Bernard Fernandez

Top Rank stakes its claim in Olympic gold rush

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They say that history repeats itself. Must be true. Top Rank’s signing of four gold medalists from the 2012 London Olympics constitutes the biggest talent grab from a single Olympics since Main Events elevated from a modest mom-and-pop operation to major-player status by skimming the cream from the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

But while there are similarities between what now-deceased Main Events president Dan Duva did 29 years ago – his company’s Olympic bonanza included gold medalists Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland and Tyrell Biggs, silver medalist Virgil Hill and bronze medalist Evander Holyfield – and what Top Rank founder Bob Arum is undertaking now, there is one very distinct difference.

All of the Main Events Olympians were Americans; the fighters to whom Arum is largely pinning Top Rank’s future are from far-flung foreign locales. Chinese flyweight Zou Shiming, Ukrainian featherweight Vasyl Lomachenko, Russian light heavyweight Egor Mekhontsev and Japanese middleweight Ryota Murata all figure to be box-office smashes in and around their own countries, but will their professional boxing careers also hit big in the United States? Do they even have to?

“The world is shrinking,” Arum, who turned 82 on Dec. 8, said of Top Rank’s expansion into emerging and expectedly profitable markets. “It’s not necessarily a global strategy on our part, but I guess it is to some extent.

“We could have continued doing what we had been doing, which is to put fights on in the United States with primarily American and Mexican fighters. And, indeed, we will continue to do that. But then I saw the opportunity to extend our reach all over the world, particularly with the Chinese fighters (Top Rank has three others, all non-Olympians, under contract.) There is a hunger for our product in places like China. We’re already attracting tremendous turnouts in Macau. Pacquiao-Rios will be our third event there, and our biggest by far.”

Nobody has to explain to Arum about the necessity for a profitable bottom line. And if it’s good business to take Top Rank’s show on the road – really distant roads, at that – his passport is going to continue getting stamped. What was the credo that led Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to break the Watergate story wide open? Follow the money.

alt“The reason all the big boxing shows pretty much drifted to Las Vegas was because boxing attracts gaming,” Arum said. “But Macau is Las Vegas on steroids. It now does nine times the business of all the casinos in Nevada. When you realize that, it’s a no-brainer for us to establish a presence in China.”

Somewhat interestingly, two-time gold medalist Zou Shiming, the cornerstone of Top Rank’s China policy, is widely regarded as having the least upside, at least from a boxing standpoint, of the four Olympic champions who will fight under the company’s banner. But his popularity in his homeland is such that his to-date bumpy transition from the amateurs to the pros probably doesn’t matter much.

“The bigger-weight guys (Lomachenko, Mekhontsev and Murata), I think, will translate well to the United States when they fight in the United States,” Arum continued. “But their succeeding here is not the be-all and end-all. I mean, look at (middleweight champion Gennady) Golovkin. People in America and everywhere else want to watch him because he’s a tremendous, very entertaining fighter. Ruslan Provodnikov, Art Pelullo’s fighter, same thing. These Eastern European kids are real warriors.”

The most advanced, pro-ready of Arum’s 2012 gold medalists is Lomachenko, 25,who also took gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lomachenko posted an insane 396-1-1 record as an amateur, and he turned pro by scoring a fourth-round knockout of Mexico’s Jose Ramirez, who entered with a 25-3 record and had not previously been stopped as a pro. Negotiations are in progress to have Lomachenko challenge WBO 126-pound titlist Orlando Salido (40-12-2, 28 KOs) in January.

“Lomachenko, to me, is the most interesting of the Top Rank Olympians because he’s simply the best,” said Teddy Atlas, who is familiar with them all, having commented on the last four Olympic boxing competitions for NBC. “He’s a versatile fighter, but more importantly, he’s a real fighter. He’s a fighter in every way. I have it in my mind that he’s going to knock Salido out. Lomachenko can fight inside, he can fight outside, he can box, he can use his legs, he can counter a little bit. He’s intelligent in the ring. And, obviously, he has supreme confidence that he can become just what he says he will.”


Photo: Jeff Bottari-Getty Images; Chris Farina-Top Rank


 

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