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 career, having only gone the 10-round distance once, in 2019, against the Ukranian Andriy Rudenko. As the level opponents increase, the likelihood of going into the later rounds becomes greater, and when they do, he will be ready.
“I have been preparing for 12 rounds in my training camps every single day. I've been asking for top level fighters and I believe that after this fight I'm going to step up with these types of names. We should be expecting a 12 round fight very soon”.
As previously mentioned, he is now signed with Eddie Hearn who is arguably the world’s top promoter. With a plethora of heavyweights under the Matchroom umbrella, the potential mouth-watering matchups for Zhang are endless.
“Everything happened with the flow, they definitely watched my fights, they watched my performances and have been following me and decided it's time to sign me up. Eddie Hearn is very influential and has a lot of influence in boxing. They also have the most heavyweights in the world so for me it is it's a win-win situation.”
There is a definite confidence regarding his upcoming fight; however, he is cautious not to look to far into the distance. Though Zhilei could not hold back his excitement at the prospect of a fight against veteran Derek Chisora, a fight which has the potential to be an all-out brawl. As both fighters have the same promotional team, the matchup is not outside the realms of possibility.
“I focus on this fight right now. I don't look beyond my opponent and my main focus right now is Jerry Forrest. We will definitely sit down and talk when we see each other after the fight and then we'll go over everything. I hope that after this fight will reach an agreement and have a good future together. But I do, I want to fight Chisora very much; I can't tell you how much I look forward to it. As a matter of fact, I left a message for him a while ago asking him to fight me, but he never responded. I don't know what's going on there, but I look forward to it so much, and hopefully after this fight we will make this happen”.
On June 1st, 2019, at Madison Square Garden the boxing world saw how a heavyweight title win can lift not only a fighter but an entire nation - with the underdog Andy Ruiz defeating Anthony Joshua and becoming Mexico's first heavyweight champion. For Zhang, he has the opportunity to do the same for China, and he carries the hope of the nation on his back. Despite now living in the United States, he still feels a close and personal connection to all his followers in his homeland.
“For me personally that's my dream come true (to be the first Chinese Heavyweight champion). Not just for me but for the country of China and its sports industry overall. I'm carrying everybody's dream here, so if I make that dream come true everybody in China’s dream also comes true. The same thing that happened to Ruiz happens for me if I win. The impact is going to be huge in China and for Chinese boxing. Even if I'm living here, I still keep close contact with my followers and boxing fans in China through social media. Even though my family and followers are in China, I still feel like I'm connected to them.”
The heavyweight division is still arguably the most exciting in the sport, dividing opinions and countries. The amount of top-tier talent at the weight-class has not been seen for decades, and Zhang is currently in the mix having been ranked number nine by the WBO.
“You have got all the belts in two fighters’ hands right now and they're fighting for the unification, and hopefully after that fight all the belts belongs to one person. But in addition to them you’ve got fighters like Dillian Whyte and Povetkin and all these other great heavyweights. I really want to share the ring with them, and I definitely belong in the world title mix. It's will be an honour for me to be able to share the ring with any of these guys.”
Obviously, we had to get ‘Big Bang’s’ view on the potential super-fight between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. Zhang fought Anthony Joshua in the 2012 Olympics and ultimately came up short on points, and there is still hopes of a rematch in the pro ranks.
“I lean towards Tyson Fury because he is such a special fighter. He is a slick fighter but at the same time he can bang! Even without the belts, I would like to go against Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. I would like to go against the strongest guys”.
You can watch Zhang Zhilei take on Jerry Forrest live on the 27th of February on DAZN in the UK and America. Even though he is 37 years old, there is still a feeling amongst his team that Zhang could contend for a world title in the near future. Whether he gets the opportunity is a matter for Eddie Hearn, but one thing is certain, you can expect fireworks whenever he fights!