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Monday, March 10, 2014
Duva unveils new Chinese import

By Michael Woods

Zhang
Dino Duva & Co. are hoping to attract eyeballs in China with Zhang Zhilei.
Oh, the eyeballs.

That massive population in China has some of the dealmakers in the biz pondering the possibilities if even a mere minute fraction of Chinese take to professional boxing, and start to follow the fortunes of some of their nation's top pugilists.

Dino Duva, a New Jersey-based dealmaker who, with his father, Lou; his late brother, Dan; and really the entire Duva clan, promoted stellar pugilists like Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker, has been laying the groundwork for a Chinese invasion into the pro ranks for several years. Today, along with partners Terry and Tommy Lane, he pulled back the curtain on a 6-6, 240-pound heavyweight from China named Zhang Zhilei, a lefty who they believe can fill the vacuum which will need attending when both the Klitschko brothers have exited the game.

"I think Zhang has the ability to be a contender within two years," Duva said at a press luncheon held at Tao on East 58th St. in New York Monday to herald Dynasty Boxing.

I can't speak to that statement, but I did note one attribute the 30-year-old hitter, who relied on translator Kurt Li to communicate with the fight media, showed off.

I was very discouraged about pro boxing. This has been a breath of fresh air. I don't want to diss American boxers, but dealing with a guy like this as an athlete, compared to the BS I put up with ...

-- Dino Duva
His portion control was superb, besting my own, as he steered away from anything deep fried and merely picked at petite morsels. Zhang arrived in the States on Saturday, and Duva said he will soon pick out a house for the fighter in which to live. The promoter expects Zhang, who won a super-heavy silver at the 2008 Olympics but was bumped in the quarters in the 2012 Games by eventual gold medalist Anthony Joshua, to debut pretty soon, perhaps in May. He will meet some trainers and see which one he has a rapport with, before choosing a tutor.

"Thank you for coming, I'm happy to be in New York," Zhang stated in halting-but-comprehensible English. Duva said he will be getting English lessons ASAP, and Terry Lane, a beast on Twitter, told me that Zhang's numbers on the Chinese equivalent, Weibo, are picking up steam.

A rough plan would be doing maybe six shows in the U.S., in various locations around the nation where the Chinese population might come out to see the big man rumble, and then perhaps do a gig in Macau. The blossoming of Yao Ming, the former center for the Houston Rockets, isn't lost on Duva or the Lanes of course.

Duva told me he finds himself refreshed with Zhang's attitude. He said that the boxer shows humility and lacks the sense of entitlement which the promoter had come to be semi-disgusted by. Duva helmed heavyweight WBC heavyweight champ Samuel Peter, who offered an underwhelming prep session and effort against Vitali Klitschko, and said he's pleased to be taking this route. He expects to announce more signings -- more Chinese hitters looking to turn pro -- in the coming weeks. The Chinese hired Duva as a consultant back in 2009, and he brought in trainers and helped run their national program with a concrete notion that he'd replenish his stable with Chinese fighters.

Duva soaked up the culture and noted that a Jersey-style directness in negotiations wouldn't play. It's wiser to allow a deal to unfold in a gentler fashion, and let the subject you want to do business with come to you, he learned. Duva said that Zhang, from a small village in Henan Province, is taking a risk turning pro, as the government would continue to take care of him, with a stipend, housing and covering education costs for his family. But the fighter wants to test himself and see how he stacks up.

And, he'd love some of those 1.3 billion eyeball possessors to follow his progress. Duva said a weekly pro boxing show, which features clips of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao and the like, is seen by around 30 million fight fans on TV -- per week. The sport's popularity is increasing, he said, as countryman Zou Shiming, who is promoted by Top Rank, is getting work on cards put together by Bob Arum. Duva thinks Zhang will be a better pro than Zou, and is hoping folks in China will start wrapping their brain around paying extra for pay per view. Zhang told me the Chinese mostly won't pay extra for premium channels. "That's just their habit," he said.

China is still transitioning and figuring out how to employ capitalistic methods. To me, Zhang seems to have a pretty healthy handle on capitalism.

"The more fans I attract, the more successful my career will be," he said. "I know the benefits of pay per view. But in China now there is no such thing. I'd like to do pay per view. Earning money is part of life. It is important ... but I love boxing."

Seems to me that Duva knows his guy will perform better if he acclimates nicely, and so the promoter is doing his best to help the big fella fit in. "When the weather gets better, we will be taking him to the beach. The Jersey Shore."

Duva has spent enough decades in the sport to know that too much long-term planning is a fool's errand. So he isn't promising the world from his new talent. But even if Zhang doesn't snag all the post-Klitschko buzz and belts, at the very least, this foray into small-world talent scouting and marketing has done Duva's psyche wonders. "I was very discouraged about pro boxing," he admitted while chewing on some stir-fried greens. "This has been a breath of fresh air. I don't want to diss American boxers, but dealing with a guy like this as an athlete, compared to the B.S. I put up with ..."