By Keith Idec
PATERSON, N.J. – Zhang Zhilei is thinking about Anthony Joshua as the huge Chinese heavyweight trains far from the bright spotlight shining on the British superstar.
While England’s Joshua is getting ready for another heavyweight title fight before a stadium full of adoring fans Saturday night in Cardiff, Wales, Zhilei is preparing for his own breakout year at a boxing gym in this gritty city about 25 minutes outside of New York. The 2008 Olympic silver medalist hopes that by the end of 2018, he gets an opportunity to avenge his loss to Joshua in their super heavyweight fight at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“I want to fight him very, very much, and as soon as possible,” Zhilei said through a translator before a recent workout. “I can’t say enough how much I wanna fight Joshua. When I’m punching the heavy bag, I imagine that’s Anthony Joshua.”
Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs) and Zhilei (18-0, 14 KOs) have similar records and are exactly the same size (6-feet-6, roughly 250 pounds), but they have taken vastly different professional paths since Joshua won their bout by a slim margin, 15-11, five years ago in London.
While Joshua was fast-tracked toward a career-changing knockout of long-reigning heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko on April 29 at London’s Wembley Stadium, Zhilei has been brought along at a much more moderate pace by Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports.
The 34-year-old Zhilei has been very active since making his pro debut in August 2014, but mostly has fought journeymen or worse while building his record and learning to box like a professional. His handlers, Roc Nation’s Dino Duva and manager/trainer Shaun George, hope to match Zhilei against a ranked heavyweight when he returns to the ring December 9 in Guangzhou, China.
After a first-round technical knockout of Byron Polley (30-22-1, 19 KOs, 3 NC) on September 23 in Park City, Kansas, the powerful southpaw feels he is more than ready to take on more daunting challenges in the ring.
“I have been training very hard in the gym every day, all for one goal,” said Zhilei, who has already fought five times in 2017. “As of right now, Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, Joseph Parker, they have all the belts. I want those belts. That’s why I’m training hard, to take those belts from them.”
George, a retired light heavyweight contender who has worked extensively with Chinese Olympic teams, is encouraged by Zhilei’s development.
“I would say within a year Zhang [pronounced John] will be ready to fight any one of those guys,” George said. “He’s very bright, very smart. He adapts well and he can really fight.
“He has history with Anthony Joshua. I thought he lost to Anthony Joshua [at the 2012 Olympics], but that’s a fight that, with the right game plan, he will win. There’s levels to this sport. What it comes down to is being mentally ready, and he is. He’s showing it in the gym and he’s showing his willingness to learn. He’s willing to fight anybody out there.”
Zhilei is ranked No. 8 by the WBO, which means he is in best position to challenge New Zealand’s Parker (24-0, 18 KOs) for his title. Joshua owns the IBF, IBO and WBA championships, and Zhilei is not ranked in the top 15 by any of those three organizations.
The hard-hitting contender clearly wants to move into position to avenge his loss to Joshua, though.
“I was over-anxious,” Zhilei said regarding his Olympic loss to Joshua. “All I had in my mind was offense, to go get him, and I forgot about defense. That fight was in London and Joshua is from England. So all that was in my mind was to go get him. I thought otherwise the judges would give it to him.”
Watching Joshua’s career closely, particularly seeing him get off the canvas to stop Klitschko in their unforgettable fight, has made George understand that beating Joshua won’t be easy if Zhilei gets that opportunity.
“What Anthony Joshua has been doing is very impressive,” George said. “He’s a young heavyweight who can really punch and do everything else. We’re not underestimating Anthony Joshua. We’re aware of what he’s doing. He’s doing great things for the sport of boxing.
“But when Zhang comes into the ring with him, they’re gonna know they’re in with a hungry fighter – a real hungry, aggressive, smart fighter. He’s big, he can punch and his defense is gonna be much better. He’s on a different level right now, mentally and physically.”
If Zhilei can beat Joshua or win one of the other heavyweight titles, he, too, can become a huge star in his home country of nearly 1.4 billion residents.
Chinese sports fans have embraced boxing, a relatively new sport there, in recent years and have strongly supported Chinese champions in lower weight classes. Former WBO flyweight champion Zou Shiming, Zhilei’s longtime Olympic teammate, is the most notable among them.
Like fight fans everywhere, they love heavyweights, which leads Zhilei’s handlers to believe he can become boxing’s answer to basketball legend Yao Ming in China. Though he stands a full foot shorter than the 7-feet-6 former Houston Rockets center, Zhilei is often mistaken for Ming by American sports fans.
Duva and George also want to capitalize on the large concentration of Chinese-Americans in the New York metropolitan area by showcasing Zhilei on cards there.
“There’s no heavyweight boxer from China that is internationally recognized,” said Zhilei, who has resided and trained in northern New Jersey for 3½ years. “I’m the first one to take that challenge. Right now, Chinese professional boxing is developing very, very fast. But there’s no hero that you can look up to. I want to be that guy.”
The two-time Olympian didn’t turn pro until he was 31, yet remains relatively young for a heavyweight. Duva and George think this is the perfect time to begin exposing Zhilei to bigger audiences, against tougher opposition.
“He walks into a room and everybody lights up,” George said. “He has a fan base and that’s a key to all of this. He can fight, he’s a big guy and he has a great personality. So it’s just time to show it.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.