By Steve Kim
NEW YORK -- On Monday afternoon, at the Tao Restaurant in Manhattan, Dynasty Boxing and Chinese heavyweight Zhang Zhilei officially was unveiled to New York City's gathered media. For Dino Duva, the head of this new venture alongside Terry and Tommy Lane (the sons of referee Mills Lane), this was the culmination of more than five years of work in the Far East.
"I went out to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and I was very impressed, first of all, by the Chinese boxing team," Duva explained last week. "They did unbelievable in those Olympics, and the boxers looked like they were really, really good." That Chinese squad took home two gold medals, one silver and three bronze -- an impressive haul, for a country that didn't have much of a boxing tradition before hosting those Games. It was on this trip Duva was able to lay the groundwork for what would become his latest promotional company.
"I was fortunate to get to know the head of the boxing federation of China and some other executives in the Chinese sports administration and the coaches of some of the team members of the Chinese boxing team, and we just developed and struck up a relationship over time," explained Duva. "Then about a year or so later, they basically hired me as a 'special international consultant' to help raise the level of the boxers, the coaches, the sport in general in China, and I've been acting as a consultant with them for over four years now.
"We held multiple training camps in the U.S. and China, and I promoted a USA-versus-China event in 2010 as sort of a goodwill gesture with the Chinese Olympic team and USA Boxing, and we just struck up a great friendship and relationship," continued Duva. "We've been working toward this time for four, five years, and I'm very happy that it's here now. I've got a crew of Olympic boxers who are turning pro, and I'm very excited about it."
Professional boxing in China is not a new concept. In the past year, Bob Arum has made a notable foray into Macau, described as "Vegas on steroids" for its prodigious gambling revenue, riding the popularity of two-time gold medalist Zou Shiming. Macau is now part of the regular rotation of the Top Rank schedule at the Venetian Resort, which has hosted all four of Zou's professional contests to sizable audiences.
But Duva doesn't believe he was beat to the punch. In fact, he feels Arum has opened doors for him. "There's no doubt that what Zou Shiming has done has made it easier. He's paved the way; I'm very grateful for that. I'm very grateful for Zou Shiming, for being the first one to break ground. … He was a legendary Olympic boxer, and Zou was the right one to pave the way, and I'm very happy for the work Bob has done starting it off. He's opened up the Macau market … some early foundational work that I would've normally had to do. ... Chinese boxing is a huge growth market for the professional boxing industry, and now we're going to take it to another level, I believe with our guys."
Duva saw the potential in this market during the 2008 Olympics. It wasn't just the success of the Chinese boxers, but the support they garnered from the public. That public is 1.35 billion deep, and while America has the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, there isn't nearly that much competition in China when it comes to professional sports. In Zhilei, Duva feels he has a franchise player who can be to boxing what Yao Ming was to basketball. Unlike Shiming, who competes in the flyweight division (112 pounds) and is old by that division's standards, Zhilei fights in the sport's most glamorous weight class, and he's still relatively young for a heavyweight at 31.
"There's no question," Duva said. "First of all, to be honest, he's the one I'm closest with personally, because he's the first one who came here for a training camp back in 2009 … and because he's a heavyweight -- and he's a big heavyweight -- he's a special kid."
Nowadays, you really have to have the dimensions of at least a small forward to compete in this division. The days of the 6-foot-1, 210-pound heavyweight are part of a bygone era, like the 15-round championship fight. Rocky Marciano would be a cruiserweight now. Zhilei comes in at a robust 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, and in addition to having legitimate power, he's also a southpaw. In what will soon be a Klitschko-free zone, he could be coming at precisely the right time.
"I'm very excited about him, and I'm very happy he's the first one I'm bringing here to introduce to everybody because of that closeness," said Duva, who plans to situate Zhilei in the U.S. and pair him with an American trainer. You might call him "the Great Asian Hope." Duva at least is going all-in on Zhilei. A boxing lifer who worked in the business started by his father, the iconic Lou Duva, he took over at Main Events after the unfortunate and untimely passing of his brother Dan in 1996, running that company until an acrimonious family squabble led him to start Duva Boxing with his sister.
But as the likes of Sam Peter and Ola Afalobi lost title bouts, Duva dissolved his company to concentrate on opportunities in China. And Duva, who is a Jersey guy, soon found himself in that country often. "I've been there probably 17, 18 times since 2008,"he explained. "I've spent a lot of time, lot of money, lot of sweat equity building up these relationships, developing the fighters and the sport over there with my associates, and it's all coming to fruition, now."
And Dynasty Boxing will not be just a Chinese promotional outfit. Duva said, "I plan on promoting the boxers in the United States just as much … I think my guys are excellent professional boxers. I think the boxing industry in general will embrace them, and then there's the Chinese-American territories here. There's a huge population that is here, and I'm going to go all over the place. I'm going to get them as much exposure in the U.S., China and globally, because I think these guys are going to hit it big and really be intriguing to the sports audience."
So basically, any city in America that has a Chinatown will be a potential destination for Dynasty Boxing. "Absolutely," said Duva, with a chuckle. "We're going to be eating a lot of Chinese noodles in the future, I can promise you that."
Duva plans to have his flagship fighter debut sometime in May or June, allowing him to acclimate to life in a new country while Duva focuses on the promotional work. But what Arum and Shiming have done thus far in China are just the first steps of a much longer journey. "There's no doubt in my mind," said Duva, with confidence. "I love Zou Shiming, I respect him greatly. He was a great, legendary boxer, a great person, too. He's a good kid. I know him and his wife personally, they're good people and I wish them best. But in my opinion, Zou is only going to go so far as a professional.
"I really, really believe there's much better professional prospects in China that are going to go much further, and cause much more impact as boxers in the professional ranks," Duva concluded. "And there's some really good boxers who are going to become champions from China over time, and I think I got the first stable of them …"
* * *
Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot).