Zou Shiming is 'almost ancient' for a flyweight. Photo: Reuters
Zou Shiming is 'almost ancient' for a flyweight. Photo: Reuters

The three-year project that began in Macau should finally reach fruition in Las Vegas this weekend when Chinese boxing icon Zou Shiming vies for that elusive professional world title at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The double Olympic gold medalist contests the vacant WBO flyweight crown and will never receive an easier opportunity to fulfill his dream.

In the opposing corner stands the modestly talented Prasitak Papoem, who Zou dominated two years ago in a foul-filled encounter punctuated by low blows and head-butts from the roughhousing Thai.

It is relatively easy to position an undeserving fighter like Papoem in a vacant world title contest. There are 85 recognized world championships in professional boxing across 17 weight divisions.

Titles are frequently vacated due to fighters moving up in weight or falling foul of boxing’s political minefields. Although the diminutive Thai’s facial resemblance to Pacquiao earned him the nickname “Mini Manny,” the comparisons end there. The co-challenger’s inflated record is padded with journeymen and a barely believable 14 debutantes.

It is relatively easy to position an undeserving fighter in a vacant world title contest

When dangerous Mexican Juan Francisco Estrada vacated his WBO crown to chase the leading lights at super-flyweight, Zou’s octogenarian promoter Bob Arum wasted little time in taking advantage. But at 35 – almost ancient for a flyweight – time is fast running out for Zou.

Back in March 2015, the “easy” option was Zou’s old amateur rival and IBF champion, Amnat Ruenroeng, another Thai and a former jailbird who earned his freedom by winning a boxing tournament inside the walls of Thonburi Prison.

But what was supposed to be Zou’s coronation and the defining moment in Chinese pro boxing backfired. Ruenroeng’s longer reach and faster hands befuddled a one-paced Zou and earned the Thai a clear win on the score cards.

Forgot to read the script? Ruenroeng’s victory spoiled the party. Photo: Reuters.

That bitter defeat punctured the buoyant boxing scene in Macao, which would soon collapse with the Chinese government’s crackdown on casino operations and the departure of influential Sands China CEO Ed Tracy, an avid supporter of the sport in the Special Administrative Region.

Now Zou has a virtual cinch for a world title. His handlers Top Rank hope a victory will inspire the next generation of Chinese pro boxers and allow them to take advantage of an enormous untapped market. A Zou win should also jump-start Macao’s dormant boxing scene.

Mark Butcher is contributing writer at Boxing Monthly