The flickering of the Chinese Kongming (天灯) lantern in the wind is symbolic. Freedom, wealth and best wishes for the future all drift upwards, distancing themselves from the harsh realities of life at surface level. 

The burning light, itself, jostles for position amongst the traffic of the busiest nights’ sky.

It hasn’t been easy for the man they termed the ‘Dragon King’. Labelled a fraud, he’s had his legitimacy questioned by a sanctioning body and still remains practically unknown amongst boxing’s kinship. I tracked him down, talking exclusively about his road less-travelled.

“I was born in Qingdao [in a] military home. A martial arts home. When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a good doctor, but under the influence and education of my father I started practicing boxing at nine-years-old.”

Junlong Zhang (19-0-0, 19KO’s) continued, detailing the trials he faced, living under a demanding training regime.

“There were not many good memories in my childhood. I spent a lot of it [doing] hard running every day, playing with [and punching] sandbags, training – and my father/coach was very harsh on me. I live every day [through] the same pain that other children of the same age couldn’t afford to.”

“My childhood had no toys. No playmates. It was only accompanied by gloves and sandbags. Throughout my childhood [it was] tears, sweat and growth.”

I’d been intrigued to discover more about Qingdao, with a population somewhere just south of ten million. The pictures sent to me by Junlong’s manager were breathtaking. A city of lights, extravagantly spanning a beautiful coastline. It didn’t look like the China I’d been naively familiar with from the big screen. 

The heavyweight mystery-man gushed when rhyming off his cities statistics. He acted as my tour guide, proud of his heritage, as so many born-fighters tend to be. It’s what made them, and often what they are trying to escape – however, not Zhang.

“It is known as the Eastern Switzerland!” he boasted, telling me of its renowned beer culture (home of Tsingtao, consumed across the globe). Surprisingly telepathic when touching on a point of interest for this Scotsman. 

“People here live and work in peace and happiness. Everyone is very happy, but everyone is very diligent and hard-working! At the age of fifteen, I won the national juvenile youth heavyweight championships. At seventeen, I won the national youth championships and, at nineteen-years-old, I won the national games. This is the highest level of Chinese sporting events.

“I was repeatedly representing the Chinese national team in various boxing matches around the world, winning numerous honours. I used to be in the Olympic Games, and from the Olympics I chose to be a professional boxer and continue to realise my dream!”

The hardest part of Junlong’s career had been his struggle for relevance outside of China. Punching his way through those nineteen opponents hadn’t taught us much. 

The Chinese coverage of his contests had been minimal, leading to the WBA allegedly brandishing him ‘fraudulent’. They had questioned his record, insinuating his BoxRec recorded fights may never have even taken place. 

The original claims were made in 2016, two years in our rear-view – but were rubbished by members of Chinese sporting commissions and boxing media. The ‘Dragon King’ was removed from the WBA world rankings, remaining obsolete at-time-of-writing. 

The whole affair was blamed on a ‘troublemaker’ within Chinese boxing circles, though no details were made public.

“I am ready to fight against boxers from all over the world! I am also willing to show myself to the world’s boxing fans. The Chinese, we are advocating Wu spirit, so many Chinese [people] practice boxing.”

I sat, hand-on-head, pondering my own ‘Wu spirit’. 

As he now battles the clock, aged thirty-six, I re-inforced his need for tougher tests. Junlong seemed prepared to go to war with the division’s finest, and I’d had the feeling it would need to be sooner, rather than later. 

“I don’t want to be a ‘general’ soldier. They are not ‘good’ soldiers. This is a saying [in China] and I believe every boxer’s dream is the same – to face the strongest in the world. This is my wish – I hope so. [Because] different opponents would bring different tests for me.”

The record of Zhang flatters to deceive, perhaps through no fault of his own. He has boxed ten rounds across his last seven contests – bludgeoning old cruiserweights and dawning heavyweights. Names such as; Jason Gavern, George Arias and Victor Emilio Ramirez burn a dim, fading light on his BoxRec. However, Arias, taken the distance by Hughie Fury and Carlos Takam, was obliterated early.

He came across a true gentleman and a genuine lover of the sport. Yes – the situation surrounding his sheltered career was unusual, but Junlong was ready to be freed from captivity. The ‘Dragon King’ hadn’t been seen breathing fire as yet, but there was a burning building in his throat. 

“Boxing is a brave person’s sport. Chinese boxers and international boxers are all the same. They all possess wisdom, heart, strength and bravery.” 

“I believe that in the near future China will have many world champions in the world of boxing! All boxing fans will pay attention to Chinese boxing. Boxing is my life, it’s my life pursuit.”

Misunderstood? Misrepresented? A mockery? 

I couldn’t quite decide… 

It was a fascinating story, the life and career of Junlong Zhang. Accusations of a fabricated legacy were damaging, but his performances looked flawless through rose-tinted glasses. I hoped he would have his chance to sit at boxing’s top-table, out of intrigue as much as anything else.

A higher knockout ratio than both Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder (opponents noted), and with the intensely-populated nation of China behind him, it seemed his career may continue flicker in the distance. Could this Kongming lantern possibly illuminate boxing’s sometimes-murky skyline? 

The ‘Dragon King’ may forever be one of the sport’s unanswered questions. A mythical beast, however ironic.

“The Dragon has survived for thousands of years. It expresses the meaning of justice, harmony, strength. Boxing is my dream, it’s my life!”

Article by: Craig Scott

You can follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209