What Happens To Nice Guys? Zhang Zhilei and the Lane Brothers Waiting To See



What Happens To Nice Guys? Zhang Zhilei and the Lane Brothers Waiting To See

 Zhang Zhilei, the steady-as-he-goes 39 year old Chinese big man, gloves up Saturday, against Joe Joyce, who enjoys slight favorite status in the heavyweight collision.  The 6-6 lefty Zhang (24-1-1, 19 KOs) comes to the ring in London after taking an arguably undeserved loss in his August 2022 battle with Filip Hrgovic. Yes; I thought he deserved to win, but two judges said otherwise. Zhang is a top fiver in the department of decency, he's been a stoic grinder as he edged to a place where he could gain a win that made decades of fighting worth it.

And the fallout–Hrgovic is right now the No. 1 ranked heavyweight by the IBF, and Oleksandr Usyk holds their strap. Hrgovic, with credit for the victory over Zhang, is No. 15  in the WBC, No. 7 WBA, No. 4 WBO. Zhang rates top 15 in the eyes of just one sanctioning body, the WBO, at No. 13. 

“Big Bang” can look sort of hulking, and mean, but it's for show. Yes, he has a finisher instinct, as evidenced by his KO ratio. Out of the ring, though, he's a complete gent. I didn't expect he'd thunder and shout about the judges' call for the Hrgovic battle. He didn't. He expressed polite dismay, proving himself to be a sportsman whose outside the ring values transfer wholly into his combat life. The nice guy with a quite competent skill set is promoted by the Lane Brothers, Terry Lane and younger brother Tom.

Zhang Zhilei fights Joe Joyce on Saturday, April 15.

There are nice guys in boxing and plenty of not nice types. Saturday, a test–will nice guys Zhang Zhilei and the Lane brothers get a W, karmic and otherwise?

The Lanes have known Zhang, who got a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics, for a decade or so. This fight here is a crossroads checkpoint of a lengthy journey, which started out with high hopes, and a partnering with Dino Duva.

Here is how I covered it, back in 2009, for The Sweet Science.

Checking In With Terry Lane, Son of Mills Lane

Earlier this week, I checked in with Terry Lane, to get a sense of how Zhang Zhilei v Joyce came to be, and how it’s been navigating difficult emotional trials, with the passing of their dad, Mr Lets Get It On, Mills Lane. 

I’m not sure I’m able to answer this properly just yet, since it’s so fresh,” Terry said.

Terry Lane, who promotes Zhang Zhilei

Terry Lane of the fighting Lane family. He reps Zhang Zhilei, ranked No. 13 by IBF

My dad’s death was not unexpected, but even under those circumstances you don’t know how you will react. The boxing community was so overwhelmingly supportive, it helped a lot. We were putting this fight together shortly after he died. But for me personally, I’m not going to lie, it has been tough. We would not be involved in boxing if it were not for my dad, so there are daily reminders. It still doesn’t feel real.”

And this tussle, Zhang, the 24-1-1 heavyweight, 39 years old, a solid technician, a patient practitioner, against 15-0 Joyce.

Joyce is himself 37, but turned pro old. Juggernaut comes in with very strong momentum, having stopped Joseph Parker in his last battle, Sept. 24, 2022. But he's not been very active, taking just one fight in 2021, and two in 2022.

Zhang Zhilei versus Joe Joyce headlines at Copper Box on April 15, 2023

Here is video of Zhang Zhilei in his last five outings. Versus Hrgovic, click here.

Against Scott Alexander on 5-7-22.

Versus Craig Lewis on 11-27-21.

Versus Jerry Forrest on 2-27-21.

Against Devin Vargas on 11-7-20.

Zhang versus Joyce, it’s the main event on a Frank Warren show, in the US folks can watch on ESPN+. Warren promotes Joyce, so make of that what you will. How, roughly, did we get here?

We all but begged Matchroom for the Anthony Joshua fight,” Terry Lane said. “We’ve wanted that for years. Last fall, it was clear that it was not going to happen. We were told that Chisora and Whyte would not take a fight with us as well, so it was time to move on. The Joyce fight presented itself, and Zhang, who doesn’t run from a challenge, told us to pursue it. And so, here we are.”

There is a definite vibe for this one, Terry continued. “My mom, who was my dad’s caretaker, is now able to come to the fights. She is here in London with us. My dad died, but my mom has a new birth in a way.”

Terry gave props to team members, acknowledging that these have been challenging times as the business world continues to turn while grief weighs heavily: “I have to say this – Zhilei, my partners Kurt Li and Scott Shaffer, our trainer Shaun George, our team… just everyone has been so supportive. They are helping us get through. Not sure we would be here without them.”

Boxing Has Low Barrier To Entry, So It Features Assortment of Characters

Garry Jonas of ProBox describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur"

This should have been my first clue the relationship was doomed sooner rather than later. Before our launch, I asked Jonas about the image this presented the world and he was totally cool with it

I interacted a bit with the Lanes and Team Big Bang last year, as I worked at ProBox from about Dec 2021-July 2022. The Lanes' fighter Meng Fanlong, a 175 pounder, battled Jean Pascal in Plant City, Florida, headquarters to the organization hatched by “serial entrepreneur” Garry Jonas.

 On March 20 of 2022, I saw Meng fight Pascal, amid some uncertain circumstances. CLICK HERE to read recap from Hector Franco, who was ringside. Jonas had promoted Meng, but the promoter/fighter contract had lapsed. Exactly when, and why, the principals can tell you. I heard both sides of it, a bit from Jonas, and some from Terry, and also Shaffer, who I’ve known for decades. Jonas was signing my checks, so I heard his version more so.

Meng did enough to get the W versus Pascal, many thought, but three judges decided otherwise. Pretty sure Jonas would tell you if asked that he thought Pascal won. He might also tell you that it would have been “better optics” if he'd still been promoter of record for Meng, because Meng would be aligned with a semi-strong player in the industry in Jonas, one looking to improve his standing in the sport. And if moved, he might also share his true thoughts on the choice to not re-up a promotional deal with him.

Anyway…a win would’ve given Meng stellar momentum to secure a title fight in the 175 space, with a strong possibility the Chinese boxer and his promotional team would enjoy the leverage that would come having beaten a bold faced name like Pascal. 

Bad Blood In the Plant City Air

So, Cliff Notes version, the night of March 20, 2022, I didn’t check in to say bye to the Lanes. There was bad blood in the air, as words had been exchanged between Team Zhang Zhilei and ProBox personnel, specifically the son of ProBox bossman Jonas. Behind the scenes, there was angry talk.

Jonas fantasized about telling off ex fighter/Zhang trainer Shaun George, and I kept quiet my thought that George would drop Jonas, who pictures himself as a lean mean athlete from his 30 years ago athletic heyday as a basketballer, not the paunchy middle-aged business titan who spent most all of his time sitting at a desk and making business moves. No real knock, my memory plays the same tricks on me…

I remember the grim faces of Team Zhang–though not the fighter himself, he looked settled– as they walked out of the ProBox set into the night air, into the parking lot of the rehab center.

Terry didn’t want to delve much into that history, smartly. It fits, Zhang Zhilei isn’t an excitable type, nor is Terry Lane someone who fuels himself with negative energy derived from engaging in beefs.

“Dignity” isn't a favored trait of bold faced names these days. Loud mouths and jagoffs are good at sharing glory stories, and bolstering their profile. Zhang is a classy pro's pro

That's wise not to over fixate on matters you wished and hoped would have gone another way, but simply didn't. Ah, but that's not to say it doesn't come up in thought now and again, that night.

I came to this story with thoughts of my stint at ProBox in my mind contextually. Check it out…Because Jonas had at the end of 2021 lured me to work at ProBox based to a degree on his promise that he had an “in” to do PPV in China. 

I Truly Did Believe In The Vision Jonas Laid Out

I recall Tweeting out my excitement at his vision, and spent plenty of my time in his employ working to spread the good word of his vision. It was truthful optimism, too, I really believed that this guy Jonas “got it,” correctly diagnosed many of the ills hurting the sport. 

That, and ten of millions of dollars worth of cash to blow on the venture, gave Jonas a chance to succeed.

I did wonder if my enthusiasm at times topped his, though. One night he let down the guard, and in his office, admitted that this was his midlife crisis project, and yeah, it was no sure thing it would fly. It surprised me; he had no problem sharing his wins, I'd have expected a higher degree of certainty in his quest. I appreciated his honesty with me, though, because, hello, I'm his age, I get the concept of the mid-life crisis. 

Jonas could be charming, humorous, a good conversationalist, and decent, when in a good mood. He is a “character,” however, and that is putting it politely, because he will admit that he will try and make your life miserable if you cross him.

During fight weeks, we did one a month to start, he housed some of his staff, including a fellow communications man, in the half of the motel he was re-furbishing that had been completed, decrying that “Hotels are for (wimps),” when someone asked to be placed in a real hotel, not the jerry-rigged version across the blacktop from the rehab center. I played that off as a quirk, as an amusing element of working for a scrappy startup, I guess, but some of that was me convincing myself.

As time passed, I had to do that more. After the boss chided and belittled an employee for having the temerity to interrupt him in a business chat to say hello, I'd find myself counseling others in the fold to look on the bright side. The paychecks, basically. 

Perhaps Jonas snared me as a believer because he presented the “What Is ProBox” vision to me as though I were an investor, not an employee. These were his hopes, and most wouldn't play out as envisioned. When they sell stock, they are telling you the optimistic version of what will perhaps come to be, right? This was the same thing, I suppose.

Like A Carnie Game, Pick Three Numbers

Kinda genius. When he was looking for someone to run ProBox News, Jonas had told me to pick three figures. Year one salary, lean and mean, building up, year two salary, picture the company doing decent, and year three, when ProBox was functioning on more cylinders, humming along well.

I threw three numbers at him, and he said OK, and what a dope I was, I thought that implied a degree of security, being that he knew I was an enthusiastic part of the quest to change boxing covering.

Jonas' unwillingness to make himself available as the front man before or during his rollout frustrated me, for a few months. He seemed to want to be that guy to lead the sport out of some dark ages, but only to a point. One problem–he had serious trust issues with media, as a whole. Low rent websites are not important to be courted, he felt, and large outlets like The NY Times were also to be loathed and feared, not to be worked with.

I recall getting in trouble when I worked to spread the word of the worthiness of the venture, booking Roy and Tarver on a podcast. It went well, but the boss didn't think so. Probably because he hadn't signed off on it…

I was doing my job as a ProBox communications director, and oftentimes, my quest to publicize the company seemed at odds with Jonas. He was afraid the Times, that liberal rag, would do a hatchet job on him. My re-assurance, that they aren't looking to do an expose here, it didn't move him.  

So, I was working there for half a year plus, and after half that time,  after the Pascal-Meng fight, I never heard about any China PPV angle. I asked him after how it did, Jonas said decent, quoted a number, and said there were hiccups. The last several months, I had told many of the industry naysayers who thought I'd not last with such a being as Jonas that if his China PPV thing is real, his venture should work. Without that element, what was he doing different that could make him a player, became the question.

ProBox Ups and Downs

Jonas arguably over promised and under delivered, what he presented to me as his aim and intent for the ProBox brand and what actually came to fruition.

It leaves me feeling a certain way, wondering how much of his vision was just his “pitch,” and how much he truly wanted to do things differently. I asked myself that when into first quarter of last year I got an in to get The NY Times to do a story on ProBox and the rehab titan/boxing promoter. 

Jonas shut it down, saying he didn't trust big media. I feared that Jonas might not be comfortable with the full arc of his story, which included battling with the FEC. It's something I had brought up with him, before I signed on, because I wanted to make sure all was on the up and up, and see what sort of reputation actually preceded him. He had defended himself skillfully, but if I were him I’d not be interested in old skirmishes like that popping up again.

As December 2021 went into the New Year, I didn’t really see the method to the madness as Jonas debated–mostly in his own head, he's an ultra deliberative perfectionist—how and when to kick off his boxing news division, which he hired me to handle.

We had “talk shows,” as Jonas insisted on referring to YouTube shows featuring Roy Jones, Paul Malignaggi and Antonio Tarver, who Jonas referred to as “founders.” February, March, April, and beyond, Jonas was dealing with that side of his newbie company, specifics on the news division didn't get cemented.

But, I figured, this is a startup, the timing won't go as expected. Sometimes that spirit was refreshing. Like when Jonas had told me the morning of a March 25, 2022 show that I'd be doing in ring emcee duties for a Plant City show topped by a Cesar Francis v Mohamed Mimoune main event. Jonas at 8:45 am the morning of March 25, fight night, told me the gig was mine, never mind I'd not done it before, go hustle out, buy a suit. Which I did. 

No time for tailoring, the suit was what it was. 

That bum Jonas needled me for months after about the suit's fit, like he was Oscar De La Renta, and of course I swallowed it, because that was a portion of why he paid me, to be able to bust chops with impunity. He got his money' worth mocking me as “Brooklyn liberal,” I think. At times I enjoyed the interplay with the company leader, though I couldn't always be honest with my true thoughts, such as when he told me his coronavirus theories or amidst profane rants delivered to me while I listened on speaker, because it was Saturday, and I was driving my 11 year old to a horse riding lesson.

And I appreciated how he acted on his whims at times, like when he freelanced and had me do Buffer duty. I will always fondly recall that probable one n done, and how I managed to use the word “thusly” in the act of announcing a decision.

But I didn't adore the tip-toeing with him, and in fact, got called out by my girlfriend. She'd hear me in conversation with Jonas, and see that I was stuck in a certain role. Basically, she'd hear him being a jackass on the call, and hear me respond by laughing encouragingly, being part of the dumbass hijinks. Never mind that it was to get along, to stay on the good side of the boss.

After a very tense Father's Day phone session in which Jonas implied that me writing about ProBox on NYFights was unfairly beneficial to ME, our relationship dipped. 

It's a problem, when you have to work in concert with a boss who could be charming, but go from OK to asshole in half an eye blink.

Whenever Jonas wanted to follow through on the vision, furnish a budget, a start date, etc, for his news division, I'd be ready to rock. But I wasn't pestering him for a start date, having realized that he would be an over-the-shoulder presence who'd be obsessed with metrics, and money, and little else. Fast forward to: Jonas let me go, via text message with four days left in the month of July, 2022.

Ouch, hard ouch. 

There were four days left in the month, and there'd be no severance check. No check at all, in fact, because when I started, Jonas had paid me two weeks up front. Dumped via text, with no notice to find alternate employment.

It left me surprised and dismayed. Part of that stems from naiveté, be honest. I hadn’t asked around on Jonas as thoroughly as I should have, because then I would have known this wasn’t destined to be a long term relationship. And because of that naiveté,  I haven't fully gotten back on the vocational train. Some of that has to do with outside the workplace stuff. My family has been dealing with mental health matters for a spell, at times calling for my full-time attention to it. Juggling that and full time employment can be a heavy lift, so there were times when my mood for brainstorming/ass kissing sessions with the check signer wasn't right. So, basically, I stayed at the ready, a good soldier ready to do the bidding of the boss. Until he decided to do in another direction.

All that is to say, yes, I confess to still being curious in seeing how this Garry Jonas vision quest plays out. And this isn’t to brag bout, I did a triple spit-take when I saw what Jonas rolled out as “ProBox News.”

But back to today….Terry Lane didn’t want to do a deep dive on his experience doing business with Jonas. We did compare notes, on his pattern of abruptly firing those under his employ on a whim, because word was making the rounds that Jonas had fired a long-time staffer on a seeming whim–but Terry Lane stayed on a classy path.

If The Good Guy Wins

If Zhang Zhilei wins against Joe Joyce, China will become a major boxing market,” Terry Lane told me. “He will change the global landscape of boxing. Lane Brothers Boxing, Zhang, and their Chinese partners have secured the broadcast and streaming rights in China for Joyce vs. ZhangWe are partnering with ByteDance in China, which is TikTok there, and we are doing a small PPV for this fight. ByteDance has had a lot of recent success with streaming other sports in mainland China, but this is their first venture into boxing. They see this as an opportunity. This fight will help to see if there is something to build upon, and we are all optimistic.”

Good guys sometimes fall short because they don't treat life as a venture. That can be a character defect, because ruthless competitors aren't held back by conscience. Some people see foes and rivals to be beaten, not fellow travelers on road that twists you and tests you. I won't pretend, I will have fingers crossed that Zhang Zhilei and Team Big Bang have cause to celebrate Saturday in London.

Founder/editor Michael Woods got addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the then-impregnable Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist has covered the sport since for ESPN The Magazine,, Bad Left Hook and RING. His journalism career started with NY Newsday in 1999. Michael Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and for Facebook Fightnight Live, since 2017.