Zhang Zhilei of China is steadily moving up in the heavyweight boxing world.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder successfully defended his World Boxing Organization Oriental Heavyweight title on Sept 28 in Changsha, in Central China’s Hunan province. Zhang (20-0, 16 KOs) knocked out Donald Haynesworth (15-3-1, 13 KOs) in the third round.
On July 20, he notched a first-round KO over Eugen Buchmueller of Germany at the WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan, Iowa.
Last Friday’s bout was Zhang’s first in China since Jan 21, 2017, when he defeated Peter Graham to win his WBO belt.
Zhang is now ranked sixth in the WBO World Heavyweight ratings.
“He’s going to be fighting on Nov 24 in Monaco against a top-level world contender, whose name will be announced shortly,” Zhang’s promoter, Dino Duva of Roc Nation Sports, told China Daily on Thursday.
“This will be a big step up in competition for him. If he performs well, he will definitely be in line to fight for the world heavyweight championship in 2019 and make history as the first Chinese heavyweight professional champion.”
Zhang will train in Beijing from Oct 11-21 for his next fight.
Last Friday, it was the sixth straight bout in which the 35-year-old from Zhengzhou, Henan province, who won a silver medal for China at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, finished his opponent in the first round.
The top-10 ranking potentially puts Zhang in line for a title shot against unified world champion Anthony Joshua of Great Britain (22-0, 21 KOs), who defeated Zhang 11-5 in the quarterfinals at the 2012 London Olympics.
Joshua, who is also 6-feet-6 and will turn 29 on Oct 15, is the WBO’s top-ranked heavyweight.
“I want to fight Joshua very, very much ... and as soon as possible,” Zhang told boxingscene.com earlier this year. “I can’t say enough how much I want to fight him. When I’m punching the heavy bag, I imagine that it is Anthony Joshua.”
In an interview with skynews on Sept 27, Zhang said of Joshua, “He always fights in the UK. If he doesn’t want to take the chance and fight in China, we should fight in the US.”
Zhang said he is “the only heavyweight people want to follow in China. I got a lot of fans from China asking me when my fight will be and what my training looks like. People want to know about me. This is one of my biggest motivations.”
Zhang’s trainer, former light-heavyweight contender Shaun George, believes Zhang is ready.
“He lost to Joshua at the London Games, but that’s a fight that, with the right game plan, he could win,” George told boxingscene.com.
“Joshua is very impressive; he’s a young guy who can really punch. But when Zhang gets in the ring with him, they’re going to know they’re in with a hungry fighter — a real hungry, aggressive, smart fighter,” the trainer said.
“He’s (Zhang) at a much higher level now, mentally and physically,” George said. “What it comes down to is being mentally ready, and Zhang is. He’s showing it in the gym, and he’s showing it in his willingness to learn. He’s willing to fight anybody out there.”
Zhang’s Roc Nation Sports bio page says that before he considered boxing, he dreamed of becoming a professional canoe sprinter. But after gaining too much weight to pilot a racing canoe as a 14-year-old, he ultimately took up boxing.
Heavyweight champs Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson were two of Zhang’s favorite fighters growing up.
Zhang lives and trains currently in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and enjoys the annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Queens, New York.
He also likes cooking and making tea, he told ESPN China. As part of his strict diet, he eats only two meals daily, with plenty of fruits. When he is drinking tea he follows a tea ceremony ritual, which he said has provided inspiration.
“Take one step at a time,” he said. “There is no quick success.
“Give me one more year, two at most, and I will become somebody,” Zhang told ESPN China.
That was in September 2016.
Murray Greig in Beijing contributed to this story.