Chris John has designs on turning Singapore, Asia into a boxing destination
Much of WBA featherweight titleholder Chris John’s 14-year, 48 fight career has been fought in his home country of Indonesia and Australia, far away from the United States and HBO’s cameras. John’s two dalliances with American boxing came in 2009 when he had a draw and a competitive unanimous decision victory in a pair of bouts with Rocky Juarez. Otherwise, John has remained an undefeated, if distant champion to western audiences.
The 32-year-old John (46-0-2, 22 knockouts) is universally regarded as Indonesia’s greatest professional boxer ever, and approaching his May 5 title defense against Shoji Kimura (24-4-2, 9 KOs) of Kanagawa, Japan at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, John already has his career’s finish line in sight. The crafty technician says that he has just 5-6 fights left in the tank before retiring next year, and his management doesn’t think a trip back to the States or bouts against division leaders Orlando Salido or Yuriorkis Gamboa are in the cards.
“The Dragon” has plans of his own.
“My first passion is to build boxing in my country Indonesia and to build boxing in Asia,” John tells THE RING. “I would like to one day be the ambassador for boxing in Indonesia to help every aspect of the sport, help boxers have opportunities, help trainers learn more. Even help promoters in all of our Indonesian provinces be able to give fighters avenues to fight.
“But this is after I retire. For now I must win every fight my team arrange for me.”
John’s challenger Kimura is coming off of a ten-round split decision victory over former WBA super bantamweight titleholder Ryol Li Lee in January, but prior to that hadn’t fought in nearly two years after losing by a fourth round knockout to then-WBA super bantamweight titleholder Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym in 2010.
“I know he won’t be running, he’s Japanese and a proud fighter,” said John.
“He has moved up to featherweight and said at the press conference that he is much stronger at featherweight,” John continues on Kimura. “He trained for one year before his first fight at featherweight. I am confident the fight won’t go the distance. I will knock him out him. I have made this promise to my Indonesian fans. For the first time I am going all out for the knock out.”
John vs. Kimura will be the first boxing event at the Marina Bay Sands resort, which opened up in 2010 and bills itself as the world’s most expensive standalone casino property with a total cost of 8 billion Singaporean dollars.
Where there are casinos, boxing is sure to follow. Singapore, with just two casinos (Resorts World Sentosa being the other), is now the third largest Casino market in the world after pulling in $5.42 billion in gaming revenues last year, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In an Associated Press article from last June, Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, predicted that Singapore will soon usurp Las Vegas as the world’s second largest casino market, despite having 53 fewer casinos than the Las Vegas strip.
Singapore, with its quickly growing economy and burgeoning tourism market, appears to be an untapped market in the boxing-rich region of southeast Asia. Boxing has not been a priority in Singapore since gaining its sovereignty from England and Malaysia in 1965.
Prior to that, Singapore was a busy boxing destination, with fighters like Ignacio Fernandez of the Philippines, Ventura Marquez of Mexico and the Sands Brothers from Australia fighting there frequently in the 30s and 40s. THE RING’s founder Nat Fleischer even took trips out to Singapore to cover boxing events.
In recent times, few boxing events have taken place in Singapore, due in large part to the fact that just one professional boxer – 5-1 (4 KOs) bantamweight Mohamad Nor Rizan – is currently active in the country. The lack of boxing influence in Singapore makes it an attractive, neutral territory for meaningful fights.
“I think if we had a few more local attractions, we’ll see greater interest and growing crowds,” said Nor Rizan, who fights on the May 5 undercard. “But it’s a catch 22 situation – promoters are not prepared to continue to lose money, and young boxers are reluctant to turn pro because they cannot be assured of regular work. At least in the amateurs they would still be able to aspire to represent the country at the various major amateur tournaments, as well as the Olympic, Asian, Commonwealth and South East Asian Games.”
Currently, there is no government-controlled boxing commission in Singapore to oversee professional boxing. The Singapore Sports Council’s website lists only an amateur boxing commission; an email and phone call to its secretary R. Balasubramaniam were not immediately returned by the time of press.
Barry Pestana, who prior to training Nor Rizan and others out of Australia worked as a boxing writer in 70s and 80s, says that there are laws governing the promotion of all combat sports and that they are incorporated into laws administered by the police.
“Right now the system works well. It is uncomplicated and covers areas such as safety,” said Pestana. “Promoters are accountable. I don’t think there is any need to change the system just yet, and to bring in another bureaucracy.”
Still, Craig Christian – John’s manager – believes that Singapore and the Sands in particular can become a boxing destination in Asia, much the way that Las Vegas draws fighters from all over the world to America.
“If everything goes to plan we will be able to get the big names to Singapore if they’re too scared to go to Indonesia,” said Christian. “Marina Bay Sands is giving us a great opportunity to showcase boxing in Singapore and to show how good ‘The Dragon’ really is. It is great for the sport of boxing, great for the boxing fans of Singapore and Asia who have not had the opportunity to see the big fights in Asia.”
Scott Mallon, vice president of Top-Rated Promotions in Thailand, feels the same way. Mallon’s company promoted a show in Singapore in 2010, which was the the most recent event in the country. Mallon likens Singapore to Hong Kong in that, since they aren’t a big boxing hotbed, they aren’t as fixated on stars as American or UK fans; they just want to see evenly-matched, exciting fights.
“Both are considered neutral territories in that Hong Kong and Singapore have very few of their own boxers and none that are anywhere near world class,” said Mallon. “Also, the Chinese like to gamble and in my opinion legal wagering on the sport in both countries would bolster interest. This is not to say this is the only way the sport in these countries will make it to the level of say Atlantic City but I think it will take at least five years, closer to ten, before high-dollar sponsors climb on board.
Still, Mallon reserves his doubts.
“I’m not so convinced this will happen, but all it takes is a casino like Marina Bay with the upcoming show or a wealthy businessman who loves the sport and boxing is on the fast track.”
Western perceptions have usually been that a fighter must prove himself in America to be considered “real”. With most international boxing media sources being based in the United States and United Kingdom, the belief to some is, ‘If I haven’t seen them, they don’t matter’.
“Yes some people do believe this, but they are mostly American,” said Australian-based promoter Angelo Hyder, the event’s organizer. “Japan is a great country for boxing, they don’t worry too much about America. Europeans do fine in Europe and the UK fighters do fine in the UK. Asian fighters are dominant in the lighter weights so we plan to open Asia up.”
All issues in boxing come down to money. If boxing catches on in Singapore, the funds could be there to draw major boxing talent. Hyder is confident that Singapore can sustain world class boxing, if not quite on the level of Vegas.
“Well, it depends on who you mean. The Floyd Mayweathers and Manny Pacquiaos? No. But remember we already promoted (Juan Manuel) Marquez vs. Chris John in Indonesia, a fight Chris John won. Main event fighters like Vic Darchinyan? Yes. Australia’s number one boxer Danny Green? Yes.
“This young Filipino (Lorenzo Villanueva) with 24 wins and 23 knock outs against Daud Yordan (in the co-featured bout), is that not a great fight?”
With few notable challenges based in Asia, John has had slim pickings in recent bouts, which included a clash with the aforementioned Yordan, who is considered the second best Indonesian fighter today. Christian points to John’s victories over Juan Manuel Marquez in 2006 and Derrick “Smoke” Gainer in 2005 as evidence of a career well-spent in the eastern hemisphere.
And if someone is hoping to take John’s belt, they’re going to have to get their passports ready to do so.
“Chris has fought whoever we have put in front of him and never questioned us once,” said Christian. “Now it’s Chris John’s aim to put Asian boxing on the map and Marina Bay Sands is giving him the opportunity to do that. If any fighter wants a shot at Chris, they know where to fight him.”