Chinese boxer Zou Shiming has not yet made his professional debut, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist is already being groomed to become the man who takes the multimillion-dollar sport into the mainstream in the most-populous country on the planet.
Top Rank, a Las Vegas-based promotion that has held more than 9,000 fights in 22 countries, has identified Zou as the man to spearhead its expansion into the Chinese market and has booked the 31-year-old for its “Fists of Gold” event at the Cotai Arena in Macau on April 6.
Top Rank founder and chief executive Bob Arum has been involved with boxing for almost 50 years, acting as a promoter for legends like Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and, more recently, Manny Pacquiao, and has high hopes for his latest protege.
“Zou is an incredible talent, who is beloved in China. This is our entry into the Asian market and we felt that this kid, having the unbelievable amateur experience and the results he’s had, can contend at the highest level in the lighter weight divisions much sooner than fighters that are younger and don’t have the experience,” Arum said.
Arum knows what it takes to turn an Asian boxer into a superstar, having overseen Pacquiao’s stratospheric rise up the boxing ranks. The Filipino is one of the most recognizable sports stars in the world and commands purses in the region of US$25 million a fight.
Arum’s promotional expertise has helped Pacquiao become one of the world’s best-paid athletes, but it is the Filipino’s prowess inside the ring that made it possible, and much of the credit for that must go to trainer Freddie Roach, who helped transform him from a fighter who was unknown outside of Asia to one of boxing’s pound-for-pound kings.
It was not until after Pacquiao started working at Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles that he began to beat the best fighters in the business, such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Eric Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Oscar de la Hoya. Last month, Arum arranged for Zou to follow in Pacquiao’s footsteps by making the journey from Asia to the US to learn from the Hall of Fame trainer.
Whereas Pacquiao had already won world titles before he stepped foot inside the Wild Card Gym, Zou has yet to make his professional debut. However, he has won the world amateur championship three times and tasted Olympic gold twice, and Roach is excited about the potential of his newest student.
“He picked up on the moves very quickly, he understands distance and timing and the biggest surprise is that he didn’t seem to have punching power in a lot of his tapes, but he actually can punch with both hands. All he needs is a little confidence and to sit down on his shots and we are going to see some knockouts,” Roach said.
Up-and-coming Asian boxers inevitably find themselves being measured against Pacquiao, but no one is more qualified to make the comparison than Roach, and he believes Zou can go on to have a similar impact in the professional ranks.
“He [Zou] has got a bright future. He reminds me of a young man named Manny Pacquiao when he first walked through my doors, he had a wonderful talent well beyond his years and we’ve got a duplicate here. I’ve taken two fighters from amateurs to world championships and I think he’s going to be my third,” he said.
Zou is taking on Eleazar Valenzuela from Mexico, who only has two wins in five professional fights, so this will not exactly be a baptism of fire for the light flyweight. The challenge for Roach is to transform the safety first, points-scoring style that served his student so well as an amateur into something sufficiently entertaining to move tickets and pay-per-view sales in his professional career.
Headlining “Fists of Gold” is a bout between Brian Viloria and Juan Francisco Estrada, one of two world title fights on a card that will also feature three up-and-coming Philippine boxers. Despite the presence of more experienced and established stars, all eyes in Macau will inevitably be on Zou as the sole Chinese representative.
It is a lot of pressure to put on a fighter ahead of his professional debut, but with Top Rank taking care of things on the promotional side and Roach overseeing his training, Zou’s career is being guided by some of the most experienced hands in the business.
The boxer himself has had to make plenty of adjustments, from getting used to training and living in a new country to preparing to fight for the first time under the professional rule set, but Zou said he believes that by the time the bell rings for the start of his bout on April 6, he will be ready.
“Getting into the ring with Freddie Roach is a dream, he is teaching me everything I need to know to make the transition to a professional. I’m looking forward to my first fight and I will do everything to ensure I’m well prepared,” he said.