Boxing: Pioneer Zou Shiming breaks down Asian barriers with his fists

China's first professional pugilist makes debut next weekend with huge fan base following him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fight-game history will be made in the Far East peninsula of Macau next Saturday night when the first Chinese boxer to turn professional makes his debut.

Zou Shiming, a double Olympic gold medallist and a national hero in his homeland, has been signed by the veteran American promoter Bob Arum, who believes the coup will create a whole new brawl game by opening up a lucrative market for the sport in China.

The 31-year-old flyweight with the fast hands and footwork that made him one of the stars of London 2012, is being trained in Los Angeles by Freddie Roach, whose stable is headed by the multi-weight world champion Manny Pacquiao and, until last year, also featured Britain's Amir Khan.

Zou will meet the Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela at the Venetian Hotel casino resort in Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is now, with Hong Kong, one of the two special administrative regions of China. According to Roach, Zou is "a good student and has great talent. He picks up things very quickly. Because of his amateur experience I believe he can be world champion in a very short time".

With the exception of the gloved glasnost which followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, it is the most significant breakthrough in boxing for a Communist country since the great Hungarian Laszlo Papp, the first boxer to win three successive Olympic titles, turned pro in 1957.

It is also a personal triumph for the 81-year-old Arum and his Top Rank organisation over his oldest adversary, Don King – his senior by five months – in the enduring battle of the octogenarian impresarios.

The King-Arum turf wars stretch back 40 years but Arum, once a tax lawyer in John F Kennedy's office, has finally beaten King to the punch. And last week King, who aspired to promote in China, lost his only remaining world champion when the light-heavyweight Tavoris Cloud was beaten by the 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins.

Arum says of Zou's acquisition: "This is the beginning of a new era in boxing. With a population of over one billion there is not only a tremendous fan base in China, where he is a national treasure, but potentially a hell of a lot of good fighters out there. It is a fantastic market to tap into, with China now very much open for business commercially.

"Zou may be 31 but has more than 10 years as a top amateur. I believe he will be like some of the Cuban fighters who, once they defected and turned professional, were able to fight for a world title in their first six, eight fights, because of the experience they gained as amateurs. The conventional wisdom used to be that small fighters from Asia could only reach a certain economic level. However, we have been able to destroy that myth through Pacquiao, who made as much as $30 million [£19.75m] for a fight. So the sky is the limit for this young man."

Zou follows the tennis star Li Na, hurdler Liu Xiang and basketball ace Yao Ming into a professional career. His has been a long march after China entered the boxing arena again at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Zou became the first Chinese to win an Olympic boxing medal, a bronze at Athens 2004, before his golds in Beijing and London. He also won three amateur world titles.

Born in Zunyi, the economic and commercial hub of the province of Guizhou, Zou almost didn't become a boxer because his parents were worried their son could get hurt in the ring. Zou practised the martial art of wushu as a 12-year-old before he was encouraged to take up boxing because of his extraordinary speed and agility.

He says Muhammad Ali was his idol. "As a boy I watched his fights on a black-and-white television. I later had a dream that one day I would be able to stand in the ring and sweat under the lights, creating honour, as he did. As long as I am chasing my dream, everything else becomes less important.

"But I have to remind myself that this is not the Olympic Games. This is real. This is professional boxing. Boxing in China is growing. I hope that through my efforts more people can understand that it is a sport for the brave and not a blood sport for barbarians."