In what amounted to an impressive and entertaining night of boxing Saturday in Macau, here are five things we learned:
1. Zou is worthy of hype as exciting attraction
If basing the pro debut of two-time Chinese Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming as a success solely upon the criteria of winning in entertaining fashion and drawing a massive crowd, consider his four-round flyweight bout a victory.
Zou, the first Chinese fighter to win an Olympic medal, proved a scintillating showman as he played to the adoring crowd in and out of the ring at the CotaiArena at The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel. And considering how popular the 31-year-old fighter, who medaled in three separate Olympic games, is within his native country of nearly 1.4 billion people, there were plenty of estimates (including ring announcer Michael Buffer’s ambitious notion of 300 million viewers) that Zou's first professional fight could end up being the most-watched boxing match in history.
Despite that kind of pressure on his shoulders, Zou failed to disappoint against limited Eleazar Valenzuela (2-2-1, 1 KO), 18, who never stopped coming forward. Zou’s speed and deceptive style -- adapted to the pro game by trainer Freddie Roach -- proved way too much to handle as he cruised to scores of 40-36 on all three scorecards.
After firing up the home crowd by extending his arms outward and pumping his fists during his ring walk into the arena, Zou unveiled his marketable fighting style by repeatedly dropping his hands in the opening round and countering with quick, flush jabs and looping counter right hands that routinely slapped Valenzuela on the side of the head.
Dressed in gold trunks, Zou showed tremendous footwork when Valenzuela amped up his pressure in the second round by sidestepping his opponent’s advances and tagging him with counter hooks at unpredictable angles. In Round 3, Zou stepped on the gas pedal and made a run at stopping his opponent by darting in and out to land a series of clean shots to the head of Valenzuela.
Promoter Top Rank will likely have little trouble turning Zou into an attraction thanks to his popularity and flashy style. And with Zou turning pro at such a late age, there is already talk of potentially fast-tracking him to a title shot at the end of his first professional year.
2. But don’t go fitting Zou for a title belt just yet
Decorated amateur fighters typically make their pro debuts in showcase bouts to announce their arrival. By headlining a loaded card ahead of two compelling world title bouts, Zou’s victory over Valenzuela was all of that and then some.
But as little as one can take from what amounted to a flashy exhibition of artistry against a hand-picked opponent, Zou created just as many questions regarding his long-term potential as he provided answers.
He often toyed with Valenzuela by switching stances and using a varied offensive style borrowed from exciting fighters “Prince” Naseem Hamed, Sergio Martinez and Manny Pacquiao -- with the latter being of little surprise considering the two fighters now share the same trainer. But fighting so regularly with your guard down can be a dangerous proposition when turning pro at 31 with little experience fighting without headgear.
Despite showing what appeared to be above-average speed and reflexes, Zou was still able to be found by Valenzuela’s punches at various moments, creating obvious questions of how he will react against a dangerous puncher. It’s a question that probably won’t be answered until it absolutely has to -- if at all -- as Top Rank can be selective in the matchmaking of Zou, even up to and beyond the point of challenging for a flyweight title.
Zou, whose defense was sloppy at times, also routinely slapped Valenzuela with well-timed yet grazing hooks that did little to slow his opponent’s advance. When Zou did land the harder, direct shots that appeared to hurt Valenzuela in Round 3, he was unable to come back over the top with anything powerful enough to take his opponent out.
Although it’s hard to be so critical of such a short audition at the pro level, it’s equally hard to imagine Zou becoming a dominant force on the highest level, thus making it interesting to see just how quickly and aggressively he will be matched within his relatively short window in the next 12-18 months.
If Zou, however, is being used as nothing more than a key to open the door to China’s potentially profitable marketplace for American promoters, none of that might end up mattering.
3. Martinez showed championship mettle with redemptive victory
There’s just something about the exciting, relentless style of Roman “Rocky” Martinez that produces close fights on the scorecards.
But after winning his super featherweight title by split decision over Miguel Beltran Jr. in a fight of the year candidate from November 2012, Martinez returned with a comparatively underwhelming performance in his first title defense in January. Martinez retained his belt with a contentious split draw against Juan Carlos Burgos, a bout in which most felt Burgos had done enough to win.
So it was clear Martinez had something to prove in Saturday’s bout with unbeaten prospect Diego Magdaleno. And despite another close call on the scorecards, Martinez (27-1-2, 16 KOs) rebounded with a statement effort in a split-decision win. Judges scored the bout 115-112 and 114-113 for Martinez and 116-111 for Magdaleno. ESPN.com also had it 114-113 for Martinez.
Although Martinez had issues at times with the speed and craftiness of southpaw Magdaleno (23-1, 9 KOs), it was the adjustments he made at key junctures that won him the fight. Martinez not only peaked in the championship rounds but answered each of Magdaleno’s attempts at gaining control with his best rounds of the fight by increasing his stalking pressure and landing heavy right hands.
4. End of the road for Viloria as a topflight action star?
Racking up a record of 13-1 since 2007 with a string of memorable action bouts, Brian Viloria proved to be one of boxing’s most exciting fighters and toughest champions in the lower weight classes.
But his run at the very highest end of the sport might have come to an end in Saturday’s split-decision loss to a determined Juan Francisco Estrada.
Despite a questionable third scorecard of 115-113 in favor of Viloria, it was Estrada (23-2, 17 KOs), 22, who surged over the second half of the fight to earn scores of 116-111 and 117-111 and capture a pair of flyweight titles. ESPN.com also had it 117-111 for Estrada.
Viloria (32-4, 19 KOs), 32, never stopped coming forward and was game until the final bell, but the wars might have added up over time as the younger fighter showed better body language and piled up a series of rounds by landing the harder, more accurate shots despite suffering a cut midway through the fight.
5. Macau takes positive step forward as boxing destination
With China having been an untapped market for American boxing, Top Rank’s move into the country appeared to be a successful one thanks to the much-anticipated debut of Zou in front of his home fans and an action-packed undercard of title fights, upsets and toe-to-toe action.
With the long-term goal of turning places such as Macau and possibly Singapore -- where casino profits dwarf those of Las Vegas -- into destination cities for major American boxing cards, the immediate fallout of how Saturday’s card affects the future will be interesting, especially if Top Rank can lure a fifth fight between Pacquiao and rival Juan Manuel Marquez to a major Asian port of call.
Figuring out the best time to televise a major fight live will always be a juggling act for any bout halfway across the globe, but Saturday’s card in Macau was a successful opening statement.