|Photo: Andrew Weber/USA Today|
When the words "boxer" or "fighter" are tossed into the discussion, your average person would likely think of a Muhammad Ali, or a Mike Tyson, or someone else with a similarly huge name, and dismiss the idea. Those guys made armloads of money and commanded global attention while double-fisting drinks with little umbrellas in them and living large, didn't they?
The reality for most fighters is a low income existence with not much to show for it at the finish. And on top of that, they got punched in the face repeatedly for their effort. How many fighters get their hand wraps taken off after their first serious sparring session and think, "This seems like an easy way to not become rich"?
A safe assumption is that, upon choosing to become a fighter, most have a hankering to be great. The sugar plum fairy dancing in the head of nearly every amateur fighter is Olympic gold drapery, and your average professional fighter's fairytale ends with winning a world title.
Two-time Chinese Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming plants roots in the pro leagues this weekend against Jesus Ortega in Macau. And while Shiming seems to be serving as the key to unlocking a potentially enormous boxing market in China more than anything else, one can't help but wonder what exactly will come of his pro career, or what the odds of him winning a major belt will be.
It's a bit soon to apply the 2012 Olympics toward the discussion, so they haven't been factored in to the following analysis.
In 23 separate Olympic games that included boxing, 893 medals were earned. Of those 893, 229 medals were of the gold variety, and won by 223 individuals. And of those 223, 38 would go on to win a recognized world title belt. In other words, Olympic gold medalists statistically have a 17% chance of becoming a major belt-holder.
Through the first nine Olympic boxing games (1904-1952), only 5 gold medalists would on to win world titles in the pro ranks: Frankie Genaro, Fidel LaBarba, Jackie Fields, Pascual Perez and Floyd Patterson.
Additionally, the first 14 Olympic boxing games produced only 10 future titlists. The other 28 have all come since 1976 -- the year considered by many to be the United States' best year for Olympic boxing. 1976 was also the first year to produce more than two future titlists. Why, then, despite the fact that amateur boxing more resembled pro fighting at that time, do the Olympics seem to spit out future champions at a higher rate? More weight divisions and a generally easier road to winning a belt? A different type of promotion for gold medalists? Television?
Indeed a gold medal wasn't much of a belt notch until Floyd Patterson followed up on his 1952 podium stay by capturing the vacant heavyweight title four years later. In his second defense, he threw a bone to '56 gold medalist Pete Rademacher in the latter's pro debut, and the large, honey-colored pendant became just a tad more important to promotion. But the term "golden boy," specifically in reference to a former Olympic gold medalist in the paid ranks, got a serious push when the likeable Ray Leonard moved along quickly following his showing in 1976.
The 1976 Olympics proved to be a watershed moment for Olympic boxing in more ways than one. The U.S. won four gold medals, but came close to taking home six that year, and the bronze winner at heavyweight, John Tate, would've been another number on the "future belt-holder" list. Maybe the value of a belt was cheapened a bit at that point, however. The U.S., and 64 other countries, boycotted the 1980 Olympics, and by the time the '84 Games were done, Larry Holmes was a few months away from helping to legitimize a new sanctioning organization in the IBF. And every Olympics from 1976 to 2004 produced two or more future champs.
Yet another sanctioning body would emerge as worthy of consideration in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and it's debatable whether or not the WBO had gained serious recognition when 1984 Italian "Golden Boy" Maurizio Stecca won the organization's inaugural featherweight belt.
Nevertheless, Zou Shiming enters the realm of fighting for money at a time when there are likely more "legitimate" belts to win than ever. They range from regular to super, and even on to silver. There are more weight classes than ever, and more multiple-division champions than ever in recent years. If there were a great time for Shiming to turn pro and hope to win a belt, it would be now.
Even if the cynical view is to be assumed true, and Zou Shiming is simply a pawn in a game of "100 Million Viewer Pyramid," he still has a serious amateur pedigree to consider. And while great fighters like Billy Conn, Dwight Qawi, Rocky Marciano and more had little or no amateur experience, thriving on an international stage, in today's sport, seems to be a better predictor of potential than not. It remains to be seen what dropping the headgear and changing the scoring system do to that dynamic, if anything, though.
Until the transition from the amateurs to the pros can be made easier and more seamless, a lingering skepticism will probably haunt the men and women who seek waistline immortality. In Zou Shiming's case, however, the doubt springs from a source called "reality."
Even before signing on to turn pro, Shiming had an awkward, sneaky counterpuncher's style. Lost, though, is the sharp offensive craft of a Joel Casamayor or even Amir Khan, and in its place an array of wide hooks, eccentric uppercuts and questionable defense. A cocky foot shuffle when pegged solid may capture the attention of the crowd, but it won't single-handedly win a professional bout in a fair world.
At 32, Shiming's somewhat advanced age will add an extra booster to his career trajectory. As a flyweight, the current depth of the division could work for him, or the history of it could work against him. It's as if Shiming is caught between the ease with which belts are seized upon in the current era, and the difficulty of winning and keeping a belt in such a division.
There's a good chance that his opponent, Jesus Ortega, just won't even be able to offer up a stiff test, much less prove or disprove any prediction based on rough statistics. Zou Shiming is headlining a card with action fighters Juan Francisco Estrada and Evgeny Gradovich on the undercard for a reason. He might be moved quicker than average, but not so quickly that he'll be in any title picture all that soon.
Will Shiming bump the likelihood of a gold medalist winning a belt up from 17% in the coming years? It's possible, but if Top Rank is able to grab the attention of the Chinese market, will it matter?
Oddly enough, Zou Shiming's pugilistic upbringing compares to that of children in general in today's hyper-connected age; every milestone is documented, uploaded, downloaded and shared. Should Shiming keep winning, he may be the one of the first fighters to have every single one of his fights easily available on video.
The consensus seems to be that Shiming won't last into his belted days. Until then, it's a gamble.
Please follow Patrick on Twitter: @Integrital, and check out the boxing podcast he's a co-host for, Queensberry Rules Radio.