by Kieran Mulvaney
Zou Shiming is not, it seems, afraid to test himself.
Trainer Freddie Roach recalls that, shortly arriving for training at the Wild Card Gym, the three-time Olympian asked to spar with eight-time world champion Manny Pacquiao.
"I said, 'Are you sure? He said 'Yeah,'" Roach told reporters this week in Macau, where Zou 's third professional contest will be on the undercard of Pacquiao's clash with Brandon Rios.
"I went over to Manny and I said 'Manny, Shiming wants to box with you,'" the trainer continued. "And Manny looked at me and I said 'No, he didn't mean it in a bad way, he just wants to see what it's like to box with Manny Pacquiao.' He says, 'Maybe I'm a little bit too big for him' and I say 'Yeah, maybe you are, but just box.' Two days later they boxed four rounds together, and it was a great experience for Shiming. He got hit by one really good shot, a body shot by Manny, and he felt it and grunted a little bit. There was no knockdown and he did okay. He did good. A lot of people said 'You're crazy, if he gets knocked out you're going to get fired.'"
Zou won a light-flyweight bronze in the 2004 Athens Games, and then gold in his hometown Beijing Olympics in 2008. He successfully defended that crown in London last year, and is as a consequence by some distance the most successful Chinese boxer to date. The extent to which his fame has captivated this nation is illustrated by an art exhibit at the Venetian Macao, where Saturday night's card is taking place, in which Macanese boxer-turned-artist Jet Wu has portrayed the life of the "King of Boxing" in some surrealist watercolors as well as a graphic novel, the draft pages of which are displayed on the exhibit's walls.
A long amateur pedigree can sometimes lay the foundations for professional success (see, most recently, the example of Gennady Golovkin), but the disciplines can be surprisingly different and the transition can sometimes take time. Roach suspects the latter is proving the case with Zou, despite a promising start sparring former three-time world champion Brian Viloria.
"I thought it was going to happen really quick with Shiming because his first sparring partner in America was Brian Viloria that I thought 'For sure this kid's going to be champion in, like, a month' – he was doing that well," Roach explained. "He has Brian Viloria's number for some reason and then in the first fight he reverted back to his amateur style a little bit too much, I thought. In the second fight he thought that I wanted him to be more of a banger and I think our gameplan got lost in translation a little bit. He stayed in the pocket way too long and got hit way too much in that fight. Because I want him to sit down and score with a couple of good combinations and get under and get out with his speed, but he just stayed in the pocket a bit too long. So now we're trying to work the middle a little bit, be aggressive but not too aggressive, you know?"
Roach, the definition of old school, get-off-my-lawned that perhaps Zou's progress was being hindered by achieving a financial comfort level too soon.
"I don't like to spoil people and I think they might be spoiling him a little bit," he said. "He might be making a little bit too much too early. It might be making him a bit soft or softer, because my first ten-round fight was for $1,000 and I thought I was rich, but that was a long time ago."
Zou in contrast will earn $500,000 for his outing on Saturday night – a pretty hefty sum for a man with two pro bouts under his belt. But promoter Bob Arum makes no apologies for the fee he's forking over.
"If anyone on this card deserves their purse, it's him," he said in the media room this week.
The reasons for that are manifold and the kitsch in the hotel is merely the most obvious manifestation of them. There is only one boxer who, by Sunday, will have fought three times as a professional on internationally-televised cards from Macau, after all, and it isn't Manny Pacquiao. Arturo Gatti and Ricky Hatton weren't the greatest boxers known to man, although they were plenty good; but the fact that they weren't the best didn't stop their fans turning out in droves time after time. Those fans loved their fighters' styles and personalities; similarly Zou's amateur success and easy-going manner has struck a chord in the Middle Kingdom.
If big-time boxing gains a foothold on this Chinese peninsula – or indeed, elsewhere in what is potentially by far the largest market on Earth – it will have a lot to do with Manny Pacquiao. It will have more to do with Bob Arum. But most of all, it will be because of Zou Shiming.