By Mitch Abramson
Nearly two years ago, the boxing promoter Dino Duva sat in a Manhattan restaurant, put down his chop sticks and pointed across the table to the 6-6 Chinese super heavyweight Zhang Zhilei and announced his intention to make Zhilei into boxing’s version of Yao Ming.
It was an impressive boast that seemed filled with possibility at the time. Ming was tearing up the NBA with the Houston Rockets and Zhilei had the physical attributes to one day do the same in boxing; Duva, the son of legendary trainer Lou Duva, was sitting in a Chinese eatery surrounded by reporters that day, explaining a deal he had struck with the Chinese Boxing Federation, the boxing arm of the state government, to market and promote boxing in China, to build up the country’s amateur system into a world power.
Eventually, the goal, Duva said, is to stage professional bouts and create a pro boxing industry among the 1.3 billion residents that make up the world’s fastest growing economy.
Up until 1986, the sport had been banned in China. But sitting inside Workers Indoor Arena during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after the Chinese team walked away with four medals (two gold), Duva said he had an epiphany: if he could create a market and demand for boxing in China, the potential for growth would be limitless. The towering Zhilei, who had won a silver medal in 2008 and fights southpaw, was the centerpiece of the deal, but the 2012 Summer Olympics in London would serve as the launching pad for this unique boxing venture.
Now, just weeks away from the start of the Olympic Games, Duva, who has spent the past few years helping to arrange training for the Chinese national team, even exporting American trainers to China, is inching closer to his goal. The Olympic boxing competition is scheduled to begin on July 28.
“This is the culmination of the last three or four years of my work, ever since the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when we started getting involved,” Duva said last week. “This is a very exciting and important time for us because everything for the last three or four years has been preparing them for these Olympics.”
Duva described his role with the boxing federation as that of a “paid international consultant” with the understanding that when the boxers turn pro, Duva will most likely be their promoter.
“I have a business arrangement with them,” Duva explained. “A lot of it is just me contributing my expertise on the training. I’ve gotten paid for some of it and a lot of it is done on good faith where we have an understanding that we’re going to promote these guys when they turn professional.”
The plan would be to launch professional careers for certain members of the Chinese Olympic boxing team who do well in London, Duva said. If the Chinese Olympic team has success, it could lead to the professionalizing of boxing in the country, which would lead to regular pro shows in China, which could lead to the commercialization of the sport, which is where Duva comes in.
“After the Olympics are over, we’re going to sit down with the fighters and present them with whatever options they might have, in terms of different directions they can go with their national team situation and also with the professional situation,” Duva said. “And the fighters will make a decision which way they will go, and we’re confident we’re going to be involved with them one way or another. Right now, the only focus is the Olympics.”
Duva dismissed the idea that he’ll be rooting for the Chinese team over their U.S. counterparts in London. At the height of Main Events, the promotional firm managed by the Duva family- the company signed a crop of top U.S. Olympians from the 1984 Games, such as Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor. Now, Duva is working with another country’s team to unseat an American program that is trying to rebound from a disappointing performance in 2008 when the team captured just a single bronze medal. It's a remarkable position for Duva to find himself in, yet he dismissed any notion that he's less patriotic for getting involved with the Chinese, calling it a "business" venture.
“Obviously I will be rooting for the Americans, whenever I can,” Duva said. “I hope the Americans do great. But you know I have a close, personal connection to these Chinese fighters. I’ve been very close friends with them, and consultants to them for the last four years. I have a very close connection with these guys, and I hope the fighters that I’ve grown close with do well.”
Professional boxing in China is still in its infancy, with the occasional pro show, he said. Duva, who promoted former heavyweight champion Samuel Peter with his Duva Boxing promotional company hasn’t promoted in the U.S. since Peter lost a majority decision to Eddie Chambers in March of 2009. Around that time, another one of his champions, the cruiserweight, Ola Afolabi, also lost a title fight, prompting Duva to reevaluate what he was doing in boxing. His only business interests in boxing at the moment are with the Chinese national team.
“I think it was just a matter of timing,” he said. “They both lost their championships right around 2008-2009, which is when I started getting more heavily involved with the Chinese. I had to make a decision at that point whether I wanted to rebuild my American company, or did I want to take a shot and focus more of my energy on the Chinese and I chose that one.”
Duva said he has spent the past several years focusing on improving the training regimen of the Chinese. He arranged for several American trainers, led by Al Mitchell, the former U.S. Olympic coach and trainer of Vernon Forrest and David Reid, to set up training camps in both China and the U.S. with the goal of preparing the fighters for the Olympics. The other trainers who have worked with the Chinese team include Shaun George, a former light heavyweight, who worked with the China national women’s team and is married to one of Lou Duva’s granddaughters; Dan Campbell, the former 2008 U.S. Olympic boxing coach; and Charles Mooney, who fought on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team; Duva said that since 2009, he’s run four training camps in the U.S. and three in China.
Duva’s team has also been working with the Chinese women’s national team, helping them get ready for the Games, the first Olympics when female fighters will be allowed to compete. He called the Chinese women’s team “one of the top three women’s team in the world.”
“We believe they’re going to do very well,” Duva said. “I think they’re going to win at least one gold medal and maybe one or two medals. I think they’ll medal in [all three] weight classes.”
Duva discovered boxing in China, almost by accident. He was invited to the Beijing Olympics by a friend, whom he said helped introduce him to the Boxing officials there.
“I didn’t even know how good the Chinese Boxing team was when I went there,” Duva said. “I was invited to come over there by someone who had some contacts over there and got me tickets to the event and introduced me to some people. I was shocked by how well they did and I just built up my relationship with the Chinese Boxing Federation people as time went along.”
He said dealing with a communist government has not been as challenging as it may seem.
The biggest obstacle for Duva was getting the officials of the Chinese Boxing Federation to trust him enough to consent to a business relationship.
“I don’t think they were ever suspicious of me,” he said. “I think we hit it off very quickly. I would say cautious. They’re just going to be naturally cautious of any outside, international people, as far as working with their national athletes.”
But once they warmed to each other, the relationship has flourished, he said.
“They’ve been great, absolutely great,” he said. “They’re real people. They’re good guys. Most of the guys that I’ve met and gotten to know are sports people. Most of my friends and contacts are on the sports end of things, and they’re great guys. You sit down and have a beer with them- that’s how they are.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for NY Daily News and BoxingScene.com. Tags: Amateur Boxing