How ‘Big Bang’ Zhang can steal Joshua and Ngannou’s thunder

Moments before Joshua and Ngannou share the ring in Riyadh, Zhilei Zhang will defend his interim title against Joseph Parker

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Friday 08 March 2024 23:48 GMT
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In September 2022, Joseph Parker saw his best-laid plans torn asunder by a relentless onslaught from Joe Joyce. Then, twice in 2023, Joyce saw his best-laid plans ripped to tatters by the unforgiving hands of Zhilei Zhang. On Friday, Parker will hope it is his turn to triumph in this violent trinity, as he and Zhang meet in a tantalising bout on the Joshua vs Ngannou undercard.

When Parker and Joyce met in Manchester, the New Zealander’s career resurrection was seemingly left in ruins, as Joyce walked through every barrage that Parker could muster and outgunned the tourist with heavier artillery. After Parker’s back-to-back defeats by Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte in 2018 – his first two losses as a professional – he had managed a streak of six straight wins, only for the “Juggernaut” to halt his momentum and dismiss his potential of becoming a world champion again. So it seemed, at least.

Parker’s second resurrection has been a swift one, built on activity. Since that ill-fated venture to Manchester, Parker has spent more and more time training in Morecambe with Tyson Fury, with that work underpinning a four-fight win streak across in 2023. It began in January, continued in May and October, and led to a clinic against Deontay Wilder in December. On that occasion, it was Wilder who was left to ponder the best-laid plans of mice and men.

With that conquering, Parker has flung himself back into the heavyweight world-title picture, and into a clash with Zhang. The question now is whether Parker, 32, will falter at a crucial hurdle again, or whether this version of the former champion – as mature and game as he has ever been – can survive the famed “Chinese power” of “Big Bang” Zhang.

Joyce felt it in April, as Zhang did to him what the Briton is so used to doing to his opponents. The Chinese heavyweight brutalised Joyce’s right eye across six rounds, leaving his fellow Olympic medalist unable to continue. Then, in September, the pair returned to London and the result was the same. Well, almost. This time, Zhang dispatched Joyce in just three rounds, his southpaw jab a consistently effective weapon before it curled into a hook to crumple the home fighter.

Zhilei Zhang celebrates a second straight win over Joe Joyce (PA)
Zhang often boasts of his ‘Chinese power’ after winning fights (Getty Images)

The timing and selection of the shot were stunning. After backing Joyce up to the ropes, Zhang jettisoned a left cross into the Briton’s midriff before catching him mid-counter; as Joyce rotated to throw his own cross, he simply turned into his opponent’s right hook. With that, the 40-year-old’s late-career surge hit a new height.

Those victories saw Zhang win and retain the interim WBO title – the same belt that Parker failed to win against Joyce in 2022, when it was vacant. Parker will get another shot at the gold this weekend, and the chance to build upon a career-best win over Wilder. He has suggested that Zhang, as champion, has a rematch clause, so even if Parker can overcome this terminator, he will know he must do so again before the year is up.

It is a daunting task, especially considering that Zhang’s only pro loss was a hotly-disputed decision against Filip Hrgovic in 2022. But if Parker can pull it off, his second resurgence will eclipse any previous stretch of his career – including his WBO world-title run.

Parker’s application of intelligent aggression, which he employed so well against Wilder, could be key here. Zhang, too, has form for picking his moments to be mean. Yet while both men are capable of cruelty, they are beloved in their own ways in the boxing world. Zhang’s broken English and ability to break opponents have endeared him to fans, while Parker is known among journalists as arguably the nicest guy in the sport.

Joseph Parker lands a brutal overhand right on Deontay Wilder (AFP via Getty Images)
Zhang will defend the WBO interim heavyweight title versus Parker (Getty Images)

“Joseph Parker is a hell of a fighter,” Zhang said respectfully at Wednesday’s press conference. “He’s young, he’s hungry, and he’s coming for the belt.” Parker, meanwhile, opted for light-hearted, euphemistic quips about Zhang’s surname. Then, however, each fighter’s mean streak slipped out. “I’m the tiger here,” Zhang warned. “If you want to hunt, if you want to take the food out of my mouth, you’ll pay the price.” Parker hit back: “I feel dangerous, I really do, and Zhang’s going to feel the danger.”

For 12 rounds in Riyadh, neither boxer will worry about being nice. On Friday, it will be a resurgent Parker against a surging Zhang, in a fight that may just outshine the main event.

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