Kung fu Zou in the red corner to kick-start Chinese challenge
Hosts hope to pack a punch but Britons face a serious test after loss of Funtime Frankie
The Olympics have launched many great careers, not least those of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. All were American golden boys, but with the weight-drained Frankie Gavin back home in Birmingham watching on the box instead of boxing in Beijing it is down to the seven remaining team-mates to produce a performer who can establish himself as a British legend.
Gavin being knocked out of the Games without throwing a punch because of his losing struggle with the scales is a body blow to the band of brothers who form the boxing squad and also to the entire British Olympic team, as the world amateur lightweight champion was marked down as a banker for a gold medal. But there is a young man here who may well have given him some food for thought.
His name is Yordenis Ugas, a 22-year-old Cuban who has stepped adroitly into the boxing boots of Amir Khan's Athens conqueror Mario Kindelan, and has been schooled by him. The defending champion Ugas did not box in the last World Championships in Chicago, where Gavin secured Britain's first-ever gold, because Fidel Castro banned the team from travelling to the US after a string of defections from their Olympic squad.
But the Cubans, who have finished top of the boxing medal table in all bar one of the Olympics they have attended since 1972, have regrouped and are back again in strength, albeit minus their Athens coach, Jorge Ribero, who has also defected, first to Miami and now to Bolton, where he is Khan's new tutor.
Whether the artful Ugas would have proved a fight too far for the southpaw Gavin, as Kindelan did for Khan four years ago, we can only speculate. But we do know that the nation which has unearthed such Olympic heroes as the three-times heavyweight champion Teofilo Stevenson, whom we labelled Castro's right-hand man because of his stunning KO punch, his successor Felix Savon and the cute Kindelan will be the one the rest have to beat. Especially the Americans, whose steep decline as an Olympic boxing nation was marked by only one gold at the 2004 Games.
The Russians have a team who could earn medals at every weight, while the Chinese hosts believe their massive investment in boxing – a sport banned by Chairman Mao – can help bring the podium rewards they require if they are to overhaul the US.
Never mind the basketball giant Yao Ming. The tiny Zou Shiming is the Chinese athlete most likely to be standing tall in a fortnight's time. Who's Zou? Well, he attracted rave reviews when he cut a swathe through the best light-flyweights to claim his second world amateur title in Chicago, where he was the most impressive boxer overall.
Like Yao Ming and the fabled hurdler Liu Xiang, Zou carries the high expectations of his nation on his slim shoulders. At 27, renowned for his kung fu-style footwork, he is used to being held up as China's first big thing in boxing, winning his initial world title on home soil in Mianyang City in 2005.
Zou, who describes himself as "the little guy with the right attitude", was one of nine Chinese boxers who reached the last 16 in their respective categories in Chicago, a remarkable achievement for a nation whose boxing association was only formed in 1987. The sport, which had been popular in the early part of the 20th century, was deemed too violent by Chairman Mao and promptly banned as part of the cultural shift within his "Great Leap Forward".
It was only when Ali made a number of visits to China in the late 1980s that the Chinese authorities' attitude to the sport thawed sufficiently to allow the reopening of boxing gyms across the country. But Don King's attempts to muscle in were scuppered in 2001, when a proposed world heavyweight title showdown between Evander Holyfield and John Ruiz – the so-called "Brawl At The Wall" – was shelved for contractual reasons.
Zou, who is learning to be a master chef in French cuisine, took up boxing because his lack of physical presence and natural timidity often led to him being mistaken for a girl. "I am happy and proud that Chinese boxing is becoming more noticed now," he says. "A gold medal would help to improve the position of Chinese boxing in the world and give me more opportunities to help people in need."
At the other end of the slugfest spectrum is China's huge super-heavyweight Zhang Zhilei, who at 6ft 7in at least can look Britain's own beanpole, David Price, in the eye should they meet. With Gavin gone, the laid-back, in-form Merseysider becomes Britain's premier claimant to gold in a division not overfilled with spectacular talent. Price says of Zhang, the World Championships bronze medallist: "He is tidy but a bit predictable. I am confident I can handle him."
The even bigger question is whether Price can handle the Russian world champion, Islam Timurziev, in his opening bout as well as possibly having to overcome the favourite, the Italian policeman Roberto Cammarelle, and another new hitman from Havana, Robert Alfonso. It is a tall order for a big man, especially as Britain's ring general has the responsibility of lifting team morale after the loss of the court jester, Funtime Frankie.
Like all of the team, Price has been given a 20-minute cassette with a rundown on prospective opponents. Light-welter Bradley Saunders says: "It is good to look at it last thing and again when I wake up. I've watched it more than I have any movies recently."
Saunders and his welterweight namesake Billy Joe also have a decent chance of medals but one suspects this tournament, with Cuba back in the red corner, China even more ready to rumble and British fighters not getting the kindest of draws, is going to be much tougher than the worlds, where as well as Gavin's gold Britain won two bronzes via Bradley Saunders and the bantamweight Joe Murray. In the circumstances, a similar haul would be a weight off everyone's mind, not least Frankie Gavin's.
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