Slowly but surely. Zou Shiming (3-0) is raising the level of his competition and working his way toward world-title consideration. He is already an amateur boxing icon in China, but now the 32-year-old is looking for success in the pro ranks.
On Saturday, he'll attempt to take the next step against a 19-year-old Thai boxer named Yokthong Kokietgym (15-3, 11 KO) in Macao, China. Each of Zou's previous three professional fights have garnered a lot of attention in his homeland.
But not many fans stateside have connected as of yet.
This eight-round bout will headline an HBO broadcast that actually features a 135-pound world-title bout between champion Miguel Vazquez and Denis Shafikov. That's saying something ... I don't know what, but it's saying something.
Here's how you can catch the action.
When: Saturday, Feb. 22 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Cotai Arena, Venetian Resort, Macao, Macao S.A.R., China
The Book on Shiming
There is no doubting Shiming's boxing skill. He's won two Olympic gold medals in his amateur career and three amateur world championships. But without the headgear, Zou still has a lot to prove.
The guy has no power, is wide with his stance, has poor balance, throws looping shots and is relatively easy to hit. If it were not for the fact that Zou is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, one would be hard-pressed to believe that Zou is considered the greatest amateur fighter China has ever produced.
Although his amateur pedigree certainly suggests that to be the case, his professional career thus far suggests that Zou should have retired as an amateur.
Zou's trainer is Hall of Famer Freddie Roach. The latter hears the criticism about his fighter, and in Nov. 2013, Roach told Boxing News that the former amateur star is still a work in progress.
We are still getting him to sit down on his punches a little bit more. He does have good power when he wants to use it but when he falls back into that amateur style he just wants to score points and protect the lead.
If Zou is going to change the growing perception about him, he'd better "want to use it" soon.
The Book on Kokietgym
He's not even 21 years old, but he's already had 18 professional fights. It's hard to imagine that a teenager has more professional experience than Zou, but it's true.
Very little is known about Kokietgym, and if Bob Arum and HBO have their way, you won't be learning any more about him after Saturday night. Though the level of competition is increasing for Zou, Kokietgym didn't get his name called because he figures to be a tough assignment for Zou. At this early stage, it's a good bet Zou's opponents are still being carefully picked.
To his credit, Kokietgym does have 13 KO wins, but his opposition has been nondescript. He's young, so perhaps he can surprise the world, but he'll be facing a tall task.
Without buying completely into the Zou hype, there are some skills there. Will he ever become a world champion? Without a huge improvement and some careful matchmaking, probably not.
That said, against a 19-year-old who has never faced significant competition and who will be fighting in his opponent's backyard, Kokietgym's chances are slimmer than Zou's knockout totals.
Look for Zou to stay perfect with an unanimous-decision win.
Follow me. I'm addicted to the Sweet Science.