When three-time Chinese Olympic boxing medalist Zou Shiming entered the Cotai Arena at the Venetian Resort in Macao, China, it was a spectacle worthy of an established champion. Amidst a video montage and rock concert lighting effects, Zou’s ring-walk was as surreal as it was impressive.
There was nothing conventional about Zou’s professional debut. And considering that he made $300,000 for four rounds of boxing and participated in perhaps the most-watched fight in the sport’s history (per ESPN.com), it is expected that he will be moved quickly. With the world’s largest fanbase to draw from, Zou (1-0) already faces inordinate expectations and pressure.
The hype surrounding Zou, to a certain extent, is warranted. With three Olympic medals (bronze in 2004, and gold in 2008 and 2012) and three World Amateur titles (plus a silver medal in 2003), Zou is one of the most decorated amateurs of all time. Such pedigree is somewhat reminiscent of another one of the sport’s most intriguing figures: Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Rigondeaux’s sublime skills and genius boxing acumen propelled him to a world title in only his seventh professional fight. Given that Zou is already 32, can he mimic the same rapid ascent that Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KO) has so expertly navigated?
The inevitable erosion of a boxer’s speed and reflexes can be especially detrimental in the lower weight classes. Pint-sized pugilists often struggle to sustain the success of, say, a quality heavyweight or cruiserweight contending into their late 30s, which means that Zou essentially has a two- to four-year window to leave his mark—depending on how he adapts to the pro game and whether his body and natural ability hold up.
Zou’s lopsided four-round decision over 18-year-old novice Eleazar Valenzuela obviously offers no concrete answers as to whether he can emulate Rigondeaux’s meteoric rise. ESPN boxing scribe Brian Campbell speaks to this uncertainty with an appropriate amount of muted optimism:
He often toyed with Valenzuela by switching stances and using a varied offensive style borrowed from exciting fighters “Prince” Naseem Hamed, Sergio Martinez and Manny Pacquiao—with the latter being of little surprise considering the two fighters now share the same trainer. But fighting so regularly with your guard down can be a dangerous proposition when turning pro at 31 with little experience fighting without headgear.
Campbell is correct in questioning Zou’s sometimes-lackadaisical defense, and there were instances where he slapped with his punches and appeared to pull straight back to avoid shots, which are certainly amateur tendencies. However, Zou’s transition to punching for pay will be a process, and he can’t be expected to exhibit championship-level technique so early in his career.
While Zou was a bit wild at times and looped some of his punches, he did have stretches of brilliance, even if he was unable to score a knockdown or stoppage.
Most impressive, perhaps, was Zou’s comfort level inside the ring and amidst the gargantuan build-up to the fight. It was this poise that allowed Zou to flash the Martinez-esque movement and punching angles that could prove a nightmare for opponents if properly developed.
Whether Zou can win a world title within 10 fights is debatable, but the reality is that he doesn’t have a choice other than to emulate Rigondeaux’s path to a championship. Campbell, in the above-cited article, alludes to Zou’s brief window and perhaps low ceiling:
Although it’s hard to be so critical of such a short audition at the pro level, it’s equally hard to imagine Zou becoming a dominant force on the highest level, thus making it interesting to see just how quickly and aggressively he will be matched within his relatively short window in the next 12-18 months.
Whether Zou wins a world title or merely ends up being the symbolic pioneer of professional boxing in China should be starkly evident by the end of 2014. Regardless of Zou’s actual competence as professional fighter, he is in an optimal position to become boxing’s Yao Ming, which can only be positive for the sport’s growth.
In only his third professional fight, Rigondeaux fought Giovanni Andrade, who was 59-11 at the time, in a scheduled 10-rounder. Expect Zou to adopt a similar pace, especially if he is going to be appearing on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao’s next fight (per BoxingNews24.com).
At a certain point, substance and dangerous opponents will have to replace the mere novelty and exhibition of Zou fighting. Given Zou’s popularity and promotional backing, he will clearly be afforded opportunities that no other fighter would get. And what makes Zou such an intriguing figure to follow is that this reality will either expose him or make him a legitimate sensation.
As Rigondeaux gets set to unify titles against Nonito Donaire this Saturday, the gifted and technically brilliant Cuban is oddly anonymous when compared to Zou. But while Zou, thus far, is more about style, Rigondeaux oozes substance. Rigondeaux’s resume through 11 fights is practically unprecedented, and his success has set a high bar for Zou.
Zou’s mere existence, even as a 1-0 fighter, has already done wonders for boxing in China. In many respects, his legacy is already secure, and he will remain the type of national hero in China that is unfathomable to North Americans. For now, fans and pundits should enjoy what could be a fleeting spectacle.