NEW YORK – The idea seems almost traitorous, or at the very least unpatriotic: a well-respected American boxing promoter helping the Chinese Boxing Association while the U.S. amateur team is in shambles following a disastrous Olympics.
Dino Duva doesn't see it that way. Not by a long shot.
This is about sports and business, not politics.
"It's different, different than what I've done my whole life," says Duva, whose family helped guide U.S. Olympians such as Evander Holyfield and Mark Breland to professional stardom.
For the past two years, ever since he sat inside Workers Indoor Arena during the Beijing Olympics and watched the Chinese team win a surprising four medals, Duva has been helping to reshape boxing in a country that has never had a reason to embrace it.
He got the chance to see the payoff Friday night, when the U.S. and China met in an amateur dual match for the first time on American soil. The event staged at an upscale ballroom on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy, in the heart of Manhattan, served as a showcase for 11 prospects from each country with an eye on competing in the 2012 London Games.
"The Chinese are going to have a good, solid team," says Al Mitchell, an American trainer enlisted by Duva to work with them. "And these fights will go a long way towards seeing who is ready to contend for the Olympics."
While the U.S. team struggled to win a lone bronze medal in Beijing, the culmination of a precipitous decline for USA Boxing, the Chinese pronounced themselves as perhaps the sport's next great power, with two golds among their four medals.
Sitting in the stands, Duva knew he wanted in on it.
After tearing down layers of bureaucratic red tape, Duva managed to strike an agreement with the Chinese Boxing Federation to train and market its fighters, with the idea of commercializing the sport in a country where boxing had been banned before 1986.
"The turning point was the 2008 Olympics, that's when the Chinese team did unbelievable, they shocked the whole Olympic sports community," Duva says. "Once they had some success at the Olympics, the government decided they're going to support and subsidize boxing to become a mainstream sport over there. They didn't know how good they could be."
Already, several members of the Chinese team have visited the United States for extended training camps, where they've worked with some of the best amateur coaches on the East Coast, including Duva's father, Hall of Famer Lou Duva. They're adapting to western training methods and fighting styles, sparring against better competition and improving their English.
They're also learning about the business of boxing. As part of their agreement, Duva has exclusive rights to market them through sponsorships with companies like Adidas.
"We spend more time training in one day here than we do in one week in China," Olympic silver medalist Zhang Zhilei says. "It's very hard, but at the same time it's very enjoyable."
The first test of whether the arrangement was working came last fall in Milan, Italy, when the Chinese team won a pair of bronze medals at the world championships.
An even better gauge of progress came Friday night.
The Chinese won the first two matches in front of a pro-China crowd, before the U.S. rattled off victories in five of the next six — two by tiebreaker and another by a single point.
China swept the final three bouts when its biggest stars — Zhang, Fanlong Meng and Beijing gold medalist Zou Shiming — overwhelmed their American opponents. The Chinese ended up winning six of the 11 matches to the delight of Chinese Boxing Association officials seated ringside.
"China's team has gotten substantially better," says USA Boxing's Julie Goldsticker. "Their style is so unique and different, so it's important to see that style."
Duva understands that some people might question his decision to work with the Chinese team while the U.S. amateur program is rebuilding. But he also points out that this is a business, and business hasn't been very good for boxing in America lately.
"You know what flak I get? A lot of my promoter friends wish they were in this position, they pat me on the back, they think you're going in the right direction," Duva says. "Look, I'm sure there's some cynics, there's always going to be cynics. This is about sports and business for me, I don't get into the politics, nothing like that. That's not me."
Duva hopes that there's a payoff, to be sure. The plan is to not only develop the Chinese amateur team, but to eventually shepherd many of the athletes to the professional ranks.
Zou fights at 108 pounds but has the speed and bravado to become a star, while Zhang is a 6-foot-6, 240-pound southpaw who could make a major splash in a heavyweight division that has grown stale while being dominated by Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko the past few years.
"Our focus right now is the London Olympics, and we definitely have plans for some of them to turn into the pros after that," Duva says. "But during this next two-year timeframe, we're going to have coaching clinics, we're also going to be marketing them — we have a long-term marketing plan — promoting dual matches, generating sponsorship for the team, the individuals.
"It's a whole comprehensive plan," Duva says, "but the first and foremost goal is to teach them to be the best boxers they can be."