Amateur boxing league breaking ground around world

Rau’shee Warren still can’t believe he’s getting paid to live

two dreams.

The former U.S. Olympic boxer and amateur world champion from

Cincinnati spends his afternoons slugging a heavy bag in a spartan

gym alongside his teammates with the Los Angeles Matadors. Pursuing

his sport has been mostly a solitary and unprofitable endeavor

until this summer, when he joined the World Series of Boxing for

its inaugural season.

”When I heard about this in Beijing two years ago, I was

thinking it was just a rumor,” Warren said. ”That isn’t going to

work. How are they ever going to make that work? You can’t go pro

and still be an amateur.”

He can in the audacious World Series of Boxing, a 12-team

intercontinental boxing league masterminded by a Taiwanese

architect who is attempting to alter the fundamental nature of an

amateur sport long considered irretrievably fractious and

corrupt.

Warren still plans to become the first three-time Olympian in

American boxing history, and he’s also making money in a league of

amateur boxers fighting both for team championships and individual

qualification for the London Olympics.

”This is the dream right here,” Warren said. ”I’ve talked to

guys in the pros now, guys who I used to train with, guys who I

went to the Olympics with, and they can’t believe this opportunity.

Every one of them says they wish this thing was around when they

were in my position. This is a new day in boxing.”

Just four years after the improbable idea was concocted, and two

years after WSB President Wu Ching-kuo publicly floated the idea in

Beijing to much eye-rolling, the International Boxing Association

(AIBA) has willed it into existence. The first matches are Nov. 19,

when the Incheon Red Wings will host the Astana Arlans in South

Korea, several hours before the Matadors visit the Miami Gallos

half a world away.

For the first time on such a vast scale, amateur boxers will be

paid to compete while retaining their Olympic eligibility – a

condition taken for granted in nearly every other Olympic sport.

Boxing is two generations behind due to its heavy physical toll,

declining popularity and Byzantine amateur structure.

Wu’s dark business suits and academic demeanor belie an

evangelical zeal for his rough-and-tumble sport. While many boxing

experts believe the WSB can’t possibly make enough money to

survive, Wu fairly brims with ideas for sponsorship, marketing and

expansion.

”When people see this competition, they will see this is a new

product that’s like nothing else,” Wu said. ”There will be great

curiosity to see boxing from a team standpoint. For the last four

years, we’ve been laying the foundation. Now we have a new

construction, a new culture. Everything is in place. When we

continue, we will really make the roots start to grow.”

Wu has help from IMG, the American marketing and management

giant, and disciples scattered across the world who buy into his

vision of untapped commercial potential in the sport’s

long-declining amateur ranks that once produced every great fighter

from Cassius Clay to Oscar De La Hoya.

Dozens of boxers spread across teams from Memphis to Azerbaijan

are spending the winter living and training together while fighting

five-round bouts in team competitions every few weeks. The fighters

won’t wear amateur headgear, and they’ll be judged on the 10-point

pro scoring system.

”If we want athletes to see a future in boxing, we need

something to help them make a career,” Wu said.

The Matadors mostly live together in an apartment complex down

the street from their gym. Coach Manny Robles rousts them at 5 a.m.

daily for road work in every corner of Los Angeles – Mondays at the

beach, Tuesdays on Signal Hill, Wednesdays on the Compton College

track. They did an 8-mile run through Griffith Park last Saturday,

but many weekends will be taken up by competition.

Robles, a former fighter with an extensive coaching background

in the amateur and pro ranks, also had trouble believing the WSB

was real until he was offered the chance to replace the Matadors’

initial coach three weeks ago.

”This is what everybody in this sport has been looking forward

to for their whole careers,” Robles said. ”We’re getting what we

can’t find anywhere else. We’re being treated like human beings,

which is all we ever wanted in this sport.”

The boxers aren’t making exorbitant money, but they also get

health coverage and living expenses. The league minimum is around

$25,000, with bigger names making bigger salaries, and each fighter

can earn bonuses for victories.

The WSB also addresses perhaps the two biggest complaints about

amateur boxing in North America. The fights won’t use the

much-derided electronic punch-based amateur scoring system and the

fighters’ individual coaches can be actively involved in their

training, a longtime issue for fighters who don’t like national

team coaches changing their style.

”We want their coaches to take part, to come in at any time,”

Robles said. ”We’re not trying to change their styles. We’re

trying to make them better. These are made fighters already. We’re

not teaching them how to throw a jab.”

Robles still isn’t certain how the team aspect of the WSB will

affect his job, but he’s already thinking about how to rest

fighters, and how to get scouting reports on their opponents to

create favorable matchups.

”We know we’re fighting five rounds, but we don’t really know

what we’re up against,” Robles said. ”That’s going to be part of

the process about learning how this league is going to go

down.”

The league is split into three continental divisions of four

teams each. Los Angeles, Miami, the Mexico City Guerreros and the

Memphis Force are in the Americas, while Paris United, the Moscow

Kremlin Bears, the Milano Thunder and the Istanbulls are in Europe.

The Asian teams are based in China; South Korea; the Baku Fires in

Azerbaijan; and Astana Arlans in Kazakhstan. All are known for

vibrant amateur boxing scenes.

With matches every two or three weeks, the season will build to

a finale in late May in Macau, with the individual winners in each

of the five classes earning automatic qualification for the 2012

Olympics.

Each team has an intriguing pedigree matching wealth with boxing

talent: The Beijing Dragons are owned by a large real estate

company and will fight at the Venetian Macau resort in the gambling

mecca more than 1,200 miles from Beijing, while the Milan franchise

is sponsored by fashion house Dolce & Gabbana.

Wu believes the league could be particularly popular in India

and China, where amateur boxing has grown exponentially in

popularity after those nations’ success at the Beijing Olympics.

The WSB planned a franchise for Delhi, but couldn’t secure

financial backing in time for the first season.

”The world economic crisis slowed down people’s intentions to

invest, but I never give up,” Wu said. ”I kept searching and

trying to find suitable investors. Boxing is very popular around

the world, but everyone has very different ideas about how to make

the WSB work in their own countries. They all see the commercial

potential.”

Wu stirred up interest from several amateur federations –

including the Kazakh federation, which owns Astana – before landing

an impressive array of corporate partnerships for a startup venture

that has decades of history stacked against its success. While each

franchise is individually owned, AIBA owns 75 percent of the

league, with the remaining equity held by IMG. Advertising,

ticketing, sponsorships and merchandising are controlled by each

team.

Wu isn’t ready to predict when the WSB will be profitable, but

he’s optimistic the low costs and AIBA’s help will allow some

franchises to break even in their first year. Much of that

projection could depend on the WSB’s success in selling television

rights to each market. Some rights have already been sold, but the

league is still in negotiations on an American outlet one week

before its debut.

With so much uncertainty, Warren isn’t the only one wondering

just how Wu will make everything work.

”I admire the initiative and the idea, but I just don’t know

how anybody can make any money doing that,” veteran boxing

promoter Bob Arum said. ”I wish them luck, but I don’t think

people will pay to see that.”

Nobody in the Matadors’ gym is pessimistic about the future

while they go through agility drills and plyometric training.

Although Warren had to leave behind his young son in Cincinnati,

he’s determined to use this golden opportunity to hone his skills

for London and beyond.

”It tells boxers there’s another way,” Warren said. ”You

don’t have to give up on your dreams. It used to be I couldn’t wait

until I turned pro and won a championship. Now I can’t wait to be

in the WSB and win a championship.”