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Zou Shiming wins title at right time in changing flyweight division

Zou Shiming, of China, stands over Prasitak Phaprom, of Thailand, during their WBO flyweight title boxing match Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas. Zou won by unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Fate helped deliver Zou Shiming into his second chance at a world boxing title. The flyweight division is a more favorable place for him now than it was just a few months back.

That’s because Shiming had much less chance of winning a title back when the best flyweights were still fighting in the division. But that’s no longer the case: Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada each moved from the 112-pound weight class up to 115.

Gonzalez dropped his belt, and Estrada vacated the two that he held. One of Estrada’s former titles, the WBO, was up for grabs when Shiming fought and beat Prasitsak Phaprom this past Saturday on the pay-per-view undercard of Manny Pacquiao vs. Jessie Vargas.

The result was never in doubt. Shiming and Phaprom had fought once before, about two years ago. Shiming won a wide decision back then, though the bout was a rough and tumble affair.

Shiming went on to challenge the awkward and difficult Amnat Ruenroeng for a world title. Ruenroeng won that fight by unanimous decision. Shiming bounced back with a pair of victories, neither against anyone of note. Even less could be said for Phaprom’s foes in the time since. He’d stayed busy with 12 wins, nearly all against opponents with weak records.

But the WBO allowed the Shiming-Phaprom rematch to be for its title. Shiming’s hand and foot speed were superior. He vastly out-landed Phaprom, who rose from a second-round knockdown, took much more punishment and continued to try to press forward and land big shots. It wasn’t anywhere near enough, however. Shiming won another wide one, a 120-107 shutout on two scorecards and 119-108 on the third, which found one round to give to Phaprom.

Gonzalez and Estrada weren’t merely two of the best flyweights. Gonzalez is seen by many as the best boxer in the world, with Estrada a little bit farther down the list but also highly regarded. Ruenroeng, too, is no longer in power. He suffered a stoppage loss to Johnriel Casimero in May.

The route to being the best flyweight in the world isn’t as difficult as it once would’ve been. It still isn’t easy.

Casimero is a two-division titleholder who is, at 26, already quite battle-tested. Another world title belongs to Kazuto Ioka, a well-regarded fighter who has now won belts in three different weight classes. There are several contenders who may see Shiming as a prime target. One of those contenders is Donnie Nietes, who happens to be the mandatory challenger to the title Shiming just won.

Nietes moved up to flyweight earlier this year. For much of the nine years between 2007 and 2016, he held world titles at 105 and 108. Nietes is 39-1-4 with 22 knockouts. Three of those four draws came early in his career, including a technical draw on a fight that ended in the first round due to a bad headbutt. Even that lone loss came way back in 2004, when Nietes had been pro for less than a year and a half, and when he traveled to hostile territory to face Angky Angkotta in Indonesia. Angkotta was six pounds overweight, and Nietes still only lost by split decision.

Simply put: Nietes is very good. It’s still not yet possible to describe Shiming that way.

Shiming had an accomplished amateur career, winning a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, a gold medal in 2008 and another gold in 2012. Other boxers with lengthy amateur careers have come out fast in the pro ranks, most notably Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachenko. Shiming is not as gifted as either of them. He’s now 9-1 with 2 KOs and is working with acclaimed trainer Freddie Roach, but as a 35-year-old he may only be able to improve technique a certain amount. Time is not on his side, and neither is age.

All of that pertains to Shiming’s future. For now, he is content with the present. He isn’t thinking about the circumstances that made this world title win much easier than it otherwise would’ve been. There is no asterisk sewn into his world title, no footnote inked onto his official record.

“My dream is complete,” Shiming was quoted as saying afterward. “I am an Olympic champion and now I’m a world champion.”

He will hold onto that belt for as long or as little as he can. But he will hold onto that accomplishment for the rest of his life.

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