Chinese Olympian Zou prepares for Top Rank debut

There's no questioning Zou Shiming's amateur boxing credentials - three appearances at the Olympics for China that culminated in two gold medals and a bronze, along with three gold medals and a silver at the World Championships.

But can Zou have similar success as a professional? And at age 31?

Top Rank is betting he can. Bob Arum's promotional company signed Zou on Jan. 23, and he will make his professional debut April 6 in a four-round bout at 109 pounds against an opponent to be determined at the Venetian Macau.

"From deep in my heart, I always wanted to be a professional," Zou said through an interpreter Tuesday in Las Vegas at The Venetian, where he arrived amid great fanfare, including beating drums and dragon dancers. "I have been preparing for this moment since I was a child."

Zou will work with trainers Freddie Roach and Miguel Diaz at a specially constructed gym in the Palazzo through Feb. 15 and will then switch to Top Rank's gym in Las Vegas, where he will train until March 23, when he returns to China to complete preparations for his debut. Roach said he won't change Zou's natural style, but he has a lot to teach him in making the transition from amateur to pro.

"He's got great hand speed, great footwork and great natural ability," Roach said. "The big thing is teaching him the pro style and make him exciting for American audiences."

Zou began boxing at 17 after participating in martial arts as a child in Guizhou, China. He said his biggest challenge will be the increased workload.

"I will have to fight more rounds, so I will have to train accordingly," he said.

One of the most popular athletes in his country along with basketball legend Yao Ming and track star Liu Xiang, Zou said he is ready to handle the pressure of trying to become China's first major pro boxing star.

"It is a big honor to represent my people, and I look at Yao Ming and the great job he did," Zou said. "I am happy and feel honored to have the opportunity to have success."

After winning the bronze in the 105-pound division at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the first of Zou's Olympic golds came at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he won the 105-pound weight class. It remains his proudest moment to date.

"I was so excited to win the first gold medal for boxing (for China), and to do it in my country made it very special," said Zou, who won the gold at 108 pounds in August in London.

Arum said the plan is to get Zou on a fast track professionally and try to quickly position him to fight for a world title.

"It's been done with other fighters; certainly the Cubans (Guillermo) Rigondeaux and (Yuriorkis) Gamboa didn't need a lot of time," Arum said. "We believe Zou can become a world champion, and in a short amount of time."

Zou didn't think his advanced age would be a deterrent to success as a pro.

"George Foreman won a world title when he was 45," he said, smiling.

Roach said he was looking forward to working with a fighter basically from scratch and mold him into a top professional.

"It sort of reminds me when I had Virgil Hill and Brian Viloria," Roach said of two former American Olympians who went on to highly successful pro careers. "I was impressed when I saw Zou fight Rau'shee Warren back in 2004, and he beat him soundly. He's definitely a talented fighter."

Arum said that China, with its population of 1.35 billion, is ready to embrace pro boxing like never before. And Zou can be the catalyst.

"This is our entry into the Asian market," he said. "This kid, with his amateur success, can compete at a championship level early."

But Zou said as much as he's looking forward to fighting in his homeland, he wants to come back to Las Vegas and fight.

No problem, Arum said.

"The world is becoming a very small place these days," he said. "We hope to have him back here soon."

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.