Amateur boxing league breaking ground around world
Rau’shee Warren still can’t believe he’s getting paid to live
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
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
”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
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
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
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
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.”