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10:38 pm
Mon August 25, 2014

China's 'Great Wall' Takes A Hit At U.S. Heavyweight Boxing

Originally published on Tue August 26, 2014 6:47 am

In boxing, it's not often that the first fight of the night gets a lot of attention. But at Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco last month, the fans, the announcers, even the viewers watching the broadcast on FOX Sports One were all captivated by the boxer in the blue corner.

"Tonight he makes his professional debut and joins us from Beijing, China," chimed the announcer. "Here is The Great Wall: Taishan!"

Taishan Dong is a mountain of a man in every sense of the word. His name comes from Mount Taishan, one of China's five sacred mountains. At 6 feet 11 and 285 pounds, the 26-year-old Chinese boxer towers over his opponents in the ring.

Announcers call him the Great Wall. His promoters call him the soon-to-be Yao Ming of American boxing. But JianJun Dong — his real name — just prefers Taishan, because someday he hopes to tower over the sport of heavyweight boxing like Mount Taishan over China's Shandong province.

Dong says he hiked to the top of Mount Taishan six years ago and liked the feeling he got looking down.

"I want to feel that way with boxing," he said through an interpreter.

Heavyweight Boxing's Next Big Thing?

The stage is set for a new challenger in the sport's marquee division.

There's an old adage in boxing: "As goes the heavyweight division, so goes the boxing business." Lately — here, in the U.S. — the going has been slow.

For the better part of the past decade, the world heavyweight scene had been dominated by two Ukrainian brothers, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. Vitali has retired and is now the mayor of Kiev. Wladimir, 38, is said to be nearing retirement. Below him, there are no clear successors.

That's got every promoter in the sport looking for the next big thing. Physically, Dong certainly qualifies. He has signed with Golden Boy Promotions, one of the largest promoters in the sport.

At Longshoreman's Hall, Dong went to work on his opponent, the 6-foot-3 Alex Rozman. In the second round, a jab to the top of Rozman's head knocked the former bodybuilder to the mat and out of the fight.

"[His punch] is a battering ram," says John Bray, Dong's trainer.

A Student Of The Sport

Bray and Dong train at the Glendale Fighting Club, north of Los Angeles. In a raised ring at the back of the gym, Bray barks out orders to Dong, counting off punches as Dong strikes at a pad he's holding.

At the end of the session, Bray is drenched in sweat. A former heavyweight and no small man himself, Bray says he doesn't think he could compete with Dong, even in his prime.

"He's just too big," Bray says. More than that, Bray says, Dong is fast and flexible (he can do the splits from a stand), and he's driven.

Dong doesn't speak English. Bray doesn't speak Chinese. But Bray says communication isn't a problem.

"It's boxing," Bray says. "I just show him and he's such a student that he just picks up on this stuff. I work with kids that speak English that don't get it as fast as he does."

Dong competed in basketball and kickboxing before moving to the U.S. That background and his physicality make him unique, says Bill Caplan, his promoter with Golden Boy Promotions.

But Caplan and boxing analysts say Dong still has a long way to go.

"This is a guy that did not have a particularly huge amateur background," says Dan Rafael, senior boxing writer at ESPN. "He's 1-0 against the lowest possible level of opponent that there is."

China Is Ripe With Boxing Talent

Dong is an intriguing prospect, though, Rafael says. And he's only one of a few Chinese fighters who are trying to make names for themselves on the American boxing scene.

Since Chinese boxers medaled in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, boxing's popularity has exploded in China. Dino Duva, a longtime boxing promoter, says it's the country's third most popular sport and is growing fast.

"The professional boxing scene in China is by far the biggest growth area for the future, and it's really, really going to explode here in the next couple of years," Duva says.

That boost in popularity is drawing more athletes. Without a sport like football taking big, strong athletes, China is ripe with new boxing talent. That boost also creates a larger market of fans — a fact not lost on Duva.

"I think that a Chinese heavyweight boxer can be as big as any Chinese athlete that there's ever been," he says.

That's why Duva recently started Dynasty Boxing, a promoting company that focuses on Chinese fighters. His first heavyweight, 2012 Olympic medal winner Zhang Zhilei, recorded a KO in his U.S. professional debut earlier this month.

Duva brought Zhilei to America to train him in a country with a rich boxing tradition and a fan base looking for heavyweights — the same draws that brought Dong to the U.S.

It's a challenge, training in a new country and a new language, but Dong says he's excited for the opportunity.

"I will do my best in boxing," he says. "I hope that all of these people continue to support me down the road."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's been a long time since boxing has captured the American imagination. There was a time when Jack Dempsey, or Jack Johnson, or Joe Louis, or Mohammed Ali dominated the sports scene. There is no equivalent star today. In case you've lost track the world heavyweight scene has been dominated lately by two Ukrainian brothers - Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. Boxing promoters would like to see bigger stars. And some are looking to China for fresh talent. NPR's Nathan Rott met one of the latest imports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And here we go ladies and gentlemen. Our first out tonight...

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: In boxing it's not often that the first fight of the night gets a whole lot of attention. But a few weeks ago at Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco the fans in attendance, the announcers, even the casual viewers watching the broadcast on FOX Sports One were all captivated by the boxer in the blue corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tonight he makes his professional debut and joins us from Beijing, China. Here is the Great Wall - Taishan.

ROTT: At 6'11" and 285 pounds Taishan, the Great Wall, doesn't need much of an introduction to get a room's attention. He has the stature of a comic book hero and that bold-lettered kapow in his punch to back it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here's the right hand and he drops him - right on the top of the head. And that's it.

ROTT: By recording a knock on his in his professional debut, 26-year-old Taishan Dong announced his arrival on the U.S. boxing scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He says his goal is to become the Yao Ming of boxing here in the United States.

ROTT: That may be a little far-fetched for a guy who's only been boxing for a little more than a year. Yao Ming had been playing basketball full-time in China for nearly a decade before he made his U.S. debut. And Taishan knows the comparison's a little bit of a stretch. A few weeks later he refines that statement.

TAISHAN DONG: (Foreign language spoken).

ROTT: He says, the Yao Ming comparison is a complement, but he wants to be known as Taishan. And Taishan's already off to a fast start of accomplishing that goal. He's got a fighting background in Kung Fu and kickboxing. He's already signed with Golden Boy Promotions - one of boxing's biggest promoters. And during his first day back at training after the fight at the Glendale Fighting Club north of Los Angeles, he's already got a gaggle photographers, snapping away as he bounces in circles, slugging at a pad held by his trainer John Bray. After 20 minutes, Bray is drenched in sweat.

ROTT: You need ice?

JOHN BRAY: Oh, man. You see it, huh - what I'm talking about?

ROTT: Bray calls Taishan's punch a battering ram. And Bray's no small man himself. He's six-foot-three and a little rounder than he was in his own days as a professional heavyweight, but you'd still give him your lunch money if he came asking. Outside, he wipes at his brow.

In his prime, you think you could have taken him?

BRAY: No. (Laughing) Too Big.

ROTT: The Bray says, it's more than just his sheer size. It's his desire. Taishan's real name is JianJun Dong. The name Taishan comes from Mount Taishan, the most famous of China's five sacred mountains. Outside of the gym, the boxer explains.

DONG: (Foreign language spoken).

ROTT: A few years ago, I climbed to the top of Mount Taishan, he says. When I got to the top, I looked down and liked the feeling. I want to feel that way with boxing.

The people around Taishan think he can. His promoter, Bill Caplan, says, there's no other boxer like him.

BILL CAPLAN: No. He's unique. He's very unique.

DAN RAFAEL: There's no boxing promoter that didn't want to hype up a big, strong, undefeated heavyweight.

ROTT: That's Dan Rafael, a senior boxing writer at ESPN. Rafael watched Taishan's debut fight, and he says, he was impressed.

RAFAEL: But this is a guy that did not have a particularly huge amateur background. He's one-and-oh against the lowest possible level opponent that there is, so...

ROTT: So he's still got a lot to prove. Now, that's not to say that Taishan doesn't have the potential, and the stage is certainly set. The reigning world heavyweight champ, Vladimir Klitschko, is 38 and said to be nearing retirement. Below him, there's no clear successor. That's got every promoter in the sport looking for the next big thing. And increasingly, they're looking at Chinese fighters. Promoter Dino Duva...

DINO DUVA: The professional boxing scene in China is by far the biggest growth area for the future. And it's going to really, really explode over the next couple years.

ROTT: Duva says that boxing's popularity in China has been soaring since Chinese boxers medaled in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

DUVA: I think a Chinese heavyweight boxer can be as big as any Chinese athlete that there's ever been.

ROTT: That's why Duva recently started Dynasty Boxing, a promoting company that focuses solely on Chinese fighters. His first heavyweight, Zhang Zhilei, recorded a KO in his debut earlier this month. By bringing Zhilei to America, Duva hopes to train him in a country with a rich boxing tradition and a fan base that's looking for heavyweights. Those are the same draws that brought Taishan here. Back at the gym, he says, he looks forward to the challenges ahead.

DONG: (Foreign language spoken).

ROTT: I will do my best in boxing, he says. I hope that all of these people continue to support me down the road. Taishan's next fight has yet to be scheduled, but he hopes it's sooner rather than later. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.