By Ivan Goldman
The April 6 Top Rank card set in Macau could be even more geographically significant than it first appears. The main event features Brian “Hawaiian Punch” Viloria defending his WBA and WBO flyweight titles against Juan Francisco Estrada. On the undercard, China’s Zou Shiming, a two-time light flyweight Olympics gold medalist, makes his pro debut.
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, after welcoming Zou into the Top Rank Stable and arranging the show at the Venetian Macao Casino, thought it was such a big deal that he flew all the way to Beijing to announce the news.
Boxing is unlikely to ever generate as much fan interest in China as it does in the U.S., but fan interest isn’t the whole story when promoters put together boxing shows.
Although few Americans are aware of it, casino revenues in the former Portuguese colony off the coast of Mainland China began exceeding those of Las Vegas back in 2006. Fed by an ever-expanding batch of Asian tycoons, their handle has continued to skyrocket. According to Evan Osnos, The New Yorker’s correspondent in Beijing, the amount of money passing through the Asian gaming Mecca is now six times that of Las Vegas, which never fully recovered from the banking/real estate crisis of 2008.
Nevada, which still has the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the U.S., is beginning to look like an aging champion gamely hanging on while a young, strong challenger sticks, moves, and wears him down. On the other hand, Nevada isn’t on its death bed either. The state’s Super Bowl handle will almost certainly exceed $90 million before this weekend is over.
Meanwhile, Osnos reports that Steve Wynn, CEO of Wynn Resorts, is learning Chinese. His company now derives two-thirds of its profits from its two casinos in Chinese-controlled Macau. “We’re really a Chinese company now, not an American company,” he has said.
If everything goes the way Arum and the casino executives hope it will, Macau could end up challenging Las Vegas for the title of boxing capital as well as gambling capital. After all, Las Vegas wasn’t always the boxing town it is today. So it’s not inconceivable that the situation could change tomorrow.
Vegas didn’t get its first heavyweight title fight until July 1963, when Sonny Liston’s second bout against Floyd Patterson was staged in the town’s Convention Center. In those days of course, heavyweights ruled the boxing roost. As in their first go-around, poor Floyd never made it to the second round.
Within just a few years Las Vegas had become the undisputed world title center of the universe. Promoters discovered that Strip casinos were willing to bid more for fights than the aging venues in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere. Casinos didn’t mind losing at the gate if they could make it up by attracting more gamblers to the tables. The principle still applies in Macau, which is much more dependent on “whales” (high rollers) than Las Vegas ever was.
If boxing in Macau can attract the whales its casinos are after, promoters could follow the money there just as they followed it to Las Vegas fifty years ago.
But wouldn’t it seriously injure boxing in the U.S. if a significant percentage of big fights move to Macau? Yes, it would. But boxing has long shown a tendency to self-destruct in pursuit of the quick buck. Unlike big-time team sports, it doesn’t have a league organization that might take the long view. That’s how pay per view became such a dominant force, turning off millions of fight fans as fringe sports like golf, tennis, and lately mixed martial arts generated new interest.
Anyone who says Macau couldn’t possibly make such a bold move in boxing topple should take a good look at the history of U.S. manufacturing over the last forty years.
Ivan G. Goldman’s boxing novel The Barfighter was nominated as a 2009 Notable Book by the American Library Association. Information HERE