Zou Shiming's long march into the pro ranks
China's Olympic gold medallist has spent years as an amateur, but the 31-year-old says he's now ready for the big time ... and maybe big money
"You're going to Hollywood!" It sounds like the judges from American Idol congratulating an aspiring singer, but China's golden boy, Zou Shiming, has made it in a whimsical way.
He's training in Tinseltown for his professional debut after getting his "Golden Ticket" in late January by signing a professional contract with veteran promoter Bob Arum.
China's most celebrated boxer is now the star at Wild Card gym in Hollywood, Los Angeles, under the watchful eyes of Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach and he can't wait to step into the ring on April 6 at the Venetian's Cotai Arena in Macau, where "Fists of Gold" are the buzz words for the launch of a highly anticipated pro career.
Zou, 31, is up against unheralded Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela (2-1-2, 1 K0) and has been preparing in the US since February 5.
Having carved out a remarkable amateur career that included gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Games, plus gold at the world amateur championships in 2005, 2007 and 2011, Zou is ready to perform at a whole new level.
"Professional boxing is my dream. What prompted me to embark on the road to boxing is that in my childhood, I watched Muhammad Ali's performances on television," said Zou.
"I know this is only my first professional fight. The level of each match will be more and more difficult, and hopefully I'll be advancing towards the goal of a championship fight. I'll take it step by step."
Signing with one of the most well-known promoters in Arum and coached by the legendary Roach (Manny Pacquiao's trainer), the Guizhou native is well on his way to embarking on a money-spinning career that could follow tennis star Li Na, hurdler Liu Xiang or retired basketball ace Yao Ming.
No longer part of the state system that cared for him in his amateur days, Zou could rake in millions, especially if he lands a major championship belt.
"It's a courageous choice to enter professional sport and be engaged in a sport as part of one's life," Zou said of fellow professional athletes Li and Liu.
"All training, competition and daily life has to be arranged on your own and this demonstrates their true love for their sport."
The light flyweight knows he faces a difficult road despite his impeccable amateur record. His advancing age is not ideal in a sport where most boxers peak before 30. But he still thinks his best years are ahead of him.
"It really depends on my training and competition," said Zou. "Although I am 31, I'm just a rookie professional boxer. My journey to achieve my dreams has just begun. I will fight till I cannot box anymore," he said.
"My wife [Ran Yingying] supports me in my daily life and is with me as I train in the United States. She takes care of my basic daily necessities so I can focus on training."
Zou is also taking the plunge into the professional ranks not too long after China lifted a ban on boxing imposed by Mao Zedong at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The ban was subsequently lifted and China entered the boxing arena again, competing at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics provided Chinese boxers with a chance to medal in 10 weight divisions. It was a chance for China to increase their medal tally and an opportunity for someone like Zou to shine in the ring.
"I know boxing in China is a growing sport. I hope that through my efforts, more people can understand that boxing is a sport for the brave and not a blood sport for barbarians. I am still trying to fine tune my own style and do my best to gain experience and increase my physical strength. These are the challenges I need to overcome," said Zou.
Born in Zunyi, the economic and commercial hub of north Guizhou province, Zou almost didn't become a boxer because his parents were worried their son could get hurt in the ring. Zou had taken up wushu as a 12-year-old before he was encouraged to take up boxing because of his extraordinary speed and agility.
"I joined a wushu martial arts school when I was young. I had my first contact with boxing there, and that is the place where I started my adventure. I later had a dream that one day I would be able to stand in the ring and sweat under the lights, creating honour," said Zou.
"Convincing my family was a difficult process, but every parent wants their children to chase their dreams. Boxing is my dream. As long as I am chasing my dream, everything else becomes simple and less important," he said.
Within four years of serious training, Zou was already boxing at national level. His speed, superb footwork and work ethic impressed Zhang Chuangliang, who was, until last year, Zou's trainer. "Coach Zhang is my mentor. In 1997, he selected me from the provincial team into the national team. Without coach Zhang's training and nurturing, I wouldn't have gotten this far," said Zou.
The fighter's only blemish on an impressive amateur record was his failure to capture gold at the Athens Olympics. Zou won bronze, a result that gave him a reality check even though he created history by becoming the first Chinese to win an Olympic medal in boxing.
"Failure taught me something. After I lost [the gold] in Athens, I trained harder so I could win in Beijing. When I won in Beijing, I then wanted to defend [my title] in London. I think no matter if it is for boxing or life in general, if you rise from failure rather than get lost in depression, you will reach success eventually," said Zou.
It's Zou's extraordinary speed that attracted Arum, who has promoted Muhammad Ali among many other top boxers in the past.
"Bob is a world-class boxing promoter. His successful promotion of my idol, Muhammad Ali, is renowned all over the world. It is an honour to have the chance to partner with him. He is a very kind and friendly person. Bob has taken good care of me, both in terms of living arrangements and training in the US. He has made a few trips to LA just to watch me train. I'm very grateful to Bob for his support," said Zou.
Right now, though, Zou has Macau on his mind and is gunning for a comprehensive victory over Valenzuela at the Cotai Arena.
"I have been to Macau before and I am looking forward to my first professional bout there. This event will be a new experience for me, including how to prepare for it and how to make a grand entry," said Zou.