UNLIKE most other sports, what you tend to find in boxing is that a big win will, instead of opening doors, in fact shut many of them in the face of the victorious fighter. A big win, after all, especially one that is unexpected, will do no more than shine a light on the victor’s threat and make all other potential opponents wary rather than incentivised to at some stage fight them.
This could well be true in the case of China’s Zhilei Zang, too, following a stunning third-round stoppage of Joyce Joyce at Wembley on Saturday (September 23). Because that win, while perhaps not unexpected per se, was so immaculate and devastating in its execution it will surely only lead to other heavyweights now looking the other way when Zhang’s name is mentioned on any shortlist of possible foes.
He is, on the face of it, a heavyweight’s worst nightmare: weighing all of 285 pounds, standing at six foot six, and a heavy-handed southpaw to boot. Moreover, given how highly we all rated Joyce’s durability and stamina, to see him fall apart under the weight of Zhang’s punches almost immediately was evidence that not only even great chins can erode with time but, specifically, that Zhang possesses a combination of southpaw hand speed and power that is, to other heavyweights, quite unusual; unusual in the same way as someone like Corrie Sanders was unusual some 20 years ago.
That doesn’t mean Zhang can’t be beaten, of course. (He has in fact already lost as a pro, albeit controversially, to Filip Hrgovic in 2022.) But clearly his combination of size, lefty awkwardness, and pure punch power is, if it hasn’t already, going to make him a man deemed one to avoid rather than target and pick off.
That’s where Frank Warren, Zhang’s promoter, will have to come in and create opportunities for the presumably marketable heavyweight from China. It will be up to him, more so than Zhang, to pick the right fights at the right time and force the best heavyweights in the world to fight him, and soon – Zhang is, let’s not forget, now a man of 40.
It remains to be seen who they target, Zhang and Warren, but two things we know for sure are one, there won’t be another fight between Zhang and Joyce anytime soon, so mismatched were they on Saturday night, and two, very few of the heavyweights mentioned below will be in any rush to volunteer going up against “Big Bang” Zhang.
1) Tyson Fury, 33-0-1 (24)
Perhaps the easiest of all the fights to make, if only because Frank Warren promotes them both, this would be an interesting blend of styles and personalities, as well force a ring to buckle beneath the weight of two enormous heavyweights. It would be intriguing to see how Fury would go about trying to outbox Zhang, which would likely be the plan, and also how Zhang would go about closing the distance on Fury, which he would likely have to do to get any success.
Ultimately, though, as intriguing as it would be, and as easy to make as it would seem, it is hard to imagine a scenario whereby Fury suddenly pivots from “boxing” a mixed martial artist like Francis Ngannou for mega money in the Middle East to then taking a difficult, high-risk, low-reward assignment in his natural habitat against a crafty southpaw like Zhang. Unfortunately, these are the not the kind of challenges of interest to Fury anymore.
2) Anthony Joshua, 26-3 (23)
Similarly, one struggles to see Joshua being any more enamoured by the idea of fighting Zhang than Fury at this point, if just for reasons pertaining to style. After all, the last thing Joshua needs, having lost twice against Oleksandr Usyk, is another methodical southpaw with a pesky back-hand and no small amount of composure. That said, it would be quite the statement if Joshua did indeed find it within himself to one day take the challenge on and ace it. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better way for the Londoner to exorcise those Usyk demons; save, that is, for somehow managing to beat Usyk in an unlikely third fight.
3) Oleksandr Usyk, 21-0 (14)
In what would be a battle between the two best southpaw heavyweights in the world, Usyk vs. Zhang would be a purist’s dream and a rarity at heavyweight insofar as technical excellence. Because it is obvious for anyone who has watched either man for any length of time that these two operate on a different level of technique and ring IQ to most who compete in the heavyweight division these days. Usyk, in particular, is a man who has to compensate for his lack of natural heavyweight size by reacting twice a quickly as his opponents and being twice as smart. Zhang, likewise, while not handicapped physically the same way, is someone who has in recent fights shown plenty of patience and composure, as well as an ability to pick punches with smoothness and assurance.
4) Deontay Wilder, 43-2-1 (42)
On paper at least, it’s tough to envisage a heavyweight fight containing as much power as there would in the ring were Wilder and Zhang to ever cross paths. Wilder, after all, is deemed the hardest puncher in the sport, with 42 knockouts from his 43 wins, and Zhang, no slouch himself, currently boasts 21 stoppages from his 26 wins. More than just the stats, though, what sets these two men apart is their ability to stop opponents who have never before been stopped; cracking someone who had, until then, not been cracked. Among others, Wilder did this quite excellently against Luis Ortiz, not once but twice, while Zhang recently did the same with Joe Joyce.
5) Filip Hrgovic, 16-0 (13)
If there is one fight Zhang deserves, whether to just put right or for his own peace of mind, it’s a rematch against unbeaten Croatian Hrgovic, against whom he dropped a tight decision in August 2022. That night, in a bizarre spectacle which saw both men exhausted to the point of near collapse, Zhang appeared to have done enough to take the spoils at the end of 12 draining rounds only to be left disappointed when the judges voted the other way. Since then, Zhang has rebounded with a couple of great wins against Joe Joyce, while Hrgovic has fought just once, stopping Demsey McKean in another snoozer in August of this year. It would make sense therefore for them to meet again at some stage. (Yet, of course, with both now positioning themselves for a title shot, any rematch is likely to come only when one or both have either succeeded or failed at becoming heavyweight champion of the world.)