As far back as 2016 when Anthony Joshua first became world heavyweight champion there were talks about how he could unlock the door to a Chinese audience, a largely unrealised potential market where boxing is a developing industry
Always key to the idea of Joshua going truly global was a local rival he could face in the ring to pique the regional interest – Chinese heavyweight Zhang Zhilei fit the bill except his rise has been slow and frustrating.
Suddenly ‘Big Bang’ Zhang has a chance to grasp genuine momentum – he is now solely promoted by Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom and set to end a year-long absence from the ring. In the background the wheels are turning to use Zhang to attract the vast viewership in China so if his ability is real, then now is the time to prove it.
“I think Joshua’s going to be a global figure,” Matchroom chairman Barry Hearn said in 2016.
“Therefore I’ve got to give him a global platform. I was in Shanghai and we were talking. As soon as you show people pictures of Joshua knocking someone out, they get excited.” The stars were aligning because China had their own contender in Zhang who Hearn was aware of: “He’s a heavyweight who is almost 7ft tall and we could do it with a pay-per-view audience of tens of millions of Chinese people watching it.”
Any conversation about Zhang, the 2008 Olympic silver medallist and now an undefeated maverick whose potential is still unfulfilled, surrounds the idea that he could generate business opportunities in China.
His Olympic success and 21-fight winning streak suggest some talent, at least, but the true value of Zhang appears to be in his potential to be a Joshua-type figure in the country with the largest population on Earth.
“Hundreds of millions of people in China are waiting to see a heavyweight world championship fight happen,” Zhang exclusively tells Sky Sports.
“I hope that when Chinese people talk about boxing, they talk about that fight. It will break the record if the fight can be made.”
There is tangible excitement in the US-based camp surrounding Zhang after he signed an exclusive deal to be promoted by Matchroom.
The heavyweight’s long-time advisor Terry Lane believes there is finally the infrastructure around Zhang that can unlock his promise outside of the ring.
“Professional boxing in China is still in its infancy, it is still emerging,” Lane tells Sky Sports. “But there are indications that it is growing, although it’s not as big as NBA, tennis or golf.
“To make it explode, we want a big heavyweight fight involving Zhilei hosted in China. “He is a very talented, top heavyweight who is in the mix. We want to use this to build the boxing industry in China.
“They have a TV audience of 200 million people which is considered only a moderate success! Boxing does appear every week on their government-controlled sports channel. The business model and the culture are different but the interest is building.
“Chinese immigrants in the US or the UK will identify with his story, too.
“We have big plans. His next couple of fights will be in the US but Matchroom share our vision of a major, major fight in Beijing or Shanghai. That is the goal for everybody. “China wants to be the best at everything so they would want a mega-fight with a top heavyweight like Joshua or Tyson Fury. That is the aim for us.
“We’re closer to it than we were a few months ago.”
An added layer of intrigue is that Joshua and Zhang have already shared a ring.
“I wasn’t there in 2012 or things would have been different,” sighs Zhang’s trainer Shaun George. Joshua floored Zhang and defeated him en route to capturing an Olympic gold medal at the London Games. Zhang, the reigning silver medallist from four years earlier, had his Olympic dream ended by Joshua’s fists and wants revenge.
“Absolutely yes,” Zhang tells Sky Sports. “I said it on multiple occasions, let’s make it happen as soon as possible.
“I went in the ring with the wrong mentality knowing that he was from the host country, that I had to knock him out to win. “I fought the whole fight looking for the big shot and over-exposed myself. Ever since then I have been working on adjusting my mind before the fight and I’m happy that a lot has been done over the years.”
His trainer George adds: “I know Zhilei wants that fight. He’d do it in the USA, the UK or in China. “Zhilei had a silver medal from the previous Olympics and was going for gold but Joshua stopped him. Zhilei is very competitive and wants that back.
“Strategy? I am a strategist so you won’t see Zhilei do the same thing over and over. We make adjustments.”
New York-based George was a recently retired boxer when he was introduced to the Chinese amateur team and he became their trainer for the 2016 Olympics, a group that needed nurturing and eventually won just one bronze medal.
“Boxing is new to China – their sports were gymnastics and table tennis,” George explains.
“They were afraid to jab. They were jumping in. They thought you had to be faster or more powerful than your opponent. We had to retrain the boxers and explain: ‘Anybody can lose depending on strategy’.
“Boxing just hasn’t been around in China for very long.”
George uses a translator but speaks decent Mandarin and, since 2014, has trained Zhang and Fanlong Meng as professionals on the east coast of the US.
Zhang’s advisor Terry Lane explains: “In the Chinese culture, trust and familiarity is very big.
“New Jersey is very different for him. But he likes the US. He likes going on YouTube which they can’t do in China. He enjoys the US lifestyle.
“In the New York borough of Queens there is a neighbourhood called Flushing which is almost completely Mandarin-speaking.
“When he wants to feel at home, he goes there to eat all his favourite food. This neighbourhood helps his transition, allows him to eat familiar food.
“He loves to go clothes shopping and listen to music. If he wasn’t a 6’6’’ 250lbs Chinese guy, he would be like any normal Asian-American!”
George smiles: “He’s a funny guy, a lovable guy. He dances in the gym, and he’s a really big guy!
“He likes to drink tea, he likes to have conversations about politics and what is happening around the world. He came to my son’s birthday party. He is a great personality.”
The next phase of Zhang’s career must justify whether he can truly hang with the heavyweight elite.
He has boxed just three times in the past three years and, prior to his most recent fight, had accumulated just 45 rounds of action.
He is already 37 years old and his 21-0 record lacks a standout result.
“His age is a non-issue because he hasn’t been busy in the past two years,” his trainer George says. “He is excited and motivated. He’s better than he was four years ago. He has played catch-up with professional boxing. His age is not a factor.”
A 10-round decision win over Andriy Rudenko in October 2019 demonstrated flashes of ability but Sky Sports’ pundit Dave Coldwell reacted: “He lacks gears which could be an issue as he steps up.”
Johnny Nelson added: “Because he’s so awkward and tall he can be effective – but there is something missing.”
His trainer George insists the world has not yet seen what Zhang can really do.
“He has laid out a lot of guys in sparring,” he claims. “This is wearing bigger gloves and as an amateur.”
Well-known heavyweights that people know?
“Yes,” George says.
“He was sparring a professional fighter in 2010, when he was an amateur. He dropped the guy with a left uppercut in the first round. We stopped the session because the guy fell face-down.
“He has hand speed, IQ and punches differently to most heavyweights.
“When I say he punches differently? I see the other guy has a look in their eye that says: ‘Why does he punch so hard?’”
Zhang fights Devin Vargas, who has lost to Andy Ruiz Jr, Junior Fa and Dominic Breazeale, on Saturday night in Florida. The Chinese contender is currently ranked No 11 with the WBO and No 15 with the IBF.
He told Sky Sports he would happily come to London to fight Tyson Fury a month later, too: “I heard that Fury might need someone for December? I’m here Tyson, just a call away.”
Trainer George says: “I would have no problem putting Zhilei in the ring with anybody.
“Zhilei always says: ‘Just tell me when’. Yes, really. But first we have to get past the contenders first to get our name out there.”