global stardom.

But Arum -- who sounded serious -- said that what he will do with Zou will be "the biggest thing that I have ever done in my life, opening up a nation of a billion and 400 million people, monetizing it and having the Venetian as an exclusive partner.

"It was like God realized I had this dream and gave me the means [with Zou] to realize it."