After Zhilei Zhang has beaten Joe Joyce emphatically for the second time in a row, he stands knocking on the door with his big left hand for the attention of the four kings of the heavyweight division.
With the juggernaut being in the majority of boxing fans top five prior to these defeats, Zhang has quite tactfully taken that position. Aged forty, father time is not Zhang’s biggest friend, and he will unquestionably be raring for his shot at the world heavyweight crown. However, with the undisputed clash between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyknow allegedly signed that means that the Chinese heavyweight will likely have to further fast track himself intoa position to have his shot at those titles, as by early next year we may have the first undisputed heavyweight world champion since Lennox Lewis in 1999.
Zhang attempted to fast track himself by calling out Fury for his WBC title just after his latest victory over Joyce, to which was slightly problematic. This is because Zhang holds the WBO interimbelt, meaning on paper he is going down the Usyk route.
Conversely, this is now irrelevant with the undisputed fight lined up. This leaves one questioning who is next for the Chinese man mountain that can fast track him to a world title shot. All roads lead to two of the four kings of the division that are not involved in the undisputed clash, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder. Both of these fights are exciting and have the ingredients to produce fireworks. However, the Joshua fight is what seems to stand out as there are many little nuances to the clash that make it both a very intriguing and marketable match up.
As many in the boxing sphere will know, this achievable fight would not be the first encounter for the pair. Joshua overcame Zhang in the quarter finals of the 2012 Olympic games in London, and even put Zhang on the canvas. However, I feel both are now different fighters and after all Joshua did go on to win gold, and there is far from any shame in losing to a gold medallist. It was also an amateur style bout over three rounds and the pair would meet over twelve in the pros whichclearly makes for a different kind of fight.
Anthony Joshua is also a more safety-first fighter now and tends to put his focus more on outboxing his opponent, compared with his previously less risk-averse style where he happily came forward and threw more aggressive combination punches. Furthermore, Zhang has seemingly improved with age and experience. However, one could argue that there is not an extensive list of performances that Zhang can actually be judged on at world level.
His next biggest fight behind Joyce was against Croatian Filip Hrgovic to which he lost on points, despite many arguing he was robbed of the win on the night. With the fight been on the undercard of Joshua’s second clash with Usyk in Saudi Arabia, Joshua and Zhang actually crossed paths on fight week.
Joshua comically threw an uppercut toward the Chinese man when passing and the pair were clearly amicable, with Zhang never taking himself too seriously as proven in the build-up to both Joyce fights. Nevertheless, as the saying goes you are only ever as good as your last performance and in that case Zhang is looking very, very good.
It is worth noting that the desirable match up would not only benefit Zhang, it also would place Joshua back in contention and present him the opportunity to become the WBO mandatory. After all, Joshua himself is at some strange kind of crossroads and is arguably still in the rebuilding phase after the consecutive defeats to Usyk and the knockout loss to Andy Ruiz Jr.
Zhang would be a great fight to bring the best out of Joshua and hopefully his confidence has grown after his recent highlight reel knockout finish over Robert Helenius. Zhang would ultimately be a solid acid test in seeing where Joshua’s headspace is at and would above all be great preparation for a world title fight, providing Joshua pulled the win off. If the Londoner can work out Zhang in a boxing ring from his tricky southpaw stance then it can only benefit him in terms of preparing him for either Usyk in a third clash or alternatively the highly desired match up against Fury.
This is all dependant on who triumphs for undisputed glory. The contest could ultimately act as some kind of world title eliminator, arguably confirming who is the most deserving contender in the division. It could also be a very smart move for the promoters and holds a lot of financial potential, particularly to say it is not a world title fight. This is of course providing Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn are prepared to put egos aside and make this fight work logistically. Eddie Hearn has recently been vocal that Zhang is an option for Joshua, when questioned about the clash by various outlets.
“If there’s a big fight to be done there, particularly at the Bird’s Nest in China, one hundred percent we’d take that fight,” Hearn told Seconds Out.
The fight would have a market in China and could do big numbers providing it is marketed correctly.Joshua would be the perfect piece of the puzzle that would allow Zhang to box on the big stage in China due to Joshua’s already established star image and name value.
The Bird’s Nest is an ideal venue for the fight. One feels that would be an incredible venue and the fight been on Chinese soil would be a great way of finally paying Zhang his dues in the later part of his career, in a home crowd mega fight. The Bird’s Nest fight could give Zhang national stardom and a night of heavyweight boxing in China would be a fresh approach compared with venues in Vegas and Saudi Arabi.
As Eddie Hearn has almost been pushed on the side-line of elite heavyweight boxing, with the Joshua Wilder fight seemingly now off the table and the undisputed title fight been made under different promotional banners, this fight could be way for Hearn to squeeze his way back into heavyweight limelight and lay the path for future clashes post undisputed. For example, the winner of Joshua versus Zhang could take on the winner of the undisputed clash which is arguably agreat route for the heavyweight division to go down. However, that pushes Deontay Wilder out of the equation so he would likely have to be incorporated into this circle of fights somehow. Most boxing fans would happily see the hard hitting American against Usyk, Joshua or Zhang. However, one feels fans would prefer not to see a fourth fight between Fury and Wilder if their paths were to again collide, despitethe monumental trilogy they provided.
The trilogy was just too conclusive in the end, and Fury can rightfully claim he is the outright winner of that saga. Despite this, the trilogy will still go down in the history books and was more than entertaining while it lasted.
All in all, styles make fights, and it would be great to see all of the current top heavyweights face each other in one way or another. Anthony Joshua versus Zhilei Zhang has all the ingredients for a heavyweight classic and its marketability stands out amongst other fights, even with no belts involved,which is sure to leave the sanction bodies huffing and puffing as they miss out on fees. However, this is also very optimistic considering we are relying on boxing to make these fights happen.