Zhang Zhilei is still a relatively unknown name for many western boxing fans. A friendly giant, he greeted me in English before we began the interview with his translator and friend Kurt Li. Having grown up in Henan Province, China, an area and country not famed for developing heavyweight boxing talent. His career has already been an unlikely and incredible journey, with the end not in sight yet. A decorated amateur, he is often dubbed amongst the British media as 'Anthony Joshua's Olympic rival' although, as this interview shows, there is much more to him than that. He made the decision to go professional in 2014 and he has recently signed with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing in an attempt to catapult himself to the next level.
“I am from China where boxing is not the top sport. I did not know much about boxing as a sport, I was not really into it growing up. I was actually a canoeist but later on my body become too big. That was when I started to get into boxing, and it's been twenty-three years”.
As an amateur he managed to gain a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a dream come true for any athlete.
“I was beyond excited and at the same time honoured to get a medal, even though it was not a gold medal. I was very excited and honoured back then as it was the 30th year since China had resumed boxing, because they had stopped for a long time. I made history in the heavyweight division, and I'm still looking to make history in professional boxing whilst representing China”.
Zhilei is now fighting out of New Jersey, having moved there from China to commence this professional boxing career. Despite much of boxing halting due to COVID-19, Zhang managed to continue his training throughout the pandemic.
“The US is the heart of boxing and that's what everybody says. I came here to train because I can get the best trainers in the world, the best sparring partners and the best business advice. It was just the perfect place for me to turn pro. I have to say that I have been very lucky. For the past year even though the pandemic definitely affected everybody in this world, I'm lucky to still maintain my training in the private gym”.
He now has one of the biggest opportunities of his career, as he fights on the pound-for-pound great Canelo Alvarez’s undercard live on DAZN. A good performance and a highlight finish could gain him a whole new audience and fanbase.
“Canelo is definitely in the face of boxing right now. People just want to go to see him fight no matter if they are physically going there or watching it online, people just want to watch him. It's an honour for me to share the ring with him and to be on the same card. But everyone will remember me just like they remember Canelo”.
He will be fighting relatively unknown heavyweight Jerry Forrest, with Zhang admitting that it should not be his toughest test to date. Although, there was confidence that a win in this fight would lead to greater tests against elite competition.
“I didn't know his name before the fight was made. I know he is a southpaw, I know his height and I know his style, and basic information. I have watched videos of his last fights but in the fight, things might change in a second so I cannot just take his weaknesses from the videos. I wouldn't say that this is my toughest fight coming up though. Just wait until the world title fight happens, that will be a tough fight for me.”
He last fought in 2020, securing an emphatic fourth round knockout of Devin Vargas. He has heavy hands and the ability to finish the fight at any moment, which helped him gain the apt nickname ‘big bang’.
“I will be expecting the same result (as the last fight) but a knockout for me is not something that I pursue. My goal going to this fight is to perform and to do what I've been training for. Then if the knockout comes, I believe it will come and everybody will see it and will remember it”.
The 37-year-old is yet to go the full twelve rounds in his professional car