LOS ANGELES — Zou Shiming works the speed bag at the Wild Card Gym with the skill of a veteran pro fighter, popping it back and forth with dozens of precise punches. Watching from a near corner, Freddie Roach chuckles.
"When he came to the U.S., he didn't even know what a speed bag was," Roach says. "Now it's his favorite thing to do."
Zou isn't a product of the Western boxing world, but he's aiming to conquer it. The greatest amateur boxer in Chinese history is making his pro debut this weekend in Macau, and the 112-pound dynamo intends to fight for a world title in the next year.
After winning China's first Olympic boxing gold medal in Beijing and adding another in London last year, Zou has moved into the pro ranks with the backing of Top Rank promoter Bob Arum.
"I'm just a man who wants to make my dream come true, and that's why I'm here," Zou said through a translator.
Roach, the mastermind behind Manny Pacquiao and many more world champions, has been hired to shepherd the pro development of an unorthodox, slippery boxer who baffled his opponents at the last two Olympics. Zou is attempting a remarkable move for a fighter from a nation that banned boxing until the 1980s – particularly a fighter who learned his basic movement skills as a pre-teen by studying wushu, a Chinese variation of martial arts.
But Zou is picking up the intricacies of the pro game with remarkable speed. He can already hold his own in sparring with world champion flyweight Brian Viloria, and Roach is pushing his 31-year-old pupil to reach a world-class level immediately.
"We're definitely on a fast track with him," Roach said. "When I first saw him, I thought he was a little soft. I was wondering, `What's going to happen the first time Brian hits him?' He showed me he'll fight back. He's not soft at all."
When Zou takes on Mexico's Eleazar Valenzuela in the Cotai Arena at the opulent Venetian Macau, their bout will be broadcast to nearly every home in China, where he's already a celebrity after his pioneering Olympic performances. The show easily could be the most-watched event in pro boxing history, depending on the measure.
Top Rank has prepared a thoroughly Vegas-style show for the thousands of high-stakes gamblers who will fill the seats, complete with spotlights, smoke and ring announcer Michael Buffer. The fight card even has a title – "Fists of Gold" – and its own theme song.
But if Zou felt any pressure to carry this show during his daily workouts in Hollywood, it wasn't reflected in his regimen. His speed and power have even impressed Viloria, the former U.S. Olympian who sparred dozens of rounds with Zou in preparation for his own fight on the Macau card.
"He's a great fighter, and he definitely could be a world champion someday," Viloria said. "I see a big future for him. His punches come at you real quick, so it's tough to gauge distance. He's quick-handed, quick-fisted. He's going to be tough."
Wearing a gray T-shirt featuring the Wild Card's name in pale green lettering, Zou works out with the same visible aggression he showed in the amateur ranks, punctuating every punch at Roach's mitts with staccato yelps of "Ta! Ta! Ta!"
Roach is impressed with his discipline and stamina – and the language barrier isn't a major problem with the daily presence of Zou's English-speaking wife, actress Ren Yingying, and another translator supplied by Zou's management company.
"He's a real good boxer, but he had a lot of habits we're trying to change," Roach said. "It's just a different game now as a professional. We have to go fast, but we're going to get there."
The fights will be televised stateside on HBO2 on Saturday, but the important audience will be in China.
Arum is betting Zou is the key to unlocking the vast Chinese market, with its hundreds of millions of potential fans waiting to cheer their Olympic hero and other Asian stars. Arum already has the backing of the vast gaming industry in Macau and in Singapore, where gambling revenue from two casinos dwarfs the entire take of every casino in Nevada.
"Boxing has always been used by casinos in Nevada to bring in customers," Arum said. "They had some of the greatest fights in Nevada. Now, Macau is Las Vegas on steroids. This fight is going to be in more than 200 million homes. You don't have to be a big economist to know where this is going."
There's already talk of another Top Rank show this summer in Macau, and Pacquiao's next fight seems headed to Macau or Singapore. The UFC is also establishing a foothold in China, holding a successful show in Macau late last year.
But the growth of boxing in China could rest squarely on the shoulders of Zou, who seems to welcome the opportunity to blaze a trail. After all, his favorite boxer since childhood has been Muhammad Ali.
"There is another reason I'm here: I want more and more Zou Shimings coming," Zou said. "It's not only about my fight. I want everyone in China to enjoy this sport. My goal is to make more fans of boxing everywhere."