Home Boxing News The Zhilei Zhang Factor

The Zhilei Zhang Factor

Before Zhilie Zhang’s August 2022 fight with highly rated Croation prospect Filip Hrgović, the 39-year-old Chinese behemoth was not taken particularly seriously by the boxing fans and media.

The 2010 Asian Games gold medallist, all six feet-six inches of him, turned pro in 2014 and won his debut contest by knockout in just 17 seconds, against a man who’d won his previous three contests.

A further 21 wins followed but the critics, such as those with both Boxing News and the Ring Magazine, claimed Zhang looked slow and ponderous. Powerful perhaps but seemingly very vulnerable to any prospect with a decent degree of speed and talent.

A February 2021 majority draw against American fringe contender Jerry Forrest, in his first serious test, did little to quell them. Two more wins over over-matched men saw him climb to 24-0-1 before he risked his undefeated record against the aforementioned Hrgović.

Hrgović was an Olympic games bronze medalist, whose ledger read 14 straight wins (including 12 knockouts) and with early KO wins over the likes of the decent Eric Molina and Rydell Booker, he certainly was taken very seriously in the boxing fraternity.

He was expected to KO Zhang with ease before landing a huge mega money fight with the likes of Joshua or Usyk. However Zhang had not turned up just for a payday.

The bout was held in Saudi Arabia and saw the gifted Croatian hit the deck, courtesy of a well timed Zhang left hook, in the very first round. He got to his feet but looked on the back foot from then on as Zhang pressed hard.

By the fights end Zhang had forced Hrgović to hang on several times and looked a close but deserved winner. Hrgović looked extremely lucky to get the official verdict via a unanimous decision and his stock dropped considerably as a result of his poor performance.

Zhang, for his part, suddenly seemed something of a dark horse. Two main types of opinion formed in the wake of the bout. The first was that Hrgović was overrated, the second that the old and seemingly sluggish Zhang might just be a decent fighter after all.

In step Britain’s supremely powerful undefeated juggernaut Joe Joyce. In 15 Pro fights only the highly durable Bryant Jennings had lasted the full distance with Joyce, who had turned pro as an Olympic silver medalist in 2017.

Another powerful but slow fighter, Joyce had at first been written off for exactly the same reasons that Zhang had. Too old (37), too slow and too easy to hit. The undefeated, powerful and quick British heavyweight Daniel Dubois was supposed to box Joyce’s head off before heading onto bigger fights, when the two met in 2020 in England.

Yet it was Dubois, not Joyce, who lost the 0 on his record that night, leaving the arena with a fractured eye socket, courtesy of the powerful blows Joyce had landed on route to a tenth round knockout win.

Joyce was suddenly the contender on every British fan’s lips, and when he did what world champion Anthony Joshua had failed to do, beat former WBO champion Joseph Parker by knockout, the hype train entered an even higher gear.

Joyce was seen as a champion of the future, someone Tyson Fury seemingly didn’t want any part of. When he signed to fight Zhang, the Chinese puncher was once again written off. Joyce’s power, tenacity and tank-like resistance to incoming punches was thought to be more than enough to deal with the older Zhang.

The two met on Saturday night in London and once again Zhang took no notice of either the critics or their official predictions. He stormed into the Englishman right from the start, and showing decent speed for such a large man, immediately had success with combination punching, backing Joyce up.

Zhang hurt Joyce in the second and thus set the pattern of the fight. The iron chinned Brit had no answer to Zhang’s thumping southpaw straight left hand, taking it flush time and time again.

Joyce showed tremendous heart to try and stay in the fight, and did have some success with body shots, but always looked a step behind. Behind on points, he won the fifth round but with his eye swelling horrendously was beginning to look like a man on borrowed time.

Referee Howard Foster had the doctor inspect the eye at the start of the sixth round and the fight was wisely called off minutes later with Joyce’s eye now practically closed.

The win sees Zhang finally given well deserved credit for his boxing career and has earnt him the respect of the wider boxing fan base.

So where does this leave Zhang in the wider heavyweight picture? The Ring heavyweight rankings had placed Joyce fourth and while it remains to be seen if Zhang will inherit that position, he will certainly now be very high in virtually all official rankings.

Despite being 39 years old he looks in tremendous shape and seems to be well capable of undertaking hard and gruelling fights. Having said that he probably won’t want to hang about and big fights can be hard to come by.

He has expressed a desire to avenge the Hrgović “loss” but few other fighters will be queuing up to fight him. There was no official rematch clause for the Joyce bout but that is another option for Zhang.

Zhang is technically the mandatory challenger for world champion Oleksandr Usyk’s WBO title. In today’s boxing world that doesn’t actually mean that much, Usyk is also WBA and IBF champion so could in theory just dump the WBO belt and still be recognised by the public as the real champion.

Far more likely is that Zhang has to fight another top contender or two before he gets a real title shot. Would he really pose the likes of Usyk or Fury a serious threat? On current form he’d make a very interesting match-up for either.

“I’m 39 years old, but I’m disciplined, I train hard and next step I go for the title.”
– Zhilei Zhang