Boxing: Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.
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.
SAN ANTONIO -- On Saturday, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. returned to the scene of his legendary father's first professional blemish -- an infamous draw to Pernell Whitaker at the Alamodome more than 18 years earlier. He was there perhaps to defend his family name, but also a middleweight title belt in seemingly his first strenuous test, against deserving contender Marco Antonio Rubio. Joining them on the card was Nonito Donaire, a former multidivision champion aiming for another belt in his first bout at junior featherweight, something of a grudge match against Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. Here's what we learned from one night in San Antonio:
1. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is a real fighter ...
Not for the first time in recent bouts, Chavez showed that when the chips are down and he has to suck it up, dig in and fight, he can do just that. Rubio was advertised as potentially his toughest foe yet, and so he proved, refusing to give any quarter even as Chavez walked him down and dug into his body with hard hooks. In fact, Rubio was landing what appeared to be the higher percentage of punches as Chavez loaded up for big combinations. But Chavez kept coming, and the final two rounds had the crowd on its feet as the two men exchanged hellacious blows, each looking to provide a definitive conclusion to the contest.
2. ... But he probably isn't a real good one
At the same time, Rubio isn't exactly a top-drawer talent. Yes, he stopped David Lemieux, but in hindsight, Lemieux was likely overrated. Rubio was flattened inside a round by Kofi Jantuah and was brutalized by Kelly Pavlik in the only fight in which Pavlik has looked half-decent in years. He showed little, if any, originality in his attack, yet Chavez was unable to nullify it. Similarly, two fights ago, Chavez went tooth-and-nail with an opponent (Sebastian Zbik) whom HBO once dubbed too poor to broadcast in a middleweight title fight.
Chavez has shown some genuine signs of improvement since connecting with trainer Freddie Roach. But there are also signs that the improvement may be plateauing. Of course, adding 20 pounds after the weigh-in couldn't have helped; if Chavez is to develop into anything more than an entertaining battler, he needs to dedicate himself a lot more to his gym work and road work, and stay away from bars during training camp. That may not be enough -- what you see may simply be what you get -- but it won't hurt.
3. Nonito Donaire has become dominant and disappointing
A year ago, Donaire blasted out Fernando Montiel in the knockout of the year, and there appeared to be no ceiling to his potential. But his two outings since then, although clear victories, have been underwhelming. In both cases there were extenuating circumstances: Omar Narvaez didn't try to fight, while Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. at times also seemed content to hide behind a tight defense, at least until Donaire apparently broke his left hand. But, notwithstanding the fact that Donaire was a clear, and mostly one-handed, winner over a good young opponent (even though one judge, maintaining the tradition of criminally bad Alamodome scorecards, somehow contrived to score the contest for Vazquez), the victory felt unsatisfying.
Part of the problem is that "The Filipino Flash" showed signs on Saturday of regressing into a home run hitter, looking to please the crowd with spectacular bombs thrown from all angles. That's all well and good, but when faced with a patient foe such as Vazquez, some basic jabbing and hooking might have served Donaire well, and perhaps helped to break his opponent down.
There's no need to panic: The train hasn't left Donaire's station. But it's warming up, and some disgruntled fans likely are starting to climb aboard. A trip back to basics would serve Donaire well if he is to reclaim and consolidate his place alongside Andre Ward as the best under-30 boxer in the world.
4. Vanes Martirosyan needs to step it up
Martirosyan is an engaging guy and a genuine talent, but in his 32nd professional contest, he needs to be facing opposition far more demanding than the utterly outmatched Troy Lowry, whom he beat up for three rounds on Saturday's undercard. Martirosyan is good at calling out opponents (after dispatching Lowry, he mentioned Mexico's Saul Alvarez), but whether because of him, his management or his promoter, he hasn't followed that up with much in the way of actual, credible tests in the ring. It's time for him to be matched in a meaningful contest against a real opponent, if only to see exactly what he can bring to the table.
5. HBO Boxing is off to a better start in 2012 than 2011
HBO's kickoff bout last year seemed, on paper, a solid one: a clash between undefeated junior welterweight titlists Timothy Bradley Jr. and Devon Alexander. But the fight was a stinker, and the venue -- the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome -- was even worse, and not even close to being filled. By contrast, although Saturday night's fights might not have had the same theoretical significance, they were far more entertaining. Meanwhile, the Alamodome was smartly configured for 15,000 people -- and close to that many showed up, providing an enthusiastic crowd that roared at seemingly every punch. All told, it was a far more positive start to the year.