AS A KID REX TSO WAS A LOST SOUL, BUT HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY HIS FAMILY, HIS IS NOW MAKING HIS NAME IN THE WORLD OF BOXING. MATHEW SCOTT REPORTS.
The enormity of the occasion had not been lost on Rex Tso. Not for a second. There stood the 27-year-old, arms raised to the rafters, head tilted back, tears flowing down a face that had been beaten red raw.
Ring announcer Michael Buffer had just seconds before read out the judges’ scores – 95-94, 95-94, 96-93 in favour of the Hong Kong fighter over his Philippine opponent Michael Enriquez – and in an instant, Tso knew where his destiny now lay.
As the crowd inside the Cotai Area continued to roar their approval, Tso’s mind had already moved on to the next chapter in a quite incredible journey that sees his record now stand at 16-0 (nine KO’s).
If all goes according to the plan now being set by Tso’s co-promoters Top Rank, Hong Kong’s first professional boxer will on 18 July have a chance to become Hong Kong’s first boxing world champion when he faces off against the WBA super flyweight title-holder, Japan’s Kohei Kono, in Macau.
Tso sobbed and hugged his entourage, but at the same time he was getting right back down to business as he began doing the other thing the very best of fighters do and have always done. He begins preaching to anyone who cares to listen.
“When people think of Hong Kong, I don’t want them to just think of Bruce Lee,” he says. “I want them to think of Rex Tso.”
When you dream, you may as well dream big and that statement reveals the kind of attitude that has taken Tso a long way in a very short time. Be charmed by the smile that he flashes at every opportunity, but don’t let it fool you.
He may well be the most laid-back boxer in pro ranks, but Tso is a fighter first and foremost, as was shown against Enriquez over 10, at times, brutal rounds, where the Hongkonger struggled to find a way under and up through the tight defence of his smaller opponent.
WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF HONG KONG, I DON’T WANT THEM TO JUST THINK OF BRUCE LEE, I WANT THEM TO THINK OF REX TSO.
The will to win was also there for all to see as Tso stood toe-to-toe trading blows with nuggety Thai Ratchasak Kokietgym in their fight in Macau last May. Tso won the bout, but was knocked to the canvas twice in the third round before finding his feet, and his range, and winning the bout by unanimous points.
When it comes to Tso, you’re left with the feeling you’ll never leave ringside wondering what might have been – a trait that might come back to haunt the boxer against Kono – a seasoned pro at 35 years old, a record of 39 fights behind him (30-8-1), and a man brought up in a place where the locals are unfazed when they pluck tuna from the ocean that are five times Tso’s weight.
Tso knows full well just how much work he has in front of him over the next few months, and the rumours around ringside in Macau were that Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach may even been leaned on to help steer him towards that world title.
“To challenge for a world title is just a dream for me,” Tso says. “He [Enriquez] was tough. Very tough. I couldn’t fight my normal fight against him. He was shorter than me and I couldn’t get under him. I took a lot of body shots and that really affected my stamina.”
Tso says he knows the areas he has to work on ahead of the Kono fight.
“Every fight you have, you learn something from it,” he says. “I listen to the people who train me and I learn from them too. I will work on my speed and on my stamina. I will work harder than I have in my life.”
In the fight game they call Tso “The Wonder Kid”, but it’s a moniker that says more about his attitude to life than any extra special skill set he may bring into the ring.
The story goes that as a young fighter testing his talent in the Philippines, Tso was roundly booed by the locals through the early rounds of one fight, but soon won them over with his determination. By the bout’s end the locals were cheering him on, and when that first cheer rose Tso looked up from the fight in wonder and what the hell was going on.
It’s a look that often springs to the fighter’s face still – on the press conference podium, as the referee raised his arm in victory. It’s like Tso still can’t quite believe the crazy journey life is taking him on is really happening.
It seems, he says, a very long way from the Tuen Mun classrooms of his youth, where schooling was far from the young man’s mind.
“I was a terrible student – everybody knows that,” he says.
“I just wasn’t interested in school or the subjects I was being taught. I really couldn’t find any inspiration. For a while there I just didn’t know where I was going in my life or what I might end up doing. I guess you could say I was looking for direction.”
Turns out he found that direction from a source as close to home as it gets. Tso’s father and brother were both multiple-time Hong Kong amateur champions and had urged the young Tso to join them. And after drifting around outside the gym until his mid-teens, once Tso walked inside the South China Athletic Association, his life was turned around.
“Once I realised that I had a talent for boxing and once I met [trainer] Jay Lau [at the DEF gym], I grew in confidence and realised boxing was the answer for me,” he says. “It is something I love and a sport that has helped me grow as a person too. You learn that you need discipline and in life you need to work hard to achieve your goals.”
Tso turned to the pro ranks after claiming Hong Kong amateur titles from 2008-2010 and has not taken a backward step since. Since veteran promoter Bob Arum and his Top Rank organisation joined forces with the HBO network and the Venetian Macao to start staging fights in the enclave from 2013, Tso’s record stands at seven fought and five won.
The original plan was that two-time Olympic gold medallist Zou Shiming would be the banner boy for boxing’s growth in the Chinese market. But after Zou’s comprehensive points loss in his IBF flyweight world title fight against Thai Amnat Ruenroeng on 7 March, it just might be that Tso steals his thunder.
“I wanted to get kids in Kong Kong and in China to see what boxing can do for them,” he says.
“I want to be an inspiration for kids who are looking for something to do with their lives. Already we are seeing more and more kids coming into the gym. Hong Kong hasn’t been known as a place that produces many boxers, but we are changing that now.
“When I enter the ring I know I have the whole city behind me and that is my biggest inspiration.”