He is a two-time Olympic gold medallist and reigning world champion, but Chinese boxing star Zou Shiming is eyeing an even greater prize: making the sport big in his homeland.
The 36-year-old defends his World Boxing Organization (WBO) flyweight title for the first time next week when he faces Japan’s Sho Kimura in Shanghai, and is targeting a fourth-round knockout.
After a brilliant amateur career Zou turned professional in 2013 — at the relatively late age of 31 — and last November won the world title in Las Vegas to improve to a pro record of 9-1 with two KOs.
Now he wants to harness his fame to put boxing on a par at home with more popular sports.
“In the West they already have a long history of boxing and everyone of all ages watch, but in China this is still something we have to work hard on,” he told AFP in an interview at his sweltering gym in Shanghai.
“The attention it gets here is not like some of our more conventional sports such as badminton and table tennis that lots of kids practise and play.
“We want to tell everyone in China that Chinese people have a Zou Shiming who brought back the belt from Las Vegas and kept it here, so that everyone will say, ‘If Zou Shiming can, so can other Chinese’.”
With the end of his boxing career in sight — he declined to say when he would retire — the affable Zou is turning his hand to promotion and mentoring the next generation.
He turned professional with US promoters Top Rank, whose founder and chief executive Bob Arum had his eye on the lucrative China market, and was under the tutelage of respected American trainer Freddie Roach.
But Zou is promoting himself for the July 28 fight, while insisting he will work with Top Rank again.
He chose China for his first title defence in order to promote the sport in the country, partnering with Chinese companies such as Alisports which is part of e-commerce giant Alibaba.
“It was significant that I won the belt in Las Vegas, the boxing temple. I want to bring this glory and passion, as well as the boxing culture, to China,” he said.
“It would be significant to defend it in China. I don´t just want to bring the belt from the highest temple, I also want to guard it in China and keep it in China.”
The weight of history is against Zou.
Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong banned the sport as too violent, and it only returned to the public consciousness in 1979 when Muhammad Ali visited China at the invitation of then-leader Deng Xiaoping.
Zou won bronze at the Athens Olympics in 2004, then gold at the Beijing Games four years later, before successfully defending his title at the London games in 2012 to put boxing back on the map in China.
Add three amateur world titles and it’s easy to see why, if anyone can make boxing big in China, Zou can.
He may train boxers after he retires.
“I know this business back to front: not just the training, but also their minds, their injuries, their illness and their promotion,” he said.
“I know how to deal with pressure.”
So why are there no other Chinese boxers even close to matching Zou?
Unlike other countries, where boxers usually turn professional after a good Olympics, China’s Soviet-style sports authorities are reluctant to relinquish control of their amateurs.
And a good amateur does not necessarily become a successful professional because the styles are so different, according to Zou.
Zou knows he does not have many fights left.
“I don´t want to say goodbye. But the hardest part for an athlete to face is injuries and age,” he said.
“Maybe tomorrow I will say I can´t fight anymore.
“But as long as I can, I will not say goodbye to boxing because I´d hate to part with it.”
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