Inside Chinese boxer Zhang Zhilei's journey to make it as a heavyweight

PATERSON, N.J. -- The small, non-air-conditioned boxing room was filled with steamy air and body odor as a grunting, 6-foot-6 figure ruthlessly rained down punishing punches on a heavy bag.

Tucked into an abandoned factory building in Paterson, New Jersey, Chinese heavyweight boxer Zhang Zhilei trained and prepared for his next bout, surrounded by decades-old posters and a washed-out red carpet.

After retiring from amateur boxing, Zhang -- a super heavyweight silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics -- went pro in 2014 by signing a four-year contract with New Jersey-based American boxing promoter Dino Duva. Since then, Zhang has snatched a 12-0 record with eight knockouts -- including Friday's eight-round heavyweight victory over Georgian boxer Gogita Gorgiladze in Wenzhou, an eastern Chinese city.

"Give me one more year, two at most, and I will become somebody," Zhang told ESPN in early September.

Life as a professional boxer is defined by discipline, featuring different types of conditioning and strength workouts six days each week -- jumping rope, lifting, movements, punching and pair practicing.

On training days, Zhang would begin his day with a 6-mile morning run at a park in Bloomfield, New Jersey. The rest of his daily routine consists of eating, working out and resting, all of which are way too familiar to the 33-year-old who has been a professional athlete since his early teens.

In fact, the challenging part of Zhang's life as a professional boxer is how to self-finance his training while living in the United States. He pays $50 a month to use the boxing club, including between $100 and $200 each time for pair training, on top of everything else, including rent and transportation.

"I'm getting used to it," Zhang said. "The training is actually the same as I had in China.

"I didn't bring my wife and kids [to the U.S.]. They will distract me here."

Back in his apartment, Zhang enjoys two distractions: cooking and making tea. As part of his strict diet plan, he eats only two meals each day, with plenty of fruits. When he is making tea -- normally his favorite, Longjing -- he follows the ritual of a tea ceremony, from which he says he has gained inspirations for the ring.

"Take one step at a time," he said. "There is no quick success."

Boxing is rarely discussed around the tea table. Instead, Zhang likes to open up about his son's homework, baseball games and finding the most authentic Chinese food in New Jersey.

Duva shares a very similar mindset when it comes to scheduling the games, as he wants Zhang to be patient and focus on training first.

"Zhang Zhilei, Meng Fanlong and Wang Zhimin have made significant progress in the professional ranks since coming over to the U.S.," Duva said, referring to Zhang and other Chinese boxers training in America. "It took them a while to get used to the pro training and match structure, but now I believe they are without a doubt the best Chinese professional boxers. Their hard work and dedication is paying off, and they all are well on their way to fighting and becoming world champions as professional boxers."

Said Zhang, "I am one of the first to enter professional boxing. If the boxing world is still talking about me years later as a good fighter from China, I will be more than satisfied."