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Can Darchinyan become Armenia’s first boxing star in the U.S.?

09
Jul

Standout Armenian boxer Vic Darchinyan has the potential to tap into the small-but-loyal U.S. Armenian population. If the 33-year-old titleholder doesn't become a ticket seller, he may pave the way for 23-year-old Armenian-American Vanes Martirosyan (pictured) to one day develop into an attraction. Photo by Chris Cozzone – Fightwireimages.com

Promoter Gary Shaw hit the jackpot in many ways when he signed then-undefeated Vic Darchinyan 3¾ years ago.

In that time span, the diminutive but dynamic southpaw has won four major titles in two divisions and shown a willingness to face the best fighters in and around his weight class that borders on obsession.

Darchinyan (32-1-1, 26 knockouts) makes for intense fights and entertaining TV, which is the reason his title challenge against bantamweight beltholder Joseph Agbeko on Saturday in Sunrise, Fla. (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) will be his eighth appearance on Showtime.

However, there’s one thing Darchinyan hasn’t been able deliver in the nine title bouts he’s had in the U.S. — a consistent and significant fan base.

Some say Darchinyan’s size is a detriment to his success in the U.S. Most of his career has been in the flyweight (112 pounds) and junior bantamweight (115) divisions. Others wonder whether Darchinyan, an Australian-based Armenian, would sell more tickets in the U.S. if the had begun his career in America or if he spoke better English.

However, there have been more than a few foreign-born fighters who at least began their careers at or below the bantamweight divisions and were built into bonafide ticket sellers in the U.S.

In the 1970s, boxing’s biggest attractions on the West Coast were bantamweights Ruben Olivares and Carlos Zarate. Neither 118-pound champ from Mexico bothered to learn English.

Manny Pacquiao, who began his career at junior flyweight, debuted as a junior featherweight in the States and is currently the sport’s biggest star. The Filipino icon’s grip on English isn’t much better than Darchinyan’s.

However, unlike Darchinyan, Olivares, Zarate, and Pacquiao are from countries that have proud boxing traditions and very large populations in the U.S.

Shaw doesn’t think it’s impossible for Darchinyan to develop into a ticket seller but he doesn’t believe developing an Armenian fan base for an Armenian fighter in the U.S. is a simple task.

“It can be done,” Shaw said, “especially with a fighter like Vic, but it will be more difficult than building up a Mexican or a Filipino fighter because there aren’t as many Armenians in the U.S. as there are Mexicans and Filipinos.”

That’s an understatement.

The Armenian population in the U.S., which is believed to be between 500,000 and 2 million, pales in comparison to the number of people of Mexican and Filipino descent.

There are over 18 million people of Mexican descent in the U.S., according to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau Report. There are more than 3 million Filipinos living in the U.S., according to Census Bureau data gathered in 2007 (a statistic that doesn’t include about 4 million Filipino-Americans).

There are large Mexican and Filipino populations scattered throughout America, but most Armenians living in the U.S. reside in three California cities — Los Angeles, Fresno and Glendale, where roughly 80,000 of the town’s 200,000 inhabitants are Armenian.

Shaw says it’s not just the relatively small number of Darchinyan’s countrymen in the U.S. that impedes his fan base potential but the small number of world-class Armenian boxers worldwide.

“There aren’t as many Armenian fighters as there are Mexican and Filipino fighters,” Shaw said. “Everybody talks about how Manny (Pacquiao) has brought the Filipinos to boxing, but there were a lot of Filipino fight fans before Pacquiao was on the scene because really good Filipino fighters have been around for decades. That’s not the case with Armenians. I can’t think of any world-class Armenian fighters from the 1980s or the 1990s. Can you?”

Shaw has a point.

In any given month, at least 20 Mexican fighters can be found in THE RING’s ratings (and that doesn’t include Mexican-American fighters). At least 10 RING contenders hail from the Philippines.

There are only three fighters from Armenia who are currently ranked by THE RING: Darchinyan, the magazine’s No. 1-rated junior bantamweight, and middleweight contenders Arthur Abraham (No. 1) and Khoren Gevor (No. 4).

However, Vanes Martirosyan, who may soon join his three countrymen in THE RING’s ratings, believes the time is ripe for an Armenian star to emerge in the U.S.

The undefeated junior middleweight prospect grew up in Glendale, represented the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics and has fought in front of a steadily growing number of Armenian fans since turning pro in 2005.

Top Rank signed Martirosyan because of his obvious talent but also because of the potential to develop him into a regional attraction in Southern California.

However, according Top Rank spokesman Lee Samuels, the promotional company has been repeatedly surprised by the number of enthusiastic Armenian fans that Martirosyan has attracted outside of Southern California.

“They came out to see him in droves when he fought in Houston, and they also supported him in the New York and New Jersey areas,” said Samuels.

Martirosyan acknowledges that Armenians are a small group in comparison to Mexican and Filipino populations, but he says Armenian fight fans are just as loyal.

“We’re patriotic people,” Martirosyan said. “If there’s an Armenian who is good at table tennis, we’ll get behind him and we’ll cheer for him with waving flags.”

However, they’d rather get behind a boxer.

“Armenians love fighters,” Martirosyan said. “We’re tough people with a tough history full of wars and conflict, so we are attracted to fighters. We respect fighters.”

Darchinyan, who suffered a devastating knockout loss to Nonito Donaire in 2007 but quickly rebuilt his reputation by taking on — and beating — the best fighters in the 115-pound division, is the quintessential Armenian fighter. The unified junior bantamweight titleholder is fearless and fiercely proud.

“Vic is already a star in Armenia,” said Martirosyan. “He’s big there. The way Manny Pacquiao is in the Philippines, that’s how it is with Vic in Armenia. He can’t walk down the street without being mobbed by fans.”

But in America?

“Here, I think I probably sell more tickets than Vic,” Martirosyan said. “When we both fought at the Honda Center (in Anaheim, Calif.) in February, I sold a couple of thousand tickets, which is a lot considering that I wasn’t even the headliner.

“But the fight was in Southern California, and I’m from Glendale. I’m more known in America because I was on the U.S. Olympic team, and I’ve been fighting on TV here since I turned pro. So it only makes sense that I would sell more tickets. But I can tell that Armenians are coming out to support Vic, too, especially recently.”

Shaw supports Martirosyan’s observation.

“There was a significant group of Armenians at the Honda Center when Vic defended his titles against Jorge Arce,” said Shaw. “I expected the Mexican fans to be louder than the Armenians, and I don’t think they were.

“Vic is starting to catch fire with Armenian fans, especially in Southern California. But the number is growing elsewhere. The more he wins, the more are willing to drive in or fly in to support him. There are some who flew in from Armenia who are staying at the host hotel here in Sunrise. I think there’s about 10. It’s not much, but it’s a start. If Vic continues to win, I think we can continue to build on what we’re seeing now.”

However, Shaw believes it has to be done in Southern California.

“If he beats Agbeko, his next fight has to be in the L.A. area,” Shaw said. “There we can mix the Armenian fans with the Mexican fans by taking on one of the many Mexican fighters in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. And as you know, Vic dines on Mexican fighters.”

Shaw envisions Darchinyan engaging in future showdowns with the likes of former junior featherweight champ Israel Vazquez and bantamweight contender Abner Mares, both of whom are L.A.-based Mexicans.

Those bouts would indeed sell tickets, but it’s debatable whether they would transform Darchinyan into a bonafide attraction, even if the tiny terror won both fights.

At age 33, time may have run out for Darchinyan.

However, his many fights against top contenders in America may help pave the way for Martirosyan to become the first Armenian boxing star in the U.S.

The 23-year-old prospect believes an Armenian fan base can be a foundation on which a young up-and-comer like himself can build.

“I have a lot of Mexican fans,” Martirosyan said. “Even when I’ve fought Mexican fighters, Mexican fans have approached me after the fight and told me that they like the way I fight.

“I think people who are boxing fans will support anyone who puts on a good show and is looking to fight the best out there. That’s what Vic has been doing for years, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

<Doug Fischer's column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]

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