Zhilei Zhang maintained his position as the WBO’s mandatory challenger for one of Oleksandr Usyk’s heavyweight titles by knocking out Joe Joyce in the fourth round of their immediate rematch Saturday night.
Filip Hrgovic, the IBF’s number one contender and the only fighter to defeat Zhang as a pro, is ahead of the ascending Chinese southpaw, however, in the mandatory rotation agreed upon by the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO. With Croatia’s Hrgovic (16-0, 13 KOs) due his shot at Usyk before Zhang (26-1-1, 21 KOs) and Tyson Fury, Zhang’s other target, perhaps preparing to pursue his own title unification fight versus Usyk, Zhang might have to pursue another opponent.
Shaun George, Zhilei’s trainer, would welcome a battle against a WBC former champion with whom he is certain Zhang would make a fan-friendly fight.
“I like Zhilei to be active,” George told BoxingScene.com. “I like him to work, so if that’s the case, I would like a Deontay Wilder fight. Let’s make it happen. Fight fans wanna see it.”
The long-discussed showdown between Alabama’s Wilder (43-2-1, 42 KOs) and England’s Anthony Joshua (26-3, 23 KOs) still hasn’t materialized, which could leave Wilder to look at alternatives as well. Wilder-Zhang would be dangerous for both boxers, but George likes his improved 40-year-old interim champion’s chances.
“I respect Wilder as a fighter and I respect him as a person,” George said. “Me and Malik Scott [Wilder’s trainer] go back a lotta years, to when we were 17, 18 years old. But it’s a fun fight. I believe Zhilei would win that fight by knockout, also. Skills pay the bills in that fight.”
Fighting Zhang, while risky, could be appealing to Wilder because beating the 2008 Olympic silver medalist would make Wilder the WBO interim champion and the mandatory challenger for one of Usyk’s crowns. Wilder is ranked number one by the WBC, but there probably isn’t enough fan interest in a fourth Fury-Wilder fight to justify their purse demands.
Wilder-Zhang is something different, though, and the 6-foot-6, 287-pound Zhang has captured the attention of boxing fans with his back-to-back victories over England’s Joyce (15-2, 14 KOs) – a sixth-round stoppage April 15 at Copper Box Arena in London and a much more brutal, memorable knockout Saturday night at OVO Arena Wembley in London.
“Who wouldn’t wanna see that?,” George said of Wilder-Zhang. “It’s ‘The Bronze Bomber’ against ‘Big Bang,’ two 2008 Olympians – Zhilei winning the silver medal [at super heavyweight], Deontay Wilder winning the bronze medal at heavyweight. It’s a fight that should happen. Obviously, the Deontay Wilder-Anthony Joshua fight is not happening.”
A Wilder-Zhang fight would be an enormous event in China, where they both won Olympic medals in Beijing 15 years ago. Zhang, who resides and trains in northern New Jersey, has repeatedly expressed his strong desire to fight in his home country for the first time since September 2018.
“It’s a fight that should be easy to make, Zhilei Zhang versus Deontay Wilder,” George said. “I promise you it wouldn’t be on our part [if it doesn’t happen]. We come to fight. We understand that Wilder is an A-side fighter. We understand that. But at the same time, we have the number one position for all the belts.
“You know, so it’s worth the risk if you’re talking about Deontay Wilder. If you say, ‘What does Zhilei bring to the table?’ We bring a mandatory [spot]. So, it’s worth it. It has a lotta value.”
Wilder, who will turn 38 next month, hasn’t fought in nearly a year. The 6-foot-7 knockout artist abruptly ended his most recent fight with Robert Helenius (32-5, 21 KOs) by landing a right hand toward the end of the first round last October 15 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Negotiations between handlers for Fury (33-0-1, 24 KOs) and Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs) are likely to restart if Fury defeats former UFC heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou in their 10-round, non-title fight October 28 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Barring a draw or no-contest, a bout between England’s Fury, the WBC champ, and Ukraine’s Usyk, who owns the IBF, IBO, WBA and WBO belts, would determine boxing’s first fully unified heavyweight champion of the four-belt era.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.