Zhilei Zhang looks ahead to his WBO Interim title challenge against Joe Joyce, reflects on his contentious defeat to Filip Hrgovic, and discusses his goals in the sport of boxing.
A Silver Medalist at the Beijing Olympics, Zhang is China’s answer to boxing’s heavyweight division. With 19 knockouts from 24 victories, just one loss and one draw, the 6’6″ southpaw is considered a test for any of the top dogs, and he’s looking to put himself amongst world title contention by fighting Joyce (15-0, 14 KOs) on April 15 at London’s Copper Box Arena.
Boxing Social spoke to Zhang via freebets.com ahead of the fight. With it being the 27th training camp of ‘Big Bang’s professional career, it’s unsurprising that he tells us all is ‘very smooth’, and that work in the gym is going well towards executing the game plan come fight night.
He’s under no illusions about the task ahead though, saying ‘it’s a fact’ that Joyce is one of the top five heavyweights in the world and echoing the perpetual praise of his durability and power.
“I think it’s going to be a hard fight, a tough fight. We’re going to meet in the centre of the ring and, of course, exchange bombs. A lot of people think that Joe Joyce has a great chin, he has great stamina and he can punch. So, we’ll see. It’s going to be exciting.”
It’s a fight that Zhang’s team have been publicly calling for since 2021, and they’ve perhaps had their sights set on it for even longer. When asked if that’s because he sees something he can exploit in the British fighter, he says yes.
“I watched his fight a couple of years ago – I can’t remember the opponent, probably Dubois – and I thought ‘I got this.'”
At 39 years of age, this is likely Zhang’s final world title pursuit, and he intends to grab it with both hands. A win puts him in line for a shot at unified champion, Oleksandr Usyk – a fight he says he will ‘definitely go after.’
Aside from titles, his boxing bucket list includes a mega fight with Anthony Joshua in his home country, where he last laced up around five years ago. The two met at the 2012 Olympics, with Joshua dropping and outpointing him before going onto Gold medal glory.
Zhang’s name was briefly mentioned alongside ‘AJ’s before the former champion announced his upcoming Jermaine Franklin fight, but he says talks didn’t get any further than that despite his willingness. It was later reported that Joshua’s team opted against a southpaw after two consecutive losses to Usyk and to prepare him for potential future fights against orthodox opponents.
“After the Hrgovic fight, my management team reached out to Joshua’s team trying to make that happen. I had no confirmation from them. We had conversations, but nothing solid.”
“I think he needs wins to come back to the mix – but that fight is always interesting [to me.]”
“He has been dominating since beating Klitschko – he earned it. But after his losses to Oleksandr Usyk and Andy Ruiz, I feel like he probably has to come back mentally and physically as well. I know that he is training very hard.”
The two heavyweights graced the same ring in August last year, albeit at different points of the fight card. Before Joshua rematched Usyk, Zhang challenged Croatia’s Filip Hrgovic in an IBF final eliminator.
The man from China stunned Hrgovic with a knockdown in the first, but the pair slugged it out over the twelve round distance and he ultimately lost via unanimous decision. Many pundits and fans had Zhang as the winner. He has watched the fight back, but not for the purpose of scoring – ‘that’s history’ he says.
“Thank you to all of the fans who thought I won the fight. I did watch the fight a couple of times when I came back, but I was not paying attention to the result, winning or losing.
I was watching the fight because I want to study my weakness, I want to study my strength, and I want to implement that into the next training camp.
I didn’t pay attention to the result anymore because that’s history, and I would like to say congratulations to Filip Hrgovic.”
Given how that fight played out, it’s perhaps right that Zhang now has another clear path – save for one juggernaut shaped obstacle – to world title glory. His final message to Joyce – much like his sentiments on the Hrgovic loss – is a noble one.
“The time is ticking, and it’s closer and closer. April 15th, me and you will deliver an event in front of the world.”
There’s little doubt of the outcome from the man hailing from Zhoukou, China, though. Asked how his stoppage stats might look after the fight, Zhang smiled:
“I think it’s going to be the 20th knockout.”
Joe Joyce vs Zhilei Zhang will be broadcast live on BT Sport.