This was supposed to be the year Zhang Zhilei’s slow-moving boxing career progressed to the next level.
The unbeaten Chinese heavyweight had hoped to return to the United States early in February for another training camp. Co-promoters Matchroom Boxing USA and Roc Nation Sports planned to have him fight a ranked contender by sometime in April.
The 36-year-old Zhilei has been stuck in his native country, however, due to the travel ban the United States issued February 1 that temporarily prevents Chinese nationals from travelling to the U.S. after an outbreak of the coronavirus. Zhilei (21-0, 16 KOs) has trained in Paterson, New Jersey, for nearly six years, and resides in nearby Bloomfield when he is in camp.
The 6-feet-6, 260-pound Zhilei, a silver medalist in the super heavyweight division at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, returned to China following a 10-round, unanimous-decision victory over Ukraine’s Andriy Rudenko (32-5, 20 KOs) on November 30 in Monte Carlo. The strong southpaw’s ill-fated return to the U.S. was delayed a few weeks due to a death in his family.
Zhilei’s flight from China to the U.S. was scheduled for February 3, two days after the U.S. implemented its travel ban on Chinese citizens. Zhilei resides in Zhengzhou, a city of roughly 10 million residents and the capital of Henan province.
“We’re just waiting and hoping that the travel ban gets lifted in the near future, so that he can get his career going again,” Roc Nation’s Dino Duva told BoxingScene.com. “He’s ready to roll. This was gonna be his year. We’re still hopeful. We just hope he gets back over here as soon as possible because this is where he trains. The training over there, even without what’s going on over there, is tough. But he can hardly even leave his apartment in China, so it’s a tough situation.”
Before beating Rudenko, Zhilei hadn’t fought in 14 months, largely due to a visa issue that prevented him from returning from China to the U.S. for nearly a year.
“I really feel bad for him,” Duva said. “The guy just can’t catch a break. It’s a real shame. His plan was to come back over here the first week of February, train eight weeks or so and get ready for a much bigger fight against a top opponent. It’s horrible. I really feel so bad for him, because he can be right in the heavyweight mix if he can get some continuity going.”
Zhilei, who lost to eventual gold medalist Anthony Joshua at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is ranked No. 10 by the WBO and No. 14 by the IBF.
Meng Fanlong (16-0, 10 KOs), Zhilei’s stablemate and former Olympic teammate, will challenge IBF/WBC light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev (15-0, 15 KOs) on March 28 at Videotron Centre in Quebec City, Canada. Fanlong’s career wasn’t impacted by the travel ban because he returned from China to New Jersey early in December.
Fanlong and Zhilei are trained by retired light heavyweight contender Shaun George.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.