Unorthodox Zou seeking first Chinese boxing gold

Aug. 13, 2008, 1:47 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Chinese martial arts never made it onto the Olympic program, but boxer Zou Shiming may be the next best thing.

The two-time world amateur champion light flyweight is China's best candidate for its first Olympic boxing gold, and his trademark kung-fu inspired footwork is starting to draw attention beyond fight circles. On Wednesday, he decimated opponent Eduard Bermudez of Venezuela 11-2, in a bout featuring theatrical flourishes worthy of the professional prize fighter the 27-year-old aspires to become after the games.

"I was brought up studying wushu," Zou said, flushed and grinning after the fight, referring to the catchall term for Chinese martial arts. "We Asians are nimbler. It's a smarter way to fight," he added.

Wearing a flowing red satin robe with "China" in gold letters on the back, Zou entered the fight hall at Worker's Gymnasium to a deafening roar from the home crowd. Chants and cheers fill the hall throughout the four-round bout, and after the lopsided decision was announced, a grinning Zou bowed and blew kisses in every direction. Bounding out of the ring, he does an interview with Chinese television then trots onward to share a few words with a waiting gaggle of reporters.

"With all those people backing me, there's no way I could feel nervous or tense. I just feel great," Zou said.

Zou is an original in a country where boxing has a troubled history. Communist leaders condemned the sport after the 1949 communist revolution, calling it a bourgeois affectation of the capitalist west, but rediscovered the ring after they rejoined the international Olympic movement in the 1980s. In China's quest to raise the national profile through sporting achievement, boxing's 11 gold medals proved a powerful lure.

Zou, who is 1.64 meters (5 feet, 4 inches) tall and weighs 48 kilograms (106 pounds), starting boxing in his middle school in the southwestern city of Zunyi after first studying martial arts. Over his parents' objections, he transferred to one of the country's thousands of state sponsored sporting academies in his teens, drawing the attention of coach Zhang Chuanliang, then experimenting with introducing martial arts techniques to boxing.

International success came in Zou's early twenties, with a silver medal at the 2003 world championships in Thailand, followed by bronze at the Athens Olympics the next year. He took his first world title in Mianyang, China, in 2005. His second came last November in Chicago.

Zou evidences an almost childlike delight in fighting, all the more striking in contrast to the frustrated, angry expressions on the faces of his opponents. Still without points at the start of the fourth round, Bermudez launched a wild flurry of punches that Zou later said included some illegal blows, although he hardly seemed bothered by it.

Before the opening bell, Zou and Zhang embraced for several seconds, a fittingly touchy-feeling ritual for a fighter who regularly pours out his feelings of loneliness and frustration in his blog, Zou also lists his favorite entertainer ("Jackie Chan"), food ("sticky rice dumplings"), and most unforgettable memory ("looking like a girl as a child and being hounded out of the boys' room").

The martial arts influences are most evident in Zou's deft footwork, lightning punches and darting body moves, the opposite of a brawler. It's similar to taekwondoe, but reminescent too of Muhammad Ali, Zou's idol. Like Ali, Zou also likes to let his arms drape at his sides, sometimes almost down to his knees.

Heavily hyped by the Chinese media, Zou's Olympic gold chances have been helped along by a fortuitous draw that put three of his four biggest rivals in the opposite side of the bracket. He faces the fourth, France's Nordine Oubaali, in the next round Saturday.

The first order, however, is to erase the dissapointment of Athens with a win at home.

"This is the biggest dream of my athletic career, to get a good result on the stage of Beijing and let more people know about Chinese boxing," Zou said.