Joseph Parker stays in title picture with win over Zhilei Zhang


Joseph Parker was floored twice by Zhilei Zhang but otherwise outboxed his foe for large stretches of the heavyweight fight to earn a majority-decision victory on Friday evening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

One judge scored it 113-113 but was overruled by 114-112 and 115-111 tallies for Parker, who upset Deontay Wilder via decision in December. The victory over Zhang is Parker’s second consecutive over a heavyweight rated in ESPN’s top five and completes a shocking turnaround for the 32-year-old New Zealander.

Parker, a former heavyweight titleholder, was brutally knocked out by Joe Joyce in Round 11 of their September 2022 meeting and was practically written off as a heavyweight contender.

But following three wins over domestic-level opposition last year, Parker (35-3, 23 KOs) punctuated the campaign with a dominant victory over Wilder in a major upset. And now, Parker is positioned for another crack at a heavyweight title on the heels of another upset win.

“This is a great win,” said Parker, who entered the ring rated No. 4 by ESPN at heavyweight. “Zhang is a tough man, knocked me down twice. … I’m very happy. …. We have a rematch [clause], so we’re gonna do it again.”

Zhang (26-2-1, 21 KOs) dropped Parker in Round 3 after a straight left hand connected flush. Parker, 32, beat the count with a bloody and busted up nose and then continued to outbox the 40-year-old China native.

Parker consistently beat Zhang to the punch with his superior speed and mobility. Zhang weighed 291½ pounds while Parker was 247½. And while there was far more pop behind Zhang’s shots, there wasn’t nearly enough activity.

That was until Zhang caught Parker again, this time with a sharp right hook that produced the knockdown in Round 8. But Parker again rose to the canvas with a clear head and returned to his jab and movement.

Parker was able to split Zhang’s guard with quick one-twos and used his feet to circle around the southpaw. And as Zhang sat on the stool before Round 12, his corner instructed him to score another knockdown. Instead, Zhang landed zero punches in the final round.

Zhang, though, will be afforded another crack at Parker due to the rematch clause. ESPN’s No. 5 heavyweight, Zhang’s previous loss was a controversial decision defeat to contender Filip Hrgovic in 2022, another bout where he scored a knockdown in defeat.

Following the setback, Zhang scored back-to-back inside-the-distance wins over Joyce, including a spectacular third-round KO in the September rematch. The pair of wins solidified Zhang as ESPN’s No. 5 heavyweight, and he was favored to defeat Parker, too.

Instead, it’s Parker who is now regarded as the best heavyweight after Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua.

Parker won a heavyweight title in 2016 when he scored a majority-decision win over Andy Ruiz. Parker made two successful defenses before he dropped the belt to Joshua via decision in 2018.

Parker lost his next fight, too, a decision setback to Dillian Whyte that seemed to end any hope of a future title shot. But now, Parker is well-positioned while the trio of top heavyweights settle bragging rights as he looks toward another bout with Zhang.

Ball floors Vargas twice but settles for draw

Rey Vargas had to get off the canvas twice to hold on to the WBC featherweight world title after his fight with Nick Ball was scored a split draw.

Ball overcame an 8½-inch height disadvantage to drop Vargas in Rounds 8 and 11, but it was not enough to win his first world title.

Vargas, who was walked to the ring by boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, held on to the belt in his first defense after scores of 114-112 for Vargas, 116-110 for Ball and 113-113.

“I had two knockdowns, and I was putting pressure on the whole fight,” Ball said. “I thought I did enough to win it.”

After an unsuccessful move to junior lightweight ended in a unanimous decision defeat to O’Shaquie Foster just over a year ago, Vargas was floored twice and looked on the point of being stopped in the seventh round on his return to featherweight.

Vargas (36-1-1, 22 KOs), who was unhappy with the knockdowns and thought he should not have been given a count, said through an interpreter: “Yes, of course I will fight Ball in a rematch. I would even go to his backyard to fight him.”

Ball (19-0-1, 11 KOs), 27, from Liverpool, England, entered the fight full of confidence after some impressive wins, including a points victory over former junior featherweight champion Isaac Dogboe in November.

As well as superior experience, two-weight world champion Vargas had a big height advantage that made it difficult for Ball to land head shots early on. But in the third round he made a good job of it when he leapt into shots just to reach Vargas.

The champion landed better shots in the opening rounds, slowing down Ball with combinations to the body. But some of the rounds were ugly, and Vargas could not get into his rhythm while Ball kept making lunging attacks.

The action peaked halfway through the seventh round when Ball stunned Vargas with an overhand right hand that left the Mexican on shaky legs for the rest of the round. Vargas’ legs were jittery as he backpedaled away from trouble, and a cuffing left hook left him on wobbly legs again later in the round.

Encouraged by his success, Ball forced a knockdown in the final seconds of Round 8. The Englishman spun Vargas around out of a clinch and caught the champion with a glancing left hook to send him to the canvas. To Vargas’ dismay he was given a count, and he flicked his mouth guard into the ringside seats in frustration.

Ball remained on top in the ninth and 10th rounds as Vargas became weary. Ball sensed it and, in the 11th, sent Vargas sprawling to the canvas with a right hook. Vargas complained, but it was ruled a knockdown.

However, it was not enough for Ball to be crowned champion. His promoter, Frank Warren, was left demanding a rematch and complaining about the scorecards.

Madrimov stops Kurbanov to capture title

Israil Madrimov captured the vacant WBA junior middleweight title with a fifth-round stoppage of Magomed Kurbanov in a career-best performance.

A decorated amateur, Madrimov (10-0-1, 6 KOs) was in control from the opening bell. The 29-year-old Uzbek used his elite athleticism and fluid movement to consistently beat Kurbanov to the punch.

Madrimov connected on a bundle of power shots, but none better than an fully-extended overhand right that landed flush. Kurbanov was laying on the ropes when he ate the shot and covered up. As the Russian dipped and appeared close to crumbling, referee Steve Gray halted the contest with 40 seconds left in Round 5.

Madrimov, who entered the contest rated No. 8 in his division, said he has his sights set on holding all four belts.

Jermell Charlo was the undisputed champion but has been stripped of all four of his titles as he hasn’t competed at 154 pounds since May 2022. That opened the door for Madrimov and Kurbanov to compete in their first title bout.

Kurbanov (25-1, 13 KOs) entered the bout on the heels of a career-best win, a split-decision over Michel Soro. The 27-year-old Kurbanov also owns wins over former titleholders Liam Smith and Patrick Teixeira. Kurbanov is ESPN’s No. 7 junior middleweight.

“This is a massive win for Israil, for Matchroom,” said Madrimov’s promoter, Eddie Hearn. “They talk about he’s a young Gennadiy Golovkin. … Undisputed at 154 is the plan. Terence Crawford, Tim Tszyu. … He’s coming for all the belts in the division.”

ESPN’s Nick Parkinson contributed to this report.



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