Few people have heard of Liu Gang, but the 50-year-old has a claim to be one of the most influential figures in the history of professional boxing.
Over more than two decades, Liu has almost single-handedly — and from scratch — built up the sport in the world’s most populous nation. He was one of China’s first amateur boxers, a member of its first Olympic boxing team, and then became the first Chinese fighter to turn professional.
China’s first batch of elite amateur boxers pose for a team photo with their Chinese and foreign coaches in Beijing, 1990. Courtesy of Liu Gang
After hanging up his gloves, Liu opened China’s first professional boxing gym and became the country’s first pro boxing promoter. Since then, he has guided young Chinese fighters to a string of professional titles — including two world championship belts.
Now middle-aged, Liu remains baby-faced and a whirlwind of energy. Meeting Sixth Tone in a hotel lobby in the southwestern city of Kunming, he launches into an account of his journey into the sport. It all began, he says, with a visit from Muhammad Ali.
When Liu was a child, boxing didn’t exist in China. The sport had been banned since 1956. It was only reintroduced 30 years later, when Ali traveled to China and met with the country’s leader, Deng Xiaoping.
“Ali touched Deng’s fist and said, ‘Your fist is very hard. I can help China make many champions,’” says Liu, with a grin. “It’s a true story!”
Soon after this meeting, the Chinese sports authorities received instructions to restart amateur boxing. Scouts fanned out across the country to xuan miao, or “select saplings” — pick out talented kids to be made into the People’s Republic’s first boxers.
Among those identified in the first round of selections in 1986 was Liu, then a wiry 15-year-old middle school student in Luzhou, a city straddling the Yangtze River in southwest China’s Sichuan province.
“Why me? First, because I loved every sport, and … I think I wanted it more than others,” says Liu. “I was mentally tough.”
Liu immediately agreed to go to a ti xiao, or sports boarding school, in the provincial capital Chengdu to learn how to box. He’d never been a great student and knew that at ti xiao, sports took priority over the classroom. There was just one problem: Liu had no idea what sport he was going to be practicing.
“I was very confused. Is it fighting? Is it like martial arts?” Liu recalls. “Our coach said, ‘It’s a sport from Western countries.’”
Liu Gang and his boxers train at Liu’s M23 gym in Beijing. Courtesy of Liu Gang
At first, Liu was delighted to be done with studying. But then, the training started.
“Ten-kilometer runs at 6 a.m., then weights, then physical training, bag training,” Liu shakes his head. “After lunch, we trained till 6 p.m. We trained six hours a day, six days a week.”
“Sparring was just like a street fight,” he continues, lowering his head and throwing looping punches. “Bang, bang, bang! Lots of blood … We didn’t have good quality gloves. They were very hard, like this.” He raps his knuckles on the table.
But the hardest thing of all was making the weight for competitions, which required training at full intensity while cutting down his food intake.
“I was only 18 … I thought, I can’t do this anymore,” says Liu. “But I didn’t want to go back to studying, I wanted to be an athlete. And I was proud to be part of the provincial team, with my uniform that says ‘Sichuan.’”
In 1988, Liu took part in China’s first national amateur boxing championships. He didn’t get a medal, but he caught the attention of the coaches and was selected to train with the national team.
The Chinese team’s first overseas foray was a harsh reality check. At an international tournament in North Korea, the Chinese fighters got trounced.
The lesson was learned, and China brought in foreign coaches: Soviet, North Korean, and Cuban. Their expertise proved to be a game-changer.
“Foreign coaches were very important to us,” says Liu. “My Cuban coach, Pedro Diaz, I love that guy.”
Liu Gang and Pedro Diaz in the 1990s. Courtesy of Liu Gang
Diaz moved to China to prepare the Chinese team for the 1990 Asian Games. It was a breakout success: Just four years after boxing was reintroduced to the country, China won one gold, five silvers, and one bronze.
Two years later, guided by Diaz, Liu and three other Chinese boxers made history by qualifying for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
“We achieved great things together,” Diaz tells Sixth Tone. “I think I learned more from the Chinese than they did from me — not only philosophy and culture, but also about life and work.”
China’s first Olympic boxing team are pictured at the Barcelona Games in 1992. Their Cuban coach Pedro Diaz is in the center, while Liu Gang stands to his right. Courtesy of Liu Gang
Diaz still works closely with Liu to this day. He now coaches one of his top young fighters — Xu “The Monster” Can, who claimed the World Boxing Association (WBA) featherweight title in 2019.
“I think of Liu Gang as family,” Diaz says.
In Barcelona, Liu lost in the first round, but he took it in stride. He was already looking beyond the amateur game. “I decided to go overseas and turn professional. I was 23 — a good age to try something new,” he says.
His friends and family were horrified. “What? Professional? No head guard? Like Mike Tyson on TV? Too dangerous, don’t go!” Liu laughs.
Liu Gang poses for a photo with Australian professional boxing legend Jeff Fenech after winning an amateur bout in Australia, 1994. Courtesy of Liu Gang
In 1994, once he’d saved enough for a plane ticket, Liu flew to Australia to try and make it as a pro boxer. He took a string of blue-collar jobs — working in a restaurant, as a cleaner, and in a factory — to make ends meet. After his shift, he’d head to the gym for training.
“Nobody spoke Chinese — my friends, landlord, and coach were all Australian,” recalls Liu. “Very quickly, I could communicate in English.”
Liu officially became China’s first pro boxer in 1996, but tragedy struck in his very first professional fight, against Australian featherweight champion Lance Hobson.
In the sixth round, Hobson suddenly collapsed. He died from a brain haemorrhage the following day.
“I couldn’t understand it — a young man, just 23, and now he is dead,” says Liu. “I was crushed.”
Liu says he’s still deeply grateful to Hobson’s parents, who went out of their way to support him after their son’s death.
“They are a great family,” he says. “His mother and father went on TV and said, ‘This was an accident. We don’t want people to blame Liu Gang — he came to Australia to change his life.’”
In the end, Liu’s pro career lasted just two years, but he decided to stay in Australia to earn his promoter’s license. Several years later, he returned to China with a network of professional connections and a thick Aussie accent.
Settling in the southwestern city of Kunming, Liu set to work trying to build a professional boxing scene in China. He registered China’s first pro boxing promotional company and opened the country’s first professional boxing gym.
Things started slow. Liu’s first pro boxing show attracted a meager audience. TV networks showed little interest. But then, he had a stroke of luck.
In 2005, Liu’s show became a hit when a local boxer named Xu “The Tiger of Chuxiong” Congliang defeated the Thai fighter Pongsit Wiangwiset to win the World Boxing Council (WBC) Asia championship, Chinese boxing’s first pro title.
China’s first male professional boxing champion, Xiong Chaozhong, speaks during an award ceremony. Courtesy of Liu Gang
Then, in 2008, a coal mine laborer called Xiong Chaozhong walked into Liu’s gym. After seeing videos of Mike Tyson, Xiong had moved to Kunming from a village 300 kilometers away — where he’d been pushing carts loaded with coal for 10 yuan (then $1.4) a day — hoping to start a new career as a boxer. He had no boxing experience whatsoever.
Yet in just six years, Liu guided Xiong to a WBC minimumweight world title, making him China’s first male world champion in professional boxing. Xiong’s journey from a coal mine to the top of professional boxing captivated China and raised the profile of the sport in the country.
Liu is now China’s top boxing promoter. His company, Max Power, works with industry heavyweights such as Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. In 2018, Liu opened a large, modern gym called M23 in Beijing, where he trains boxers from every corner of the country. His boxing shows are now shown on China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s national broadcaster.
Several of Liu’s fighters have become Asian champions and youth world champions in recent years. Flyweight Wulan Tuolehazi and cruiserweight Zhang Zhaoxin have challenged for world titles.
But Liu’s biggest success has been masterminding the rise of his second world champion: Xu “The Monster” Can. Like Xiong, he came from poverty to reach the top of his sport.
Xu Can is hoisted into the air after winning the WBA world title by defeating Jesus Rojas in Houston, Texas, 2019. Courtesy of Liu Gang
“Xu Can was born very poor,” says Liu. “His father was making bread, selling it on the street. His family would stay somewhere for one or two years, then move to another city.”
Xu’s father was obsessed with martial arts — he had even changed his own name to Xiaolong, or “Little Dragon,” Bruce Lee’s Chinese name. In 2012, he moved his family to Kunming so his son could train at Liu’s gym. The family collected bottles for recycling and sold bread in the streets to support themselves in the city.
Seven years later, with Pedro Diaz in his corner, Xu outpointed Puerto Rico’s Jesus Rojas to win the WBA featherweight title in front of a packed arena in Houston, Texas.
“We made a champion and we flew the Chinese flag in America,” says Liu, grinning broadly.
Liu takes great pride in his fighters’ achievements inside the ring, but says that the ultimate aim is for them to become successful and independent after their fighting days are over. He points out Zhang Xingxin, a retired former Asian and world youth champion, sitting in the next seat.
“In his first fight, he made 500 yuan,” says Liu. “Now, he has two boxing gyms, a family, and a daughter.”
The Sichuanese feels certain the best has yet to come. China now has plenty of talented, hungry young fighters, he says. It’s only a matter of time before more of them become world champions.
“I want to help these poor kids,” he says. “Chinese people’s mentality has changed. I’m confident that China has a market for professional boxing. I have plans.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Liu Gang poses for a photo, Feb. 10, 2022. Li Pasha for Sixth Tone)