Dubai // Growing up in the countryside bordering Vietnam, Xiong Zhao Zhong had "never flown in an airplane or left China" till he decided to pursue a career in professional boxing.
That decision was taken a bit late in his life. The Chinese fought his first professional bout in 2006, at the age of 23, after being convinced by a cousin to take up the sport a few months earlier.
"I used to fight a lot when I was younger and, in 2006, one of my cousins convinced me to try boxing professionally," Zhong said. "So I moved to Kunming."
He was unbeaten in his first 12 professional fights, winning all but the first, which was a draw. His growing profile and the sport of boxing's interest in breaking into the vast Chinese market convinced the World Boxing Council (WBC) to offer him a shot at the strawweight title in November and Zhong defeated the Mexican Javier Martinez Resendiz by a unanimous 12-round decision to become China's first boxing world champion.
Tonight, Zhong will defend his belt for the first time, against the mandatory challenger Denver Cuello of the Philippines, at Dubai World Trade Centre. The bout gives UAE fans their first taste of a championship fight, courtesy KO Promotions. And Zhong, 30, is determined not to lose the belt.
"I am defending the title for the first time, so it is a very important fight for me," said Zhong, who tipped the scales at 105 pounds at the official weigh-in yesterday; his opponent was 103.8 pounds. "That's why I have been training harder than I have ever done before and when I step into the ring, I will be ready."
Zhong's opponent, Cuello has many of the important statistics in his favour going into the fight. The Filipino is three inches taller than the Chinese, has a 3.5-inch edge in reach and has greater experience. Cuello's professional record is 33-4-6, with 21 knockouts; Zhing is 20-4-1, with 11 knockouts.
Cuello should have got his world title shot a bit earlier, but he agreed to step aside for Zhong last year following an appeal from the WBC president Jose Sulaiman and $25,000. Getting his opportunity now, the 26-year-old Filipino has promised an early night.
"This is going to be a very easy fight for me," Cuello said. "I have the experience of fighting the Mexicans, who are much bigger and stronger. Zhong is not very strong and he is very short. So I am very confident of winning.
"I know he will not reach the 12th round. If I hit him hard early on, the fight is over."
Zhong, however, insists statistics will mean little once the fight begins.
"Yes, he has a good record and he has more experience than me," said the Chinese, who is a big fan of Mike Tyson and Manny Pacquiao. "He has a good punch as well. But I am the champion and I don't care. I will fight anyone, anywhere in the world. I will be looking to land more than just jabs and when I get the chance, I will knock him down. For me, the fight will be more about the head than the heart."
Zhong has the speed to shock an opponent. In previous fights, he has also shown tremendous stamina and can go through 12 rounds without slowing down.
"Because I train at altitude in Kunming it always feels like I can run forever in these places," he said.
One worrying statistic for Zhong, though, is his performance outside China. He has fought three times outside his home country and lost all three. But with a sizeable Chinese expatriate population in the country, the defending champion hopes he will not miss his supporters.
"It's been really good here," he said. "The people are really friendly and the promoter has taken really good care of us.
"There are so many Chinese people, more than 200,000 to 300,000 and I hope they will come to come and see the fight. Their support will be really crucial."
Cuello is expecting a similar support from the expatriate Filipinos.
"I hope all the Filipinos here will come to support me and watch the fight," he said.