MACAU – As the lights dimmed, and the image of the red and yellow flag of the People's Republic of China appeared on the eight screens that surround the Venetian Resort's Cotai Arena in Macau, the crowd's enthusiasm verged on rapturous.
From the tunnel emerged Zou Shiming wrapped in a regal-looking yellow and blue robe. Though the rest of the world may not quite "get" the 32-year-old's appeal, the two-time Olympic gold medalist is quickly becoming one of China's most celebrated athletes.
The prospects of Chinese professional boxing, once outlawed under Chairman Mao Zedong, rest on his slender, 112-pound shoulders.
Competing for the fourth time as a professional since turning pro in April, Zou turned in his most crowd pleasing performance yet with a seventh-round knockout of Yokthong Kokietgym. The time of stoppage was 2:09.
Zou, who is trained by Freddie Roach, overwhelmed Kokietgym (15-4, 11 KOs) in the seventh stanza, scoring the first knockdown on a short left hook. Two more knockdowns from the accumulation of punishment followed, as the corner threw in the towel as referee Danrex Tapdasan waved his arms to stop the fight.
Zou showed new wrinkles to his game, which included a more settled, professional style that allowed him to stand and throw combinations with power better than his amateurish, fleeting attack of previous fights. Zou was also able to counter more effectively, landing straight right hands over Kokietgym's jabs.
Kokietgym, who lost to a fighter last year who was credited as a pro debut by Boxrec, lost for the third time by knockout.
"Tonight I just followed Freddie's game plan and did what he told me to do," said Zou, when asked how he felt scoring his first pro KO. "To this moment I still don't know which hand knocked the other guy out. I wasn't looking for it and from round one I was just trying to follow the game plan."
After the fight, IBF flyweight titleholder Amnat Ruenroeng of Thailand congratulated Zou in the ring, stoking rumors that the two will meet soon.
Not so fast, say Arum and Roach.
"The Thai champion, under the IBF rules, is gonna fight a Japanese contender, and he's confident that he can win that fight," said Arum, who didn't name the contender. "That fight will be in May, Zou we hope to have him in two 10-round fights this year, leading into a possible date in mid-November for a world title fight."
Roach said afterwards at the post-fight press conference that he was happy that Zou won by knockout, but says he isn't too hot on the idea of Zou fighting for a title just yet. He wants to see Zou work the body more frequently.
"Shiming fought a very good fight tonight, I was happy with his performance. He had nice adjustments in there and he's really becoming a very good professional fighter," said Roach.
"We're four fights in now, I don't know if we're ready for a title fight yet but it'll be pretty soon. Shiming, thanks for making me look good."
Vazquez decisions Shafikov to retain lightweight belt
It wasn't pretty, but then again it never is with Miguel Vazquez.
Still, the 27-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, got the job done, retaining the IBF lightweight title for the sixth time with a unanimous decision win over Russia Denis Shafikov. The scores were 115-113, 116-112 and 119-109.
In a bout marred by excessive, gratuitous holding, Vazquez (34-3, 13 KOs) used his hit and run style to land potshots on Shafikov (33-1-1, 18 KOs). The southpaw Shafikov made it tense for Vazquez at times, as his awkward aggression offset Vazquez's timing, allowing him to break through the range of Vazquez and land left crosses and occasional right hooks.
Vazquez had to contend with a cut on his left eye in Round 4, which seemed to bother him at times. The corner was able to stop the bleeding however, and by Round 8 it was Shafikov who was bleeding significantly from a gash near his right eye.
Vazquez was fighting for the first time since winning a lopsided decision over Mercito Gesta in December of 2012. Vazquez had spent most of 2013 negotiating an on-and-off unification fight with WBO titleholder Ricky Burns before the fight was canceled outright.
Vazquez's three career defeats have come against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (twice) and Timothy Bradley.
The Zou-Kokietgym and Vazquez-Shafikov fights will air on delay Saturday evening on HBO2, beginning at 5 p.m. ET.
Gold medalists Murata, Mekhontsev score KOs
Zou was one of three Olympic gold medalists who performed on the Top Rank-promoted card, joining fellow 2012 winners Ryota Murata of Japan and Egor Mekhontsev of Russia.
The 28-year-old Murata (3-0, 3 KOs) knocked out Carlos Nascimento (29-4, 23 KOs) of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at :43 of Round 4 while Egor Mekhontsev (2-0) stopped Atthaporn Jaritram (4-1, 1 KOs) of Bangkok, Thailand at 2:19 of the second.
Murata, who won the middleweight gold, began the fight circling Nascimento, who, at age 40, was 12 years older than Murata.
Despite having a height and reach advantage, Murata elected to work inside and trade punches, landing hard left hooks to the body and right uppercuts, but taking unnecessary punches in return.
Murata finally began to break the game Brazilian down in Round 3 when he dropped him with a left hook to the body, left hook to the chin combination. Nascimento fought back strong after the knockdown, but was dead in the water for the next round, when Murata pinned him to the ropes and leveraged his height to rain down right hands on Nascimento, compelling the referee to intercede.
Nascimento's only prior defeats came against former junior middleweight titleholder Sergei Dzinziruk, and contenders Pawel Wolak and Martin Murray.
Murata trains with former Cuban Olympic trainer Ismael Salas, who is most noted for his work with Yuriorkis Gamboa and Japanese world champion Kazuto Ioka.
Murata is co-promoted by Top Rank and the Japan-based Teiken Promotions. Arum says that Teiken's head, Akihiko Honda, wants him to have his next fight in Japan before headlining a card in Singapore, eyed for the early part of Fall.
The light-heavyweight medalist Mekhontsev, 29, had no problem dealing with Jaritram, who appeared to be fighting several divisions above his best weight.
The southpaw Mekhontsev imposed his physicality early and often, landing hard right hooks before overpowering him in Round 2.
Sonsona resurrects career with Shimoda KO
Former WBO junior bantamweight titleholder Marvin Sonsona resurrected his stagnant career with a highlight-reel, third-round knockout of former WBA junior featherweight titleholder Akifumi Shimoda in a featherweight bout.
The 23-year-old Sonsona (18-1-1, 15 KOs) of General Santos City, Philippines, had lost the first two rounds to Shimoda (28-4-2, 12 KOs) of Tokyo, Japan. Sensing that he needed to turn the fight around, Sonsona came out for round three popping his long jab.
One such jab set up a picture perfect left uppercut, separating Shimoda from his senses and ending the fight at the 1:17 mark.
Tso outlasts Matsuyama in a war
If Sonsona's knockout was the highlight of the event, Rex Tso's war with Mako Matsuyama was the fight of the night.
The popular Tso (12-0, 8 KOs), a native from just across Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, exhibited improved footwork, combination punching and endurance while stopping Matsuyama (7-8-1, 3 KOs) at 1:27 of the eighth round.
Both Tso and Matsuyama battled for the technical upperhand in the early rounds, as Tso, 26, dialed in his southpaw straight left and Matsuyama, 24, tried to land his right hand.
By the seventh round, Tso's superior power and workrate began to wear down Matsuyama, who stayed on the ropes more frequently and became a sitting duck for Tso's uppercuts.
The end came the following round, when, in the middle of a Tso one-two fest, Tso stepped back to get space and landed a flush left cross, sending Matsuyama face-first unconscious for the count.
Tso's footwork was much improved, as he changed angles by stepping quickly to the left to land his cross, a move he said he learned while spending five weeks in the Philippines working with trainer Aljoe Jaro.
Tso's performance left Arum impressed.
"I really have to commend Rex. When he did the first fight for us, he wasn't so great. He really made great improvement for him during this year," said Arum, who first promoted him on the second Top Rank-Venetian venture last July.
"If everything works out, we hope that we might be able to do a dual title fight here in Macau, to have Zou fight for a world title and Rex for one as well."
Filipino prospects score KOs
Junior lightweight prospect Harmonito Dela Torre (12-0, 7 KOs) scored a highlight-reel worthy one-punch knockout of Yakobus Heluka (7-6) of Indonesia, ending the fight at the 2:17 mark of the first round.
Dela Torre, a former member of the Philippine National Team as an amateur, did the deed with one overhand right hand that caught Heluka as he wound up to throw his own right hand, sending him face-first to the canvas for the ten count.
Junior bantamweight prospect Jerwin Ancajas started off the show with a clinical two-round demolition job of Thai Inthanon Sithchamuang at the 1:30 mark. Ancajas (19-1-1, 11 KOs) of Cavite City, Philippines, came out aggressively, landing southpaw right jabs in the opening moments to put Sithchamuang on the defensive.
The jabs blinded Sithchamuang to Ancajas' payoff punch, the straight left hand, which landed regularly with impunity. Ancajas dropped Sithchamuang two minutes into the first round with a left, punishing him for the rest of the round after he rose up.
Sithchamuang (20-7, 11 KOs) continued to be an inviting target in the second round, and after being pounded to the canvas once again, the referee halted the fight.
The 22-year-old Ancajas, who now trains out of Manny Pacquiao's gym in Davao with Pacquiao-assistant Nonoy Neri, has now won six straight – all by knockout – since his lone defeat, a majority-decision loss to Filipino Mark Anthony Geraldo in 2012.
"(Neri) has helped me gain more power with plyometrics training, similar to Manny Pacquiao's," said Ancajas, who won three National Youth Championships in the Philippines during an eight-year amateur career.
Manager Joven Jimenez says that Top Rank has promised him a spot on the May 31 card at the same venue in Macau, underneath Nonito Donaire Jr.'s featherweight title challenge against IBF champion Simphiwe Vetyeka.
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.