(Zou Shiming; photo credit: Chris Farina, Top Rank)
What might have been the biggest viewing audience for a live boxing match in human history got itself a good show Saturday, then it watched a win for its national hero.
From the standpoint of action in the ring, the most significant outcome on the Macau, China card that aired Saturday on HBO2 was flyweight Brian Viloria dropping a decision to hungry young Juan Francisco Estrada. It was a fan-friendly slugfest with an upset winner, given how Viloria has climbed into consensus pound-for-pound top-10 status in the past couple years.
The "event" was significant in a whole other way: As with most pro debuts, Chinese Olympian gold medalist Zou Shiming's pro debut had only ceremonial importance and was non-competitive. But that event was pure Top Rank genius. For years, Top Rank's Bob Arum has talked of bringing a card to Macau so frequently that it became a running joke, not because the idea was unsound but because it kept not happening. Whatever the specifics on the math — it went from "in more than 200 million homes" to "300 million people watching" by the time ring announcer Michael Buffer — the volume of human beings in China dictates that claims of an all-time television viewing audience are plausible.
On the same card, Rocky Martinez edged Diego Magdaleno in a battle of two top-10 130-pounders.
JUAN FRANCISCO ESTRADA – BRIAN VILORIA
A lot of boxing people were very enthused by this bout when it was announced; I was not one of them. It looked to me like a certain kind of bout Top Rank specializes in, i.e. a match-up that was competitive enough to entertain but not enough to lead to a realistic challenge. I was wrong.
I misjudged Estrada. I thought, as well as he performed against Roman Gonzalez in his last outing, that bout was equally about Gonzalez's limitations. Plus, Estrada was now moving up in weight from that junior flyweight bout. If Gonzalez knew Viloria was too powerful for him at 112, then surely the guy Gonzalez beat would find Viloria a touch too powerful, too.
As it happened, Estrada was the bigger, harder-hitting man Saturday. And now we have a 22-year-old who looks poised to be a breakout star in the lower weight classes of the sport in the coming years, having taken one top-20 pound-for-pounder to the limit (Gonzalez) and beaten another (Viloria).
Viloria started well enough, using his movement, speed, counters and body punching to keep Estrada at bay over the first three rounds. But the next five rounds were a dogfight, with Viloria hurting Estrada briefly in the 5th but Estrada beginning to beat Viloria to the punch and force toe-to-toe exchanges inside. Estrada repeatedly would freeze Viloria with his jab then unleash double-handed hooks, then, when on the inside, dig to Viloria's ribcage or pop his head back with uppercuts. It was arguably even after eight rounds because Viloria was holding his own up close, where the smaller man sometimes has the advantage, and Estrada's bloody nose and swollen eyes had him looking worse for the wear, but it was also becoming clear that over the long haul, the proximity at which they were fighting favored Estrada.
Viloria's legs abandoned him over the final four rounds, as Estrada piled up the damage and, perhaps, Viloria's 32 years — and his hard years in the ring — caught up with him. Viloria's heart never failed him, but Estrada simply beat him up as the fight neared the final bell, with Viloria struggling to stay on his feet in the 12th round. The result was a split decision victory for Estrada. I say "perhaps" it was Viloria's age because we've seen these kind of late-fight fades from him before. That he had eliminated them entirely — he was said to have finally taken his training as seriously as he needed to — paved the way for the most prolonged period of success over his career, a stretch unblemished by the periodic setbacks against underdogs that have dotted his resume. Viloria promised to make another comeback, and we'll find out whether he's got another rebirth in him or if time has run out on a fighter who showed such promise coming out of the Olympics, showed so much inconsistency for so much of his career and showed, finally, that he can put it all together for more than a few fights in a row.
Until he met Estrada, of course. The flyweight division has produced a lot of good action in recent years, among them the last couple bouts of Estrada and Viloria, up to and including Estrada-Viloria. But this kid looks like he could be delivering action and victory at 112 for the foreseeable future.
ZOU SHIMING – ELEAZAR VALENZUELA
This was the expected four-round shutout, although maybe you might've expected a knockout, since they're pretty common even for light-hitting amateurs who are turning pro. Shiming, though, is an exceptionally light-hitting flyweight, and his opponent, Valenzuela, never once seemed remotely perturbed by anything Shiming hit him with, and Shiming hit him flush time and again. Although Valenzuela was merely 18 years old and looked at least five years younger, he was, it must be said, an above-par pro debut opponent, who had some poise and fighting ability but was way out of his depth against someone with Shiming's amateur pedigree.
Even at 31, Shiming was very fast, and his defensive instincts were sharp. He might've looked a bit over the hill in the Olympics, but here he appeared a bit fresher, perhaps because his gangly foe was a bit on the slow side. If he's going to battle for some kind of alphabet title sooner rather than later, as trainer Freddie Roach said was the plan, he'll want to avoid lunging with his chin up, but best case scenario, there might be some Ivan Calderon-like potential here for a pillow-fisted defensive master who knows a lot of tricks.
ROCKY MARTINEZ – DIEGO MAGADALENO
In a bout that could've gone either way, it went Martinez's way on a split scorecard thanks to a 4th round knockdown of Magdaleno courtesy a long right hand. That gave Martinez the one-point edge on the decisive scorecard, 114-113, or the same score I had it.
Magdaleno and Martinez traded rounds over the 12 round duration, with Magdaleno flourishing when he would whistle cuffing shots from the outside, uppercuts and body shots from the inside and then use his nimble footwork to evade return fire. Martinez, who too often stood and looked at Magdaleno (some of that to Magdaleno's credit, given the aforementioned nimble footwork), had his best success when he would throw those long-armed one-twos whether they were locked on his target or not.
What hurt Magdaleno the most was that he couldn't hurt Martinez enough to keep him from firing recklessly when so inclined, save for one moment early in the bout where a punch got Martinez's attention. He's a skilled offensive fighter with excellent legs, but against a limited but relentless come-forward Martinez at his most relentless, he needed to make an impression and couldn't.
Martinez again finds himself the beneficiary of a close decision, as he also got a draw against Juan Carlos Burgos that he did not earn last time out. This was a more defensible decision, to be sure, than that one. But it does bring to mind the fact that Martinez and Burgos have unfinished business, however much their meeting failed to meet expectations for a thrilling brawl, and with Burgos' bout with Yuriorkis Gamboa reportedly falling apart and this title defense out of Martinez's way, now is as good a time as any to finish it.