Zhilei Zhang looks to show the world the true meaning of CHINESE POWER come March 8th, 2024, on the undercard of Anthony Joshua vs Francis Ngannou at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
‘Knockout Chaos’ will be the final boxing mega card put on by the organisers of Riyadh Season 2023/24 and is sure to be another spectacle for all combat sports fans.
“Big Bang” Zhang, Olympic silver medallist at the Beijing Olympic games in 2008, is the current WBO interim world heavyweight champion.
He had a stellar 2023, with back-to-back stoppage victories over ‘the juggernaut’ Joe Joyce – a former Olympic Silver medallist himself at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio De Janeiro.
Zhang is pencilled in to face former WBO world heavyweight champion Joseph Parker in the co main event on March 8th after Parkers’ career best performance against Deontay Wilder catapulted him back into the mix with the ‘big boys’ of the heavyweight division.
That during a rebuilding year, in 2023, as he looked to come back from his first ever stoppage loss to Joyce in September 2022.
I recently spoke with Zhang and his translator Kurt Li to discuss his career and the upcoming fight with Parker which will almost certainly guarantee the winner a shot at the full version of the WBO title.
SA: Zhilei, one thing that has always been interesting to me is that we haven’t seen that many prominent Chinese boxers over the years.
One that springs to mind is Zou Shiming, who had unreal success at the Olympics, having won a bronze in 2004 and then gold at both the 2008 and 2012 games.
He also went on to become a world champion in the professional ranks. You yourself are an Olympic silver medallist and now in the professional ranks hold an interim world title at heavyweight.
Can you give me a bit of insight into how you entered the sport of boxing?
ZZ: To be honest, it’s a very long story on how I entered the sport of boxing but what I can say is that I started boxing at the age of 15.
I started boxing training then and between then and now I’ve had many highs but also many lows and here I am.
Through my two performances last year I believe that a lot of boxing fans have now taken note of how good I am, and they have begun to recognise my hard work and skill. I intend to continue down this path of delivering great fights and performances for the fans and for my people.
Whoever likes my fighting style and likes the sport of boxing I would appreciate their support.
SA: Zhilei, I can assure you that people have taken note, as in my day job I had people asking me about you when you beat Joe Joyce the first time and the second time, they were also discussing your performance across the office.
Many boxing fans on social media felt you also defeated Filip Hrgovic when you fought in 2022 and they felt that you were unfortunate to not have your hand raised.
Following on from this you had a massive breakout year in 2023 so your profile has gone through the roof for sure and many now know you as ‘Uncle Zhang’ lovingly. How do you like the nickname?
ZZ: I can understand why the people now know who I am and are finally paying attention to me as a fighter.
Previously, I had been fighting on a lot of undercards, so maybe people weren’t getting to see me much but, since the Hrgovic fight and the outcome of the fight as well as my two fights with Joe Joyce, I have received a lot of love from people all over the world who follow the sport of boxing and the nickname puts a smile on my face.
ZZ: Joe Joyce was someone who had built up a lot of momentum over the last 18 months or so, but you showed that not only can he be beaten, but he can be viciously knocked out despite all the hysteria around his punch resistance being extremely high and him being unstoppable.
How important were those two performances for you and do you have any words of encouragement for Joyce, who is set to return to the ring on March 16th as he attempts to work his way back to the upper echelons of the division?
ZZ: I think in my mind Joe Joyce is still a great boxer and a great personality for the heavyweight division and the whole sport of boxing.
Like me he is an Olympic silver medallist, so I respect him very much. When people looked at him, they saw a very dangerous fighter, before me he had I think 15 victories with 14 knockouts which is unbelievable and I give him nothing but respect, he is a true gentleman.
The first fight I was unsure what to expect as we had never shared the ring before so I was a little uncertain on how he would try to box me. I was lucky enough to keep landing my power shots to his eye and eventually his eye closed which gave me the victory.
The second fight I knew what to expect from him, so I had a more straight forward game plan of taking the fight to him on the front foot and to show the fans that the first fight was not just a coincidence.
I want everyone to remember he is still a top fighter, do not write him off and make sure you show him some respect. I am happy to hear he is returning, and I wish him the best of luck moving forward.
SA: One week before Joyce is set to make his return you will be making your own return to the ring against Joseph Parker. Parker, a former WBO world heavyweight champion himself, has just beaten former long reigning WBC world heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder and has shared the ring with the likes of Anthony Joshua, Joe Joyce, Andy Ruiz Jr. as well as Dillian Whyte and Derek Chisora.
He is only 31 years old which is still quite young for a heavyweight, what did you think of this fight when it was pitched to you?
ZZ: Parker is a strong lad; he has never ducked anyone from my understanding and his resume speaks for itself.
He defeated Wilder in his last fight and that was something I saw coming for sure.
When you look at Parker, he has fought his heart out with a lot of top names and brought excitement to the division throughout his professional career so you can only respect someone like Parker and expect a great fight.
He has accomplished a lot already at a young age and I believe the fight will be a very exciting fight for everyone who has tuned in. Don’t you believe this fight could have been the main event of March 8th?
When you look at Joshua vs Ngannou, yes, it is a big money fight but the comparison of the skills on show and resumes as well as the experience we have – don’t you think this should be the main event? I look at that as a 10 round exhibition bout rather than a professional boxing match at the highest level.
I would also like to add that over recent years boxing has been losing fans due to the best not fighting the best consistently enough because of politics and other motives but in Saudi Arabia they are making all of the big fights happen for the fighters and for the fans alike, so for this I would like to thank his excellency, Turki Alalshikh.
Without him none of this would be happening, he wants to see the strongest fighters fighting the strongest and he also wants the boxing fans worldwide to see that.
This is what boxing is about, it’s not just about making money.
It’s a pure sport that can allow people who work hard to be successful but also people unfortunately on the business side of it focus on the money involved way too much.
SA: As much as Saudi Arabia is the current hotbed for the biggest events in boxing, have you ever had any discussions around putting on an event at the birds’ nest in Beijing which could really put China on the map from a boxing perspective?
ZZ: I believe that if I headline a fight in China that the streets will be empty, and all of the people will be packed inside the birds’ nest to watch me box.
I received a hero’s welcome when I returned from the Joyce fights, and I was recognised by the average person on the streets.
It got to the point where I couldn’t even leave my house for a while, so I look forward to fighting at home in front of my people before my career is done.
SA: Before we wrap up this conversation Zhilei, I appreciate you can’t give away the game plan but I would like to ask what sort of approach you are taking to the Parker fight.
Will we see a version of you similar to the seek and destroy version we saw in your second fight with Joyce or are you going to be taking a more safety first approach with Parker when you meet in the ring?
ZZ: Me and my coach Shaun George are working hard on our game plan every single day. Parker is very fast and explosive; he throws combinations both high and low.
I can tell you that I have been watching his fights over the years and we also fought as amateurs in 2011 but that is all history now.
Anytime, anywhere, Parker is on my mind – as awkward as that may sound.
I am always thinking about Parker when I drive, when I eat, the focus is on him always.
I have absolutely no time to waste, me and my team are working around the clock to ensure I make it to my dream of becoming the world heavyweight champion officially, I want to remove the word ‘interim’ from the title.
Once again, I would like to thank Saudi Arabia and his excellency, Turki Alalshikh and all boxing fans who are supporting my journey – I will show you all the meaning of true Chinese power one more time.