Zhilei Zhang punched his way into contention at the perfect time.
The massive Chinese heavyweight is now a potential failsafe option for one-time amateur rival Anthony Joshua, who—for now—remains hopeful of a super fight with Deontay Wilder. The clash of former heavyweight titlists has been teased for months but remains limbo and at a point when Joshua and his team are eager to move forward with the Brit’s career.
That could create an opportunity for Zhang (26-1-1, 21KOs), whose stock has never been higher after the second of two straight knockout wins over England’s Joe Joyce (15-2, 14KOs) on September 23 in Manchester, England.
“That’s a huge fight in China,” Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, told BoxingScene.com and other reporters during a recent media scrum. “AJ beat him in the Olympics. Zhang is a good heavyweight. He’s dangerous.
“It’s a good style matchup, two big punchers, two huge guys. Absolutely the fight to make is still Deontay Wilder but I don’t rule out Zhilei Zhang at all.”
Great Britain’s Joshua (26-3, 23KOs) defeated China’s Zhang in the quarterfinal round of the 2012 London Olympics, where he went on to win the Gold medal in the super heavyweight division.
Joshua-Wilder remains the one heavyweight fight that everyone wants to see, perhaps more so than even a Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk undisputed championship. A lot of noise was made once Skill Challenge Promotions claimed interest in staging a Fury-Usyk/Joshua-Wilder doubleheader, though the overly ambitious plans quickly fizzled and was reduced to trying to get Joshua and Wilder (43-2-1, 42KOs) in the ring.
To date, there is no path towards finalizing the fight despite investment promises—or claims—made earlier in the year.
Joshua wisely kept active, as he’s fought and won twice this year.
It marks his first two-fight campaign since 2019, oddly when he suffered his first defeat to Andy Ruiz in June 2019 and then regained the unified crown later that December. Joshua lost the belts to Usyk in September 2021 and came up short in their rematch last August but has posted a decision win over Jermaine Franklin on April 1 and a seventh-round knockout of late sub Robert Helenius on August 12, both at The O2 in London.
Wilder has not fought at all this year and just one round in 2022 when he iced Helenius in less than three minutes last October at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Ideally, his team would like at least one rust-shaking fight at this point before he faces Joshua.
“Originally, we were planning for that fight in Saudi in January,” admitted Hearn. “Obviously, it’s gone a bit slow but we’ve had some interesting talks over the last few days. It’s the fight we want to make, so we’ll see where we’re at.”
Zhang is open to remain active since he will have to wait his turn at the unified heavyweight championship. He is the interim WBO titlist, a distinction he claimed in his first stoppage win over Joyce earlier this year and then defended with his highlight reel third-round knockout in their recent rematch.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox