Chinese Heavyweight Boxer Secures Historic Win
China’s Zhang Zhilei made history by becoming the first Chinese boxer to secure the World Boxing Organization interim heavyweight title after a stunning against-the-odds victory over hometown favorite Joe Joyce in London on Sunday.
The 39-year-old’s win over Joyce, the Briton’s first professional defeat, makes him the mandatory challenger for heavyweight world champion Oleksandr Usyk from Ukraine.
“Today belongs to me, to everyone, and to every Chinese boxing fan,” Zhang said in a post-fight interview, after punching the air and shouting “Chinese power” at the Copper Box Arena. “I am self-disciplined. I train hard. Age is just a number to me. My next step is to go for the title.”
The bout was widely watched in China, with domestic media reporting that millions had flocked to Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, to watch the official livestream in the early morning. However, online reaction to Zhang’s groundbreaking win was muted compared to when the hugely popular Zhang Weili reclaimed her Ultimate Fighting Championship title in November, which dominated social media discussion.
“(Zhang Zhilei’s win) can’t be found on the list of trending topics, even though it should be a celebration for all of Asia,” a user commented on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
The Chinese southpaw, nicknamed “Big Bang,” pummeled Joyce with his left hand in the early rounds, his power proving too much to handle for the Briton. Referee Howard Foster stopped the fight in the sixth of 12 scheduled rounds after inspections by the ringside doctor of Joyce’s swollen right eye, which was almost closed, at a time when two of the three judges had Zhang ahead.
“Gutted, so annoying that I lost, but credit to Zhilei Zhang for giving me a good fight and getting the victory,” Joyce posted on Twitter after the fight.
Hailing from the central Henan province, Zhang took up boxing at the age of 15 and became well-known to the public after clinching a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The heavyweight boxer made his foray into professional boxing in 2014, and remains the only Chinese in the division.
“It would be a pity for me to not give professional boxing a shot … It’s more important to have that experience than a stable life,” Zhang told China News Service in 2021.
Zhang now boasts a record of 25 wins from 27 fights in the past eight years. Prior to his victory, he was already the first Chinese to compete for an interim WBO title.
“If I can become a world boxing champion at 40, then everyone should not give up on their dreams,” Zhang posted on Weibo after the fight.
Boxing has become increasingly popular in China in recent years, with several Chinese boxers, especially women, making their mark on the international stage. But while boxing still remains a niche sport for many Chinese, mixed martial arts has managed to break through the public consciousness, with Zhang Weili, the first Chinese UFC world champion, and other fighters increasingly commanding a mainstream following.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: Zhilei Zhang celebrates after beating Joe Joyce to win their WBO Interim World Heavyweight fight at the Copper Box Arena, London, April 15, 2023. VCG)