Talk surrounding heavyweight boxing is red hot right now, with Francis Ngannou's split decision loss to Tyson Fury at the forefront of the conversation. Someone with a lot to say about that fight, and the wider division, is Zhilei Zhang. The WBO interim heavyweight champion watched Fury's struggles last Saturday with great interest. Zhang sat down with The Sportsman for an interview this week, covering his views on 'The Battle of the Baddest', his pair of huge wins over Joe Joyce and his future plans.
What did you make of Tyson Fury’s performance against Francis Ngannou?
He looked very bad. Very bad. I think it's a shame. His performance is a shame to the sport of professional boxing, especially to the heavyweight division.
How do you feel about Fury choosing to fight an MMA fighter like Ngannou rather than someone like yourself who is world ranked and coming off two great victories?
Professional boxing is a business and (what) the market is demanding says a lot in this business. So with Ngannou getting this opportunity I think he's lucky. He’s a lucky man. He's able to pick Tyson Fury and Tyson Fury was able to pick him.
But in terms of the fight itself and the performance, I don't believe that Tyson Fury can represent the level of heavyweight boxing right now. So I think Ngannou’s level of competition in professional boxing is still a question mark. It needs to be tested.
Would you like to be the one to test Ngannou?
I will. I will step up. If the opportunity presents itself, I will do it. And I want to make sure Ngannou understands who is the boss of heavyweight boxing.
Anthony Joshua against Deontay Wilder looks like it may not happen now. Is the Joshua fight one you’re interested in given your Olympic history with him?
I'm very happy to face Joshua. You know, we had history. Like Eddie (Hearn) said. He's looking to fight me. And I'm looking to fight him as well. Send a contract over and if everything looks good, I'll sign it right now.
Since the Andy Ruiz Jr fight, people have view Anthony Joshua as in decline. A situation that worsened with his losses to Oleksandr Usyk. Do you feel like ‘AJ’ isn’t as good as he once was?
After he's lost to Usyk you can tell… beat Franklin, he beat Helenius. I can see that he is slowly coming back to track. He's slowly coming back to where he was. But he's not 100% back yet. So by facing me it could end his professional career and it's a big, big risk that Joshua and his team will probably not do.
Talk me through your rematch win over Joe Joyce last time out.
After the first fight with Joe Joyce, I was very close to making a deal with Tyson Fury. Then news got out. You heard Bob Arum saying that. I believe Joe Joyce and his team saw that news and they wanted to do the rematch right after that. It's in the contract. We had to sign the rematch clause in order to get the first fight. So I said let's do it.
Right after the first fight, I took probably two weeks off. So my momentum was still there. I went to training camp right away. I had a new strength and conditioning trainer that specialised and focused on my cardio. So I will be able to perform on a very high level. I also hired a physical therapist and a Chinese medicine massager. Those people in my camp really helped me with my recovery. So I can focus on the next day's training right away after a long training session.
We had brand new sparring partners. Alonzo Neal, who throws way more punches than Joe Joyce. Dmitri Bezu, who punches way harder than Joe Joyce. And Mariusz Wach, who was heavier than Joe Joyce. I would say that my whole camp was very, very well prepared. That's the number one thing.
When you look at Joe Joyce's eyes in the first fight, he said that his eyes were fully recovered after a few days. I believe that, but the mental damage is difficult to recover from. I believe he was coming to the second fight scared about me. Like I said in the press conference, I have a secret weapon that I never use, which is my right hook. Joe was trying to defend my straight left all the time but he didn't have the opportunity to see my right hook. My right hook is so much heavier. I punch so much harder with my right hook. This is what happens.
When you fought over here in the UK, it’s safe to say the fans in this country fell in love with you. Any desire to fight in the UK again? Would fights with the likes of Daniel Dubois and Fabio Wardley interest you?
If the opportunity comes I will definitely be willing to showcase my skill in front of UK fans. So right now my focus is definitely in going up the ladder and challenging the top names including Tyson Fury, Usyk, Joshua, Wilder. Those names. But if they want to run away from me that's a different story. Then we definitely have to come up with Plan B. Like you said, Dubois, Fabio Wardley. All these names are possible.
You’re 40 now but your recent performances have perhaps been the best of your professional career. Why do you think that is?
I've been saying that age is just a number to me. I train really hard and my lifestyle is really disciplined. When you train hard, you gain confidence from those little things you do every day and that confidence is very important to you. So once you have that you should be able to continue.
How much longer would you like to keep fighting?
Actually, I never thought about retiring. It never even existed in my mind. As long as my body allows me to go, I will go.
A lot of fans thought you did enough to beat Filip Hrgovic last year. Do you feel you won that fight?
Of course I want that fight and everybody thought I won that fight. The judges were probably looking at something else, but in my opinion definitely won that fight. I'm open to a rematch if the opportunity comes.
When are we going to see you fight next?
Right now we're still working. My management team is trying to put all those pieces together. The heavyweight division is hot right now. If there's any news I'll be the first one to jump on social media and announce it but right now we're still working.
Will we see you in the ring before the end of the year?
I'm open to everything. I have been ready, so I don't have to get ready. If anybody comes to me and says “Hey, December? Would you get ready?”, I think I will.
Zhilei Zhang spoke to The Sportsman courtesy of Freebets.com
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