Zhilei Zhang started out strong in his Feb. 27 fight against Jerry Forrest, and it looked imminent that the 37-year-old Chinese heavyweight would finish off Forrest, after buzzing and dropping him in rounds one, two, and three.
The 6’6” southpaw, 256 pounds at the weigh-in, had a considerable strength advantage over the 32-year-old Forrest, five inches shorter and weighing 236 the day before.
Forrest, though, proved stubborn and stout of heart in Miami. He stayed in the fight, and as rounds progressed, Zhang’s stamina waned. Forrest had the Chinese fighter, who has made New Jersey home since 2014, in a world of trouble. It was a wonder that Zhang (22-0-1, 17 KO) heard the final bell, he looked so fatigued.
The fight went to the cards, and judge Rose Lacend scored the fight for Forrest, 95-93, but was overruled by judges Fernando Barbosa and Rocky Young, who each had it 93-93 for a majority draw.
I checked in with Zhang co-manager Terry Lane of Lane Brothers Boxing after the dust settled. I asked if it was basically a stamina issue, but Lane replied, “Actually more serious than that. Zhang had a great camp. For some reason, he was extremely dehydrated and his kidneys began to fail during the fight. He also had very low iron levels and we learned he was anemic.
“He was rushed to the hospital and wasn’t released for three days. Head and heart were fine, thank god. But he feels good, and we are talking to some medical professionals to get to the bottom of what happened and what is going on with him. But he will be back. Matchroom has been very supportive.”
And this is a good time to call myself out. I wasn’t being a punk, but I did Tweet while watching that I think Team Zhang should look into getting a new strength and conditioning regimen after this fight. And that may be, but the point here is that stuff happens in boxing, and sometimes I tend to forget that it’s life or death in there.
“So, Zhang had a great camp,” Lane continued. “Went 12 rounds of sparring several times easily. Fight week he was relaxed, looked good in the workouts. There was no sign whatsoever of anything wrong. He was able to put Forrest down in each of the first three rounds. It did cross my mind as to why he was unable to finish him off. And in the fourth or fifth round, he looked spent, absolutely exhausted. This was not the same guy during sparring in camp.”
Trainer Shaun George and others were also puzzled as the fight unfolded into the middle to later rounds.
“To make things worse, there was a clash of heads that opened up a cut, and then he took an elbow too,” Lane said. “I was worried that he wasn’t going to finish the fight, but it was obvious that something was wrong. When the final bell rang, Forrest is doing backflips in the middle of the ring and Zhang is slumped over his corner. Zhang has no recollection of the walk back to the locker room.
“Of course, my mind goes to the worst place; a brain bleed or something. There were several of us in the back, and it was determined that he should go to the hospital. Then Zhang started to feel worse and ultimately they rushed him in an ambulance.”
Tests revealed no severe brain trauma.
“I was relieved when the head scans were clear,” Lane said. “But the bloodwork concerned the doctors and revealed a bunch of things that were a surprise to us. Low level kidney failure, liver damage, anemic. CPK levels through the roof. It was scary, and a bit of a mystery, but we are going to fully address all of these issues with medical professionals.”
And what was Zhang like while all this went down?
“After the fact, using his words, he said his body ‘shut down’ in the fourth round,” Lane said. “After the fight in the locker room he could tell that there was something wrong and his heart started to race. There was a point in the locker room where he became very concerned and started to panic. He pointed to his chest and said in English, ‘No good! No good!’ At that point we got the paramedics to him.”
And since that night, have docs figured out anything more on why Zhang deteriorated like that?
“We’ve tested his blood three times since he got back,” Lane said. “The levels are all normal now. We are going to go to a doctor who specializes in athletes to help consult moving forward. Plus, consult other experts like a nutritionist.”