Manny Pacquiao has much to do to reach Chinese audience

Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao (third from left) and Brandon Rios (second from right) of the US pose after taking to the scale during the official weigh-in event in Macau on Saturday, Nov 23, 2013, one day ahead of their welterweight bout. -- PHOTO:
Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao (third from left) and Brandon Rios (second from right) of the US pose after taking to the scale during the official weigh-in event in Macau on Saturday, Nov 23, 2013, one day ahead of their welterweight bout. -- PHOTO: AFP

MACAU - Manny Pacquiao is the standard bearer of Asian boxing and, for many, he also represents the entire sport, but there is still plenty of work to do to get the Chinese on his side judging by the build-up to Sunday's fight in Macau against Brandon Rios.

There is a huge presence of Filipinos wandering around the Venetian hotel - where the fight will be held - snapping photos in front of murals of the fighter and other promotional material dotted around the complex.

There are also plenty of Western ex-pats thronging McSorley's Ale House as the clock ticks down to the big welterweight clash at the Cotai Arena. Some have made the short hop from Hong Kong while others have flown in from further afield, including the UK, especially for the fight. Australian accents can also be heard above the clink of beer glasses.

But it seems as though the Chinese punters at the gambling tables do not seem to be taking much notice of the buzz that is building for Pacquiao's attempt at redemption.

The casino halls are packed, with many others simply standing watching the games of chance unfold. On Friday it was difficult to navigate a way through the labyrinth of slot machines and card games to reach the media centre. Today it is even busier.

At the weigh-in on Saturday morning though, it was mainly Filipinos and ex-pats who made up the 1500-strong crowd.

And although American promoter Bob Arum is trying to build China's double Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming as the next big thing in this part of the world, there was barely a murmur from the crowd when he got on the scales despite being given a big build-up from MC Michael Buffer.

When I told my Chinese friend, who is a permanent resident in Singapore, that I was coming to Macau to watch Pacquiao and Shiming box, I was met with a blank look.

The taxi driver on the way to Changi Airport also had no idea who Pacquiao was and asked me if he was a heavyweight. When I said he was a welterweight he simply shrugged and said: "I only like heavyweights, small men too boring to watch."

So although Pacquiao is consistently rated as one of the most recognisable sportsmen in the world, it is clear he has not reached everyone.

That is understandable in China, where the sport was banned for many years and so potential fans have probably had little or no exposure to boxing's rich history.

My own love affair with boxing began in 1985 at the age of 12 when I watched Marvin Hagler beat Thomas Hearns. If Chinese fans have no reference points like that, then it's easy to see how it will take time for the sport to develop.

Pitting a Filipino fighter against an America in China was always going to be a risk. If Sunday's show pays off commercially then there will be a platform to build on - if not then it could take years for awareness to be raised to the level where the business is sustainable.

That would also require the kind of money and patience that are often in short supply in the boxing world.