By Declan Taylor

ALTHOUGH Anthony Joshua’s clash with Francis Ngannou takes centre stage, the truth is, it is not even the best heavyweight fight on the latest Arabian night.

The pick of the deepest Saudi undercard yet is Joseph Parker’s clash with Zhilei Zhang which is a fight worthy of headlining its own show given how they both climbed the ladder during 2023.

For Big Bang Zhang it was two stoppage victories over Joe Joyce, which catapulted him towards the top of the division while for Parker, 2023 meant four four fights and four wins, with the last coming against Deontay Wilder in one of the best performances of the whole year anywhere.

It was a run which put him in with a shout as Fighter of the Year and his reward is another showdown with a different murderous puncher in Zhang, the 40-year-old who made a mockery of the idea that Joyce was indestructible.

We know by now that the Saudis love heavyweights and, on current form, this fight is about as good as it gets outside of the division’s belt holders Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk. There is little doubt that Zhang, all 6ft 6in of him, is the puncher in the fight given his 26-1-1 (21) record but he will be facing a man who totally nullified the hardest hitter of the generation a matter of months ago.

There are those that will argue that Parker did not face the devastating Wilder of old on December 23, when he totally dominated the former world heavyweight champion to such an extent that judge Steve Gray scored it 120-108 in his favour. But those 12 rounds showed everyone that he and coach Andy Lee can devise an effective strategy and then stick to it regardless of the opposition.

That will be the order of the day against Zhang, too. There are never many people queuing up to fight towering southpaw punchers but Lee, himself a lefty, is confident Parker can do a similar number on the big Chinaman.

When you are dealing with heavyweights, any prediction always comes with a caveat that a fight can change with a single swish of a fist, particularly when one is leaning towards picking against the puncher. But so watertight was Parker’s performance against Wilder, it is clear to see how he wins this fight too.

But, speaking to Boxing News Zhang said: “When Joyce knocked out Parker and when I knocked out Joyce they are different. Joyce has non-stop pressure and relentless attack. He wore him out.

“But me knocking out Joyce was a quick move that proved my ability. I’m therefore confident in my ability that I am capable of knocking anyone out if I want to.”

Of course, Zhang will be more active than Wilder was that night in December and that could trouble Parker, particularly if the 40-year-old gets into the sort of rhythm he did against Joyce. The southpaw is as good as anybody on the planet in the first three or four rounds so if Parker can make it through those he could take control of the fight, settle things down and win on points. If he gets hurt or damaged early on a la Joyce, there might be no way back. The pick, however, is Parker via decision.

Earlier on the card, there is a potential classic at featherweight as Britain’s undefeated livewire Nick Ball takes on Mexico’s Rey Vargas. There has been a lot of buzz around Ball and it got louder in November when he did a number on Isaac Dogboe in Manchester. That performance, punctuated by a fourth round knockdown, suggested this is a man en route to the very top but in Vargas lies another acid test.

The 33-year-old is 36-1 (22) with that solitary defeat coming in his last outing when he jumped up to super-featherweight to face O’Shaquie Foster but was beaten via unanimous decision.

Indeed this is only Vargas’ third fight at featherweight, given his long, undefeated career at super-bantamweight which included five defences of the WBC title. At 126lbs, he beat Leonardo Baez over 10 before a split decision victory over Mark Magyaso in July 2022. Since that night he has boxed only once, the defeat to Foster, while Ball has had four fights and four wins, with three of them inside the distance, during that period.

That means the Liverpudlian is the one with the momentum and, crucially, he appears to be improving with every fight and has proven against Dogboe and, before that, Ludumo Lamati, that he can last the distance. Although both men can punch, this looks like it could go all 12 and if it does, does Vargas have the requisite nous and quality to maintain control against a strong, fresh opponent like Ball? He may do, but this also looks set up for a star-making coming out party for the 27-year-old ‘Wrecking’ Ball.

There is also a chance for Israil Madrimov to have a similar moment when he takes on undefeated Russian Magomed Kurbanov over 12 at light-welterweight. There were extremely high hopes for Madrimov when he turned over in November 2018 but he has lacked any real activity, particularly in the last two years when he has managed just two fights, but he can remind everyone of his brilliance with a big performance here.

Kurbanov is undefeated and coming in off the back of his split decision victory over Michel Soro in May. Madrimov also holds a win over Soro after stopping him in the ninth round of their 2021 clash before their rematch eight months later ended in a technical draw. If the Matchroom-promoted Uzbek can show what he did in the first outing, however, he should have too much for Kurbanov here.

At lightweight, Mark Chamberlain and Gavin Gwynne meet in one of two all-British clashes on the card and it is a hard one to pick. But undefeated Chamberlain has stopped all but one of his last seven opponents over the past three years and will be confident of another here. Gwynne has not lost for nearly four years but might just have bitten off more than he could chew here. This looks like a firefight waiting to happen and Chamberlain looks well set to win late.

The other all-British clash pits Liverpool’s Jack McGann against Kent’s Louis Greene, who is rebuilding after his defeat to Sam Gilley in October. Green can punch but undefeated McGann should win on points here.

There is also another intriguing heavyweight fight on the card as undefeated Australian Justis Huni faces 30-2 (14) southpaw Kevin Lerena. The 31-year-old South African, who famously dropped Daniel Dubois three times in the first round of their contest in December 2022, has been part of Fury’s camp out in Saudi and will get the chance to put all of that preparation into practice here. And the experienced Lerena might just know too much for Huni and nick a points win.

Elsewhere at heavyweight, unbeaten Ukrainian Andrii Novytskyi meets Texas man Juan Torres over eight while down at cruiserweight Roman Fury, brother of Tyson, meets undefeated Czech Martin Svarc over four.

The only Saudi representation on the card comes in the form of LA-based light-welterweight Ziyad Almaayouf who should have little trouble despatching journeyman Christian Lopez Flores in their six-rounder.

THE VERDICT – If Carlsberg made undercards…