By Mark Butcher in Macao: Amid the hustle and bustle generated by Chinese gamers and thrill-seekers, Top Rank’s latest foray into the South-East Asian boxing market takes place this Saturday (July 19th) with national hero Zou Shiming the focus of the ‘Champions of Gold’ event at the Venetian Casino in Macao. Fighters including flyweight Zou, pound-for-pounder Guillermo Rigondeaux and three-time world champion Brian Viloria are finalizing their preparation in a custom gym in the catacombs beneath the vast, cavernous casino away from the prying eyes of passing gamblers.
Freddie Roach graciously allowed me to observe Wild Card Gym fighters Zou, light-heavyweight prospect Egor Mekhontsev and Viloria work out on Tuesday afternoon ahead of their obligatory press engagements in the build-up to fight night.
There was a noticeable pop in Zou’s punches as he worked out on the pads with Roach. The Chinese flyweight sits down on his punches with greater effect and is unrecognizable from the willing, but over-eager, amateur star who turned pro 15 months ago with the expectation of a nation on his small shoulders. An estimated 920 million people tuned into watch their hero’s first three pro contests in mainland China last year. His sporting popularity is akin to a tiny David Beckham in gloves.
Double Olympic gold medalist Zou, 4-0 (1), participates in his first 10-rounder against Colombia’s three-time world title challenger Luis De La Rosa, 23-3-1 (13), at the Cotai Arena on Saturday, here in Macao, and Roach believes he was discovered previously untapped power in the flyweight.
“The last fight (against Yokthong Kokietgym – a seventh round stoppage win) was the first time we saw that we kind of have a puncher on our hands in Zou,” said the master-trainer. “His favourite punch is the overhand right, my favourite punch is the left hook. Both have a lot of pop on it and all he has to do is carry this over into the ring. He has really showed a lot of improvement. It does not happen overnight. It took me four years to get Brian Viloria to a world champion. It took me four years to get Virgil Hill to a world champion. Both were good Olympians. Shiming is a little bit older, a little bit more mature. I think we can go on the fast-track with him. A win here and we’ll be in a title shot next time out.
“We’ve done 12 rounds in the gym, no problem at all, with three different sparring partners where he doesn’t get a rest. We’ve had long talks about hurting the guy early, but not going all out and getting tired and taking the advantage away. Stay on a nice even keel. If you hurt the guy, open up a little bit, but don’t go crazy and blow it out all there. I’ve seen too many guys do that nowadays.
“De La Rosa has a big overhand right, he likes to come forward, a little bit wide,” continued Roach, trainer of 33 world champions. “I think we can beat him down the middle. I believe the jab is the key to the fight, down the middle. I told Shiming when he starts popping that jab, popping that jab and starts getting home we’re going sit down on the right hand and left hook and we’ll have a short night hopefully.”
After his workout, the smiling Shiming assessed his progression ahead of his most testing pro assignment to date. “After a year, I am becoming more comfortable with Freddie and have familiarized myself with his methods. I have a better understanding of what Freddie is trying to teach me,” Zou told me through his interpreter. “Better placement, learning to put my body behind my punches and that’s where the major improvement is coming from. Every trainer has different methods, but after a year Freddie and I are reaching the same level.
“I don’t know much about De La Rosa. I’ve watched two videos of him on YouTube and that’s about it. His record does not reveal much, but I think he’s a good fighter. This fight is a preparation for a title fight in November. I am a pure athlete and don’t want to deal with anything other than fighting itself now. I was an amateur for so long and amateur boxing and professional boxing are almost different sports. I feel I’ve come a long way as a pro but there are still a lot of areas I can improve upon between now and November. People have seen a huge difference in my power between my last two fights and I feel it will improve further again.”
Training alongside former WBC/IBF light-flyweight and WBO/WBA flyweight champion Brian Viloria has also aided Zou’s rapid development in the paid ranks. “Brian has been in the business for over a decade and he has been a formidable contender and champion in the ring,” acknowledged Zou. “I’ve benefited a great deal from sparring with him.”
The unbeaten flyweight from Zunyi in Guizhou province is now just two fights away from emulating the achievement of his gym-mate. A world title is tantalizingly close. China expects.
*Freddie Roach also revealed that former IBF super-middleweight champion Lucien Bute will be visiting the Wild Card Gym next week (when the trainer returns to Los Angeles) with a view to working together.
Shiming vs De La Rosa and unbeaten super-middleweight Gilberto Ramirez’s contest against Australian Junior Talipeau will be broadcast via same-day delay on HBO2 at 5pm ET/PT on Saturday.
WBA Super and WBO super-bantamweight king Gullermo Rigondeaux’s defence against Thai contender Sod Looknongyantoy will be broadcast same day delay as the Solo Boxeo Tecate main event on UniMás at 11pm ET/PT.
All three bouts will be broadcast live by BoxNation in the UK at around 2pm GMT. Check your TV schedule for further details.