By Francisco Salazar
To say that the sport of boxing has changed over the course of decades is an understatement to say the least. Boxing is no longer on network television, some sports fans probably would not be able to tell you who holds a title in the Heavyweight division, and the UFC is gaining in popularity. Promoter Dino Duva is well aware of the state of boxing and feels that the talent pool is slowly disappearing in this country. Which led him halfway around the world to China last year during the Beijing Olympics. After watching four, yes four Chinese amateur boxers gain medals as opposed to one lone American (Deontay Wilder), it was then that Duva decided to make things happen.
Duva and Richard Davimos have announced a new partnership, D & D Global, in an attempt to promote fighters from China into the professional ranks.
One of the fighters D & D Global hopes will make a international splash is Zhang Zhilei. He was introduced to the media recently at the upscale Tao restaurant in New York City. Zhilei is a Super Heavyweight who won the Silver medal in last year’s Olympic games, losing to Roberto Cammarelle of Italy.
For Duva, who watched him compete in person in Beijing, feels he has what it takes in the professional ranks. It will be a while before he makes his professional debut, but Duva is eager to get him started with the right people around him.
D & D Global announced an agreement between them and the Chinese Boxing Federation, where not only Zhilei, but other members of the Chinese national team would train and compete under both entities.
For Duva, this is a long term project that he is eager to get off the ground, but patient to see all fighters improve to compete at the highest level.
“This is a broad comprehensive program to develop and commercialize these young fighters from China,” said Duva, who is the son of legendary trainer, Lou Duva. “Four boxers from China won medals last year. We want to continue to develop these fighters so they could be strong fighters in the professional ranks.”
Staying close within the family, the Chinese Boxing Federation sought out the services of Lou Duva. Although he was hired to oversee these fighters, Duva brought in fellow trainers Al Mitchell and Charles Mooney.
For Mitchell, who trained the late Vernon Forrest to name a few of the fighters he has trained, he sees plenty of upside in Zhilei.
“He’s a very hard worker in the gym,” stated Mitchell, who was quick to point out that at 255 pounds, Zhilei moved well on his feet. “He’s got to be good if he won a silver medal in the Olympics. When I saw the gold medal fight, he lost because it’s what he didn’t do.”
Mitchell also described Zhilei as a good puncher who is a fair boxer. Currently training in the Pocono’s, Zhilei will be joined by the Chinese team, where they will prior to the world championships in Milan.
Mitchell admits that there is a lot of work to be done. Mitchell wants Zhilei to have a better understanding and preparation. Mitchell and Duva want Zhilei to move slowly in learning basic fundamentals, although both admit him picking up on details faster than they thought he would.
Zhilei began boxing at 15 years of age and has been involved in the sport for the last 11 years. He is also an avid athlete who has played soccer and basketball and enjoys playing billiards as well.
Dino Duva feels that Zhilei is very marketable here in this country. Duva points out to his great smile, his marketability, and the fact that he is one of the top five popular athletes in China.
Whether he will pan out to be as popular as his countryman Yao Ming in this country remains to be seen.
Aside from Duva, numerous sponsors are behind Zhilei and the Chinese team. D & D and Adidas have an exclusive contract where Adidas sponsors their apparel. Duva has also negotiated for television stations in China to broadcast future fights in China and abroad.
His father, Lou, summed up best the outlook for Zhilei.
“In the two weeks that we have had him, I’ve never seen a fighter with that much determination other than Evander Holyfield. He wants to learn and he has responded very well. He has done a good job in what he eats. He has done well with two sparring partners and he has improved on his technical movement.”
It would be an understatement that Lou Duva has an eye for talent and thus far, Zhilei has done enough and then some to impress the 86 year old patriarch of the Duva family.
“He’s the best coach in the world,” said Zhilei, almost shy in responding to a reporter’s question. “What has helped me is the techniques I have learned and how much heart I have in wanting to learn. My dream is to one day be a champion.”
As China slowly immerses itself more into the sport of boxing, one might point that China is in the same position as Eastern European and former Soviet-bloc countries were about seven-eight years ago.
Fighters from Uzbekistan to Russia, from Poland to Armenia with strong amateur backgrounds were turning pro and are now contenders or world champions. The proof is in the pudding when looking at the sanctioning body rankings.
Dino Duva has done his homework, so he hopes. But then again, why would he pass up on this opportunity.
“Chinese networks are going crazy wanting to even sponsor and show amateur bouts on television. We see a lot of upside with Zhang. We see him being a world champion within five years.”