By Niall O'Connell
The heavyweight division encountered a sizeable shakeup in London on Saturday night, as Zhilei Zhang upset the odds to hand Britains most decorated amateur Joe Joyce the first loss of his professional career at Londons Copperbox Arena, forcing the referee, on the advice of the ringside doctor to call a halt to events in round six due to a severe injury to Joyces right eye.
Zhang started the fight as he meant to go on, unloading sharp combinations to the aggressive, brutish Joyce who was having his trademark durability tested by his Chinese opponent.
It was in round 2 where Zhang cracked the seemingly unbreakable chin of Joyce, landing a heavy straight left hand that buckled the legs of The Juggernaut, hurting him the most we've seen so far in his career. It was clear that Joyce, if he didn't beforehand, realised he was in for a tremendous battle, as he now had to deal with blood from the nose.
As Joyce continued to bravely plough forward, Zhang showed experience, and grit, as he caught a lot of the clubbing blows from Joyce on his gloves, while returning fire with quick left hands that seemingly couldn't miss, and continued to damage the eye of Joyce.
At the beginning of the sixth round, referee Howard Foster beckoned the doctor to examine the busted up eye of Joyce, and although he allowed the fight to continue, it was only briefly, as later in the stanza the doctor found himself on the apron again, and this time his presence was followed by a wave of Howard Fosters arms, and Joyce was officially beaten.
Zhang, at nearly 40 years old, has secured the biggest victory of his career to date, and is now the mandatory challenger to the WBO world heavyweight title.
Now, we will take a look at five potential opponents that Zhang may be in line to face heading into the rest of 2023 and beyond.
Let's start with the man who is the current ruler of the sanctioning body in which Zhang is now the mandatory challenger: The unified WBO, WBA and IBF heavyweight champion of the world Oleksandr Usyk.
Usyk had long been rumoured to be on a massive Undisputed collision course with the WBC and Ring Magazine champion Tyson Fury, however with a spanner thrown in the works for that one, both Usyk and Fury have been left with a choice to make of other dance partners.
It is actually another British fighter, former Joyce foe Daniel Dubois, that is the mandatory challenger for Usyks WBA crownand, and purse bids have been called for an Usyk vs Dubois showdown heading into the summer, however if Usyk was to come through that one like he is expected to, then the year may be capped off with Usyk fulfilling his WBO mandatory against Zhang before it can be truly decided who the ultimate heavyweight kingpin truly is.
The phenomenal Ukrainian Usyk has proved during his illustrious career so far that he is no stranger to travelling into enemy territory, so it may not be a surprise to see Zhang granted his dream world title opportunity in front of his home fans in China.
As mentioned above, with a potential Fury vs Usyk Undisputed fight seemingly being put on ice for the foreseeable future, Fury is on the look out for an opponent he can defend his WBC, Ring Magazine and lineal crowns against. With an All-British affair between Fury and Joe Joyce rumoured to take place following the breakdown of an Usyk fight, Fury may now look towards the man who has just jumped ahead of Joyce in the heavyweight queue.
Stylistically, a collision between Fury and Zhang would be a very intriguing one, as Zhang possesses the physical attributes which The Gypsy King has rarely encountered before at a high level.
A six-foot-six, twenty stone southpaw with deceptively quick, heavy hands may be the code needed to crack the Fury puzzle, and it'd be a fight many fans would be interested in seeing.
Zhang finally secured the biggest win of his boxing life this weekend, but plenty of people are of the opinion he should have already gained a huge victory last August, in the form of another amateur star Filip Hrgovic.
Zhang faced Hrgovic in Saudi Arabia back in the summer, and dropped the Croatian in the opening period, before producing a commendable performance that had most believing he deserved the nod across twelve rounds.
It wasn't to be, however, as Hrgovic was announced the debatable victor.
Now that Zhang has returned to the ring and registered a huge win, and Hrgovic has yet to compete since the pair met eight months ago, the time could be right for both men to set the record straight once and for all, before moving on to compete for world honours.
A man who was at ringside to see Zhang upset Joyce was Dillian Whyte.
The former world title challenger, who last fought to a decision victory over Jermaine Franklin back in November, made his intentions known before the opening bell in London about wanting a fight against fellow countryman Joe Joyce. Now that Zhang was the one who came away with the win, that is a potential fight that Whyte could chase heading into the summer months.
A fight between Zhang and Whyte would certainly bring excitement and intrigue while it lasts, and it’d be a notable victory for the winner as they staked their claim for a world title tilt.
If Anthony Joshua, following his decision victory over Jermaine Franklin at the beginning of this month, decides to share a ring with Zhang next, it would answer a lot of questions as to where the former two-time unified heavyweight champion still lies in the heavyweight pecking order.
Zhangs victory over Joyce has left many people thinking that he may very well have the attributes and skillset to get the better of this version of Anthony Joshua, and if he were to once again travel to the United Kingdom to defeat another hometown favourite, the 39 year old couldn’t be denied for a crack at the divisions title holders.
Joshua and Zhang also have an interesting history from their amateur days, as Joshua dropped and defeated the former Olympic silver medalist Zhang on his way to winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.