MACAU – Few outside of China “get” the Zou Shiming appeal so far, but there is no denying his popularity in his home nation. In just his second pro fight, the 32-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist from Zunyi, China, was back in front of a sizable pro-Zou crowd at the massive Venetian Resort in Macau as the main event, hitting the ring for a six-rounder following a preliminary card that included two world-title fights.
If not for the over-the-top theatrics accompanying Zou’s entrance and the numerous dance renditions between bouts, his bout with Mexican upstart Jesus Ortega would seem like any other six-round bout on a big fight undercard. But Zou isn’t the average neophyte pro boxer. He is a national hero in the nation with the world’s largest population, and it hardly mattered to those in attendance who else was on the card. Zou was the draw, the main reason the event was even taking place.
Outside of the world’s largest casino, Zou’s face was featured prominently on an obelisk advertising the fight, while the event itself was beamed to many countries around the world, including the United States, where he will headline an HBO2 delayed broadcast for the second time.
When the bell rang, all of the surreal hype became irrelevant and he was just another man with gloves fending off another man with gloves. Zou fought well early on, employing a more professional style than the amateurish slapping that typified his first bout in April. Zou brought the Chinese crowd to its feet with each landed shot, digging effectively to the body and dancing away from danger. The crowd chanted “jia you” – a Chinese term of encouragement that literally means “add oil” – while stomping their feet in unison to spur their favorite son on.
Ortega was no patsy however, having worked in the gym with unified flyweight champion Juan Estrada in Mexico. Ortega landed a right hand just as the first round was drawing to a close, which elicited a sheepish smile from Zou. Zou returned to his aggressive stance in Round 2, popping Ortega with jabs and backing him into the ropes with blinding flurries. Yet as the rounds progressed, spectators waited for Zou to do something extraordinary, something to justify the magnitude of the stage he was fighting on. And it never seemed to happen.
The scores all read 59-55 in favor of Zou, but in a lot of ways there was no way he could win. Had Zou won with an explosive knockout, his opponent would’ve been decried as a tomato can, while a distance-going fight would see him dismissed as a fighter lacking fireworks. Yet, as Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler will point out, the process of moving Zou is more complicated than with most other fighters who get to feast on a steady diet of no-hopers as they transition into a professional style.
“I’d like to put him in with a bum, but [Zou] wouldn’t stand for it,” said Trampler, Top Rank’s lead matchmaker. “Zou has had 15 years as an amateur fighter and it takes time to convert that to a professional. It’s a process, and it’s a slow process, but he seems to be coming along pretty well and I was very happy with his fight tonight.”
Zou admitted that moving to the six-round limit was difficult, and blamed it on dietary issues before the fight. “I was asked to have a bowl of rice before the fight before I went down to the fight but I felt that, for the six-rounder, I wanted to keep myself light,” said Zou afterwards. “That was a lesson learned because if I had a bowl of rice, that would be much better.”
“Tonight I think I was pleased with myself,” continued Zou. “I think I was able to take the lessons from the first fight and demonstrate what Freddie and my team have been working on for the last two months. Although I’m a newcomer to boxing, I’m taking all of the experiences in. My goal is to become a world champion and I know there are many new fights I need to take. But I will work even harder towards that goal.”
Zou’s trainer Freddie Roach agreed that he has some dietary issues to work on to improve his performances, pointing out that Zou’s post weigh-in meal was a candy bar. Roach said he was pleased overall with Zou’s performance but noted that there was still much to work on.
“He did a lot better than his last performance but, he was a little too offensive for this fight and stayed in the pocket too long,” said Roach. “I would like to see him land punches and get under and get out quicker. In the beginning of the fight he was moving really good with his feet, landing good combinations but then towards the end of the fight, the opponent was tough and we couldn’t get him out of there. He started staying in the pocket in the exchanges and got hit back.”
Zou will have four months to prepare for his next bout – a scheduled eight-rounder on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao’s fight with Brandon Rios on Nov. 24 (or Nov. 23 in America) at the Venetian. Roach intends to bring Zou to General Santos City, Philippines, to train alongside Pacquiao for the fight. “Being in training camp with Manny Pacquiao is going to be a real big experience for Shiming,” said Roach. “Pacquiao trains like a champion, works like a champion. He’s going to see what it takes to be a champion.”
Bob Arum, whose company Top Rank promotes Zou, agrees that it’s too early to even think about a major fight for him, which is a sentiment echoed by Trampler. “Two fights isn’t enough for us to make a determination but I can tell you he’s going to fight a scheduled eight-rounder his next fight and then a scheduled ten-rounder,” said Trampler. “It’s pretty fast for a recent professional. Each fight is a constant evaluation but we’re going to try to get him there as fast as we can.”
If Zou was “the event,” then WBO/WBA flyweight titleholder Juan Francisco Estrada’s defense against Milan Melindo was “the fight.” Estrada overcame a strong performance by Melindo early on to wear down his Filipino opponent, a unanimous decision by the scores of 118-109, 118-109 and 117-109.
Melindo (29-1, 12 KOs) of Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, stunned Estrada near the end of the first round with a left hook and seemed to control the early rounds with his crafty boxing skills. Near the sixth round, Estrada (25-2, 18 KOs) of Hermosillo, Mexico, began to mount his patented late rally, breaking Melindo down with combinations to the body that set up the shots upstairs. One such punch created a cut around Melindo’s left eye, and by the eighth round Melindo was essentially a one-eyed fighter.
Estrada continued to step on the gas, rocking Melindo repeatedly in the late rounds before dropping his foe with a right cross on the button in the eleventh. Melindo rose to his feet but was a beaten fighter. Only his heart kept him on his feet for the final bell. “I kept standing for my country,” said Melindo at the post-fight press conference, sporting a bandage on his eye. “I needed to stand til the end of the round.” Estrada did not show up to the post-fight press conference.
Estrada had won the titles in April on Top Rank’s first card in Macau with a split-decision over Brian Viloria. In the fight previous to that, Estrada lost a competitive decision to WBA junior flyweight titleholder Roman Gonzalez in November.
In the opening bout, IBF featherweight titleholder Evgeny Gradovich (17-0, 8 KOs) retained his title with a workmanlike twelve-round unanimous decision win over Argentinian Mauricio Munoz. The scores were 120-108 on one card and 119-109 on the other two. Living up to his “Mexican Russian” moniker, Gradovich of Igrim, Russia, but now training out of Oxnard, Calif., entered to Tejano music dressed in a sombrero and robe decorated with the colors of the Mexican flag.
Gradovich was much more assertive in the early rounds than he was in March, when he stepped in on short notice to upset Billy Dib to win the belt. Gradovich started off the fight moving in and out, popping combinations on Munoz’s face at a 4-1 ratio. Munoz, who had lost in nine rounds to then-WBC junior featherweight titleholder Toshiaki Nishioka in 2011, showed a strong beard, despite being stunned in Rounds 2 and 8. Gradovich continued to push forward, fighting his typical aggressive fight, doing nothing spectacularly but doing a lot of it.
In a quality bout between two unbeaten heavyweights, Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr. (20-0, 14 KOs) handed Joe Hanks (21-1, 14 KOs) the first defeat of his career with a thudding fourth-round knockout at the 1:41 mark. Ruiz, who checked in at a tubby 254 pounds to Hanks’ chiseled 237, showed that boxing is about more than physiques.
Ruiz scored the first knockdown early in the fourth, landing a heavy, but lightning quick overhand right followed by a left hookercut. Hanks got up at the count of nine on unsteady legs before being sent back down by an overhand right followed by two left hooks. The referee stopped the contest immediately afterward.
“As soon as I threw that hook and the uppercut and it got under his chin, I got him,” said Ruiz, of Imperial, Calif., who has now knocked out his last six opponents. Hanks, of Newark, N.J., was consoled in the neutral corner by heavyweight legend George Foreman, who was at ringside to commentate for HBO2.
If Servania-Tomiyama warmed the crowd up, Rex Tso set them on fire. Tso, 26, who was born and raised an hour’s ferry ride across Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, received the type of reaction normally reserved for the most popular of world champions. Competing in a six-round bout against Thailand’s Rusalee Samor, the junior bantamweight prospect had the rapidly filling audience hanging on every southpaw jab, eliciting chants of “China! China!” whenever he made contact.
Tso started faster in the first two rounds, landing multiple punch combinations punctuated by authoritative right hooks to the head and body. But Samor, who was knocked out in four rounds last year by Filipino journeyman Ryan Rey Ponteras, didn’t come to lay down. In the third and fifth rounds, Samor landed hard shots to the body with his straight right cross, which set up right hands to Tso’s face.
But with the scores narrowing, Tso left the officials with a strong final impression, resuming his prior combination work. After the final bell, one judge had it 56-56, but was overruled by the other two who judged the bout in Tso’s favor by the scores of 59-55 and 58-56. When the ring announcer, after a suspenseful delay, uttered the phrase “From Hong Kong…” the crowd erupted in euphoria.
Tso raised his record to 10-0 (6 KOs) while Samor dropped to 20-5-2 (9 KOs).
In what was supposed to be a moderate tryout fight, Filipino junior featherweight Genesis Servania wound up overcoming a life and death challenge against Japan’s Konosuke Tomiyama en route to a headbutt-shorted technical-decision win.
Moments after opening the first round with a left-hook knockdown of former world-title challenger Tomiyama, the 21-year-old from Bacolod City tasted the canvas himself on a short left hand. Eager to prove that the knockdown was not the product of a legitimate punch, Servania stepped up his aggression. That’s when he walked into a right hand that seriously hurt him, and was on the floor shortly after.
Tomiyama, 30, began to find the range regularly with his straight right hand between Servania’s guard, opening up a cut on Servania’s right eye in the second. Servania wouldn’t be overwhelmed, however, and scored a second knockdown of his own in Round 3 with a short counter right cross as they traded punches. Servania’s superior work rate continued to bring him success, particularly when he mixed in the uppercut. But Tomiyama, who was stopped in eight rounds in his vie for Nobuo Nashiro’s WBA junior bantamweight title in 2009, continued to find holes in Servania’s defense, backing him up with right crosses when he lands.
A second cut on Servania’s left eye burst open in the ninth round following a head clash with Tomiyama, which prompted the doctor to stop the bout on a technical decision at the 1:42 mark. Tomiyama, believing he had just won by technical knockout, jumped on top of the corner to celebrate. His emotional rollercoaster hit a major drop when the scorecards were read. Two judges scored it 87-82 and 86-83 in favor of Servania, overruling a third who had it 85-84 for Tomiyama.
For Servania, it is his fourth victory over a former title challenger, with this being by far the toughest of those bouts.
In the night’s opening bout, bantamweight prospect Dave Penalosa (7-0, 5 KOs) of Cebu City, Philippines, knocked out overmatched Thai Ngaotawa Sithsaithong. BoxRec.com showed no record of such a fighter, but his record was reported at 10-11. The 22-year-old Penalosa, who is the son of former junior flyweight and flyweight titleholder Dodie Boy Penalosa Jr. and the nephew of former junior bantamweight and bantamweight titleholder Gerry Penalosa, knocked his opponent out for the count with a single left uppercut.
Photos: Chris Farina-Top Rank
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.