China's Next Yao Ming?
Zou Shiming is a man with a thousand names this week. Known variously by his growing international entourage as Zoo, Zow, Zoe, Joe, Joo and Jow (and that's before we even get to his given name), the boxer courteously responds to all and sundry with an infectious smile, and willingly answers the same questions over and over again, always giving full and thoughtful soundbites.
It's this understated charm that may actually turn out to be more useful to Zou and his team than his boxing talents, which, after winning three Olympic medals (2 gold, 1 bronze), are already legendary.
Zou could be the next member of the exclusive China Sports Club™, which currently consists of Yao Ming (lifetime member), Liu Xiang (until he retires) and Li Na. Badminton king Lin Dan is perhaps there too, swimming's new wild boy Sun Yang may one day get there, but that's about it. It's an elite club, and membership can be fleeting, as the fading memories of diving queen Guo Jingjing show.
After back-to-back Olympic titles in Beijing and London, Zou turned pro last year and makes his professional debut against Mexico pretender Eleazar Valenzuela on Saturday.
It's hard to see a Chinese flyweight taking the world by storm, but the HBO cameras have been tracking his every move this week, and have even flown over George Foreman (plus two of his five sons, all also named George) to provide commentary for the fight. It's not often a four-round fight tops the bill, nor is it common to receive US $300,000 for your first pro fight, as Zou is getting.
But that's China's statistical potential in a nutshell: crack China and you've cracked the world.
Of course, it doesn't always happen like that, but that's where the charm offensive comes in. Li Na had more endorsement deals lined up after winning the French Open than she could sign, and if Zou Shiming wins a world title by the end of next year – as is the plan – his phone will be ringing off the hook. Sportswear firm Anta announced a deal this week, aligning the company with what they hope will be the newest member of the China Sports Club™.
And even if that world title doesn't materialize, Zou could still keep raking in the cash. As long as he keeps beating the opponents – credible or not – put in front of him, he'll stay sweet in the eyes of Chinese fans – and that's enough to have any company interested.
Mark Dreyer is a sports journalist
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