Zhang Zhilei: In deep water

Beijing erupted all over again…

Standing aloft the podium for the second consecutive Olympic Games, Meng Guanliang and Yang Wenjun’s faces were glowing in the reflection of solid gold, like John Travolta’s when slowly prising open the mysterious suitcase-bound bounty in Pulp Fiction. There was no mystery here, though.

The Chinese double act had done it again; Olympic gold medallists with heavier necks than they had back in Athens when even one gold medal seemed unthinkable. In Beijing, they left the Russians in their wake, but in Greece it was the Cubans. Nobody could claim hometown advantage in 2004 – that triumph was authentic. 

That very same Olympic Games in Beijing, just a stones’ throw from the canoeing podium, Chinese super-heavyweight Zhang Zhilei (22-0-1, 17 KOs) was in receipt of his own medal. He could have been mixing it with the water-bound athletes celebrating gold. But despite an interest in the sport as a child, Zhang tells Boxing Social that nature took its course.

“I was too big for the boat,” explained the unbeaten Olympic silver medallist. “In my teenage years, I was an athlete in canoeing and kayaking. But we had a system over there and my [kayaking] coach introduced me to boxing and said that I should try it out. So, that’s how I ended up in boxing to begin with. I was too big for the boat.

“It took years of practise for me to feel comfortable [boxing]. I started and then I fell in love with it; it wasn’t the other way around. I’ve been in this sport for about 20 years, so I have fallen in love with it. I wasn’t nervous at all when I first stepped through the gym; actually, I was excited. When I walked through that door for the first time, I smelled the that sweat, that stink, and I saw people in the ring punching each other.” 

Zhang, speaking through his translator Kurt, reflected on the first lashings of rope, slapping the floor as he tried to understand the rhythm required to succeed. Boxing may not have come naturally – but it was on its way. Beaten by veteran Italian police officer Roberto Cammarelle in the final of those Beijing Olympics, Zhang had announced himself, a silver medallist representing a nation in its boxing infancy. 

“Going back to the history of boxing in China, it’s still a young sport. It only has a history of about 30 years; China started boxing in the eighties. So, in this short time, we have Olympic gold medallists, World Amateur gold medallists, professional world champions. I think boxing is on a fast track in China and our people are definitely following it now. It’s a young sport in China; it’s like a baby in the camp.” 

Turning professional back in 2014, Zhang served his own time as a baby in the paid ranks – a big baby at that. Since that debut opposite the unheralded Curtis Tate Lee, he’s went about his business quietly, building up his unbeaten record and gradually turning heads. Now promoted by Matchroom Boxing and Eddie Hearn, his career is finally getting the push it deserves, but it hasn’t been plain sailing of late.  

In his last outing – fighting the durable Jerry Forrest (D10) – Zhang suffered from dehydration and, after a bright start where he scored knockdowns in each of the opening three rounds, looked in serious danger of an unlikely defeat. He told Boxing Social that although his preparation before arriving in Miami was optimal, things changed when he entered the bubble. And he was keen to put emphasis on lessons learned: “It always comes down to details. Something happened in the bubble where I didn’t eat enough compared to how I normally eat during my training camp. As you know, my managers are all small, skinny guys, but they were even feeling hungry – I felt even hungrier!

“The most important thing was the water intake. The humidity in Miami made me feel like I wasn’t thirsty at all, so I didn’t drink as much water. I dropped eight pounds in the bubble. I didn’t take that very seriously because as heavyweights, we don’t check our weight that often. However, during the fight, everything just showed up. I just felt my body collapsing around the fourth or fifth round. It’s because of these little details.

“Criticism comes from the audience who don’t know what happened behind closed doors,” the 38-year-old continued. “I don’t blame them for criticising me. After I came back home from the last fight, I sat down with my team, and we did our homework; we learned our lessons. The way I handle criticism is to learn lessons and to perform better in the next fight. I heard people talking, but that kind of talk becomes my motivation. It drives me through this current training camp, I need to perform better, I need to focus, I need to prepare for things I wasn’t focused on to get rid of this criticism and this talk. The only way to fix it is with no talking, just actions. Words are useless – everybody can talk. I need to go out there and show them what I can do.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zhang’s next bout doesn’t feature on a major Matchroom Boxing promotion. He fights on Triller’s June 19 card, headlined by Teofimo Lopez vs George Kambosos, and his opponent is yet to be announced. The Chinese heavyweight needs the kind of ring return we normally look upon with scorn; that’s the name of the game. But he firmly believes that despite his age, and his set back against Louisiana’s Forrest, he’ll still claim a portion of the world title.

“I would say the next 12-to-18 months will be critical to me. I will be fighting for a world title by then. My whole team believes this; they believe in me and we are all working towards the same goal,” he said. “I believe within one-year, big things are going to happen. The ultimate goal is to get whoever holds the title. That might be Anthony Joshua, it might be Tyson Fury, but my job is to go after whoever has the belt. The Birds Nest, Las Vegas, Miami, London or anywhere… I’m going to get there.”

Between Zhang, Kurt and I, we share a laugh when thinking about how he’d like to be remembered. Sure, he’s technically on the comeback trail – despite never suffering a professional defeat, but overall, the goal hasn’t changed. World titles and being remembered as “that Chinese dude who could fight” were important to him, at face value anyway, although he almost certainly expects more.

While Triller isn’t the boxing hardcore’s preferred broadcaster, it does afford Zhang and his team a massive platform: “Triller reached out to Matchroom first and then Matchroom reached out to me. That’s how this all worked. I didn’t know too much about Triller until the Mike Tyson versus Roy Jones Jr. fight. That was the only fight that I’ve watched on the platform, but I think it’s a good one.”

The journey to money-spinning world titles starts again on June 19t, after suffering a temporary pause in Miami. Accompanied by his loyal manager Terry Lane, Zhang knows he needs to build his profile again after being written off by casual fans.

With father time in the opposite corner, he could be paddling upstream, battling an undercurrent of boxing politics and international preference. He may not be able to fit in that canoe anymore like Chinese heroes Meng Guanliang and Yang Wenjun, but Zhang refuses to drown in a sea of rival heavyweights: “I don’t have a lot of expectation. But it is worth it; it’s worth anything to see your dream finally achieved.”

Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.