Before we look at the current growth in professional boxing in China it's worth looking at the history of the sport in the country which actually began more than 100 years ago.
From what we understand the first ever professional bout held in China took place in the very early 1900's when James J Ryan stopped Jack McAuliffe in 9 rounds in Tianjin. Of course boxing didn't immediately take off in China and the next recorded bout in the country took place 8 years later when Lyn Truscott fought Kid Parker for the Oriental Middleweight title. Prior to that bout Truscott had been competing regular in Hong Kong, which at the time was ruled by the British.
It wasn't until the 1920's that boxing finally found a home in China with Shanghai hosting numerous fights through much of the 1920's though none of them were of any note. The reason Shaghai was used was due to it's standing at the time as municipality and a place that was seen as the mixing pot of the east. The City, a port area, saw lots of ships and as a result saw lots of cultures many of whom were fond of boxing.
Sadly as troubles brewed between Japan and China in the 1930's the shows suddenly ended leaving China once again boxing-less.
It wasn't until the 1980's that Beijing had it's first ever professional boxing show and China had it's first post World War II show. Surprisingly there was a very recognisable name on the card, that of Japan's first ever IBF champion Satoshi Shingaki who was returning to the ring following back-to-back losses to Jeff Fenech.
Whilst Shingaki was a former world champion he wasn't a big name on the global scale of things. Instead Chinese fans had to wait until 1993 to see a notable name or two as Mike Weaver fought Bert Cooper and the then lightly regarded WBO saw their Light Heavyweight title get defended by Leeonzer Barber, who over-came Mike Sedillo. Barber's bout with Sedillo was the first ever world title fight in China.
In the late 1990's we began seeing sporadic shows, many of which featured PABA title fights as the country became slightly more welcoming to boxing. By 2000 it appeared as if the country could become a home for boxing and we actually had a very interesting show in the country in April 2000 that featured some household names such as Montell Griffin, Andrew Golota, Laila Ali and DeMarcos Corley. Sadly the idea of American fighters in China didn't last long and instead the country became a home away from home for a trio of North Korean women, Kwang Ok Kim, Eun Soon Choi and Myung Ok Ryu.
By the mid-00's Zovi Boxing Promotions were becoming the driving force behind the Chinese boxing scene. The talent pool was very limited but the company were the ones trying to build something and often used Kunming as the base of their shows. It was on one of these early Zovi shows, in 2006 that Xiong Zhao Zhong made his debut.
In 2008 China hosted the Olympics and, of course, a number of Chinese fighters faired very well including Zou Shiming, Zhang Xiaoping, Zhang Zhilei and Hanati Silamu*. Whilst the Olympics was going on the Klitschko's also had a small part to play in proceedings and actually promoted, alongside German Titov Promotions, two professional bouts. Those bouts featured 2 men who would later become known fighters. One was Heavyweight giant Alexander Ustinov and the other was Ruslan Provodnikov.
Prior to the Olympics there had been the first show in Macau following it's transfer of sovereignty to China 1999. Although it had taken 9 years since it's transfer for it to host a boxing card it would later become one of the most important places for the development of Chinese boxing.
Just a few months after the Olympics Zhong suffered his first professional defeat. By then however boxing was starting to attract Chinese fighters courtesy of the success of the Olympians. It also didn't do any harm to see major US promoter Don King take one of his shows over there, a show that featured Andrew Golota Vs Ray Austin in the main event, which actually stank unfortunately, as well as Marco Antonio Barerra, Juan Palacios, Jameel McCline and a then unknown Devon Alexander.
Although King, in recent years, is much maligned it's often forgotten what a forward thinker he really was and now, some 6 years later China is set to become a force on the professional boxing world.
In 2009 the WBO followed the WBO and created a regional title that was aimed at the Chinese market. They titled their belt the "WBO China Zone" title, presumably to include the special administrative areas of Hong Kong and Macau, The same year Zhong travelled to Japan to compete in a WBC Flyweight world title fight. Zhong lost that bout, dropping a decision to Daisuke Naito, though became the first Chinese man fighter to fight for a world.
Whilst Zhong, despite his set back in Japan, was still the figure head of the Chinese movement we did see, in 2010, the debut of the very young Qiu Xiao Jun. I'll get on to Jun a little bit later but his debut on December 5th 2010 was a major point as was Rex Tso's debut in Hong Kong in September 2011.
By the summer of 2012 Zhong was being carefully manoeuvred by both his team, Zovi, and the WBC in to trying to get him a world title. This meant they had to step on someone's toes, sadly those toes belong to Denver Cuello who was effectively pushed away from a title fight he had earned so that Zhong could be given his chance. Zhong took his chance by winning the WBC Minimumweight title at the end of 2012 and as a result he became the first Chinese world champion.
By the time Zhong had won the WBC title at 105lbs Macau had become a serious place of interest and had given the wider world it's first glimpse of Ik Yang, arguably the most exciting Chinese fighter at the time. Macau was begin to show it's promise as a potential super venue, a city to rival Las Vegas, however their was a chess piece missing, someone who could capture the imagination of the Chinese fans. Zhong had won a world title but had lacked the X-factor and was Zovi's crown for their own growth of Chinese boxing, IK Yang had promise in terms of his style back lacked name value, Rex Tso was huge in Hong Kong but again lacked something at the time to develop shows around.
Bob Arum, knowing what he needed to spear head his own movement in China, did what he could and managed to sign Zou Shiming in what may well have been the biggest boxing coup. Shiming had massive name value in China, he was an amateur star, a 2-time Olympic gold medal winner and just what Arum needed to attract TV, fans and sponsors to his boxing movement. If Zhong was Zovi's spearhead in the mainland then Shiming was to be Arum's spearhead in Macau.
The first Macau card started off with Shiming being the only fighter from China, or it's special administrative regions to appear though quickly Arum added other locals. Tso was on the second show, and then Ik Yang and Kuok Kun Ng joined the party as Arum build a small team of regional fighters who all had something different.
Tso was the most exciting. He was limited and raw but must watch with his aggression and work rate making him a fan friendly fighter who already had the natural fan base following him from Hong Kong. Ng was Macau's very own fighter and a technically astute boxer who was just a boxing baby but showed lovely potential an then you had Ik Yang a fighter with links to Korea, where he began his career, and mainland China as well as a TV friendly style like Tso.
Although Arum may not have expected it he had assembled 4 of the men who looked like they could become stars in Chinese boxing.
Back on the mainland Zhong's reign came to an end as he was upset by Oswaldo Novoa however the money Zovi were putting into the sport seemed to increase and and their shows were taking a new direction. Instead of focusing just on Zhong the Zovi shows began to attract a new generation of youngsters who were picked up for special prospect shows and started to really help develop Jun who by now was looking like one of China's most promising young fighters.
At the moment the spear head is of course Zou Shiming (5-0, 1) who is the rising star and the man getting major attention. He gets a lot of hate by fans in the west but he gets a lot of attention in China and is the driving force behind turning Macau into a major venue for boxing. Shiming has the attention of fight fans on the mainland as well as Macau and despite being in his 30's is fresh.
If we consider Shiming as the star from the mainland then Rex Tso (14-0, 9) is the star of Hong Kong. He's technically limited but has box office potential due to his style, aggression and the mentality of relentless fighting. His crudeness will likely prevent him from reaching the top but he's going to be the "Hong Kong Gatti" if you will. A huge draw despite his limitations.
Macau's very own Kuok Kun Ng (5-0, 2) might be a more boring fighter than Tso but as the "Macau Kid" he certainly has a market and draw in the local community. Good looking and fighting in one of the middle divisions the 23 year old has the potential to be a long term staple in the Macau market and if developed right could be one of the biggest "cash cows" in the East.
For my money the most exciting of the Chinese fighters who appear on the Macau shows is Ik Yang (16-0-0-1, 11) who is a heavy handed, aggressive fighter that can excite fans around the world. He may look a bit like Tso in his limitations but with his thudding power he's going to be a danger against almost anyone that he faces.
On the mainland the development of the aforementioned Qiu Xiao Jun (13-2, 5) is really exciting with Jun already holding world rankings. Jun has lost twice, both of the losses coming in Japan to Jonathan Baat, but has strung together a good run of wins over Jason Cooper, Jonatahan Baat and Rasmanudin. Also on the mainland is Qu Peng (5-0-1, 3) a 25 year old Light Heavyweight who stands at 6'3", he's less talented than Jun but still worth making a note of.
In the US fight fans have recently seen the debut of gigantic Heavyweight Taishan Dong (1-0, 1) who got a lot of attention in the build up to his debut over Alex Rozman, attention that was magnified after he won. Dong, dubbed "The Great Wall", looked very interesting on his debut and, due to his sheer size, will get a lot of attention even if he is technically limited and very new to the sport.
Another Heavyweight set to debut in the US is former Olympic medal winner Zhang Zhilei (0-0) who is certainly not as big as Dong but, from his amateur pedigree, looks likely to be a more well schooled fighter and at 31 will be fast tracked if his team want him to become a force in the division.
For a country as huge as China the number of fighters might be small but success breeds success. And I'd suspect that in 10 years time we'd be looking at several world class fighters emerging from the country. If Top Rank continue to develop their Macau brand we'd except to see the venue becoming the biggest in Asia and if Zovi continue what they are doing it's only a matter of time before they stumble on some genuinely world class talents. A country the size of China will have natural fighters and with the right training there is no doubt in my mind that they will manage to develop some of the best fighters on the planet.
A small post script-
In 1941 the great Tsuneo "Piston" Horiguchi fought in what is now Shenyang, it was his 101st bout. At the time the land was under Japanese occupation and shouldn't be considered as a bout "in China" despite the land now being part of China.
*Hanati Silamu is better known as Kanat Islam
Images courtesy of:
Chris Farinas/Top Rank