Hype and boxing – especially heavyweight boxing – go hand in hand. Mike Tyson infamously said he would eat Lennox Lewis’s children while David Haye declared he would beat Jean-Marc Mormeck like “Rodney King in the LA riots”, but Joe Joyce can barely put a line together to ‘smack talk’ his opponents.
In fact, it has become ‘a thing’. His best effort in recent times was calling rival and former GB amateur team-mate Anthony Joshua “a glass cannon”. It has been no different this week as ‘The Juggernaut’ Joyce prepared to face China’s Zhilei Zhang at the Copper Box, on the Olympic Park, on Saturday night.
Nary a word between the two 6ft 6in tall, 18-stone heavyweights, and besides, it might have been lost in translation this week on the man known as ‘Big Bang’ from Henan Province. Zhang, a gentleman bruiser himself, speaks little or no English.
“I’m just not that good at getting into my opponents with words, or smack talk. I’d much rather do it with these two, in the ring,” the towering Joyce explained to Telegraph Sport, raising his two huge fists to illustrate the power which has stopped all but one of his 15 opponents.
Yet Joyce is quickly becoming a cult figure for his quiet ways outside the ring; and his fearlessness against anyone inside it.
“I’ve tried, I even did a skit for BT Sport with Susie Dent [in which at a mocked-up press conference Joyce produced a cascade of words like a swallowed thesaurus], but in real life, I’m not ready to flick the switch until I walk to the ring,” added Joyce, who also has other skills on canvas: He graduated with BSc degree in fine arts at Middlesex University in 2017, and still paints.
It is another of Joyce’s unique selling points, another peek inside his inner world. When there is time, he told me, there will be an exhibition – but that will come ahead of his world title fight.
He has already had displays with the Art of the Olympians foundation. Joyce holds the WBO Interim heavyweight title, and contests with Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua or Oleksandr Usyk are all mouth-watering prospects, if he can triumph in ‘the bang with Zhang’ in east London.
In the last two years, though, one of Joyce’s selling points has become seeing if he can indulge in a spot of pre-fight verbal jousting. But he admits he is really just an old-school fighter who does his talking in the ring, brought up respectfully in the amateur code culminating in an Olympic silver medal in Rio in 2016.
Joyce was so quiet as a child, his mother Marvel Opara told Telegraph Sport, that she often “didn’t know Joby was in the room”.
“He was always so shy. He took up rugby as a child, and I’m sure he would have been one of those quiet guys who runs out onto the rugby field. I’m convinced if he had stuck with rugby, he would have run out at Twickenham for England. I certainly would not have been worried about him being knocked about.
“I can get a little nervous on fight nights, but I can tell how the fight is going from the people who are around me,” explained Marvel, a Putney resident who has a condition called optic atrophy which means that she is 93 per cent blind, or as the joyful mother of the boxer describes it: “I have seven per cent vision.”
‘I preferred relying on myself, than being in a team’
The big man himself has thought about running out at Twickenham, too. With Marvel’s backing, Joyce started karate aged five and took up rugby a year later, going on to play as a teenager for London Scottish and Rosslyn Park.
“I enjoyed rugby, played in the second row, was pretty athletic, but once I started boxing [at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club] I never really looked back. I preferred relying on myself, it all being down to me, than being in a team.”
Joyce turned to the professional ranks aged 32, took on all-comers, but notable victories over Daniel Dubois, Carlos Takam and Joseph Parker have shown him to be a true throwback boxer who wants to fight for the fans. “I want to be an entertainer in the ring, performing for the fans and I always want to put on a show,” he said.
“Fight week I see as the calm before the storm. My fights are always high risk. Why? Because I’m the juggernaut. I’m a tough man, I started in rugby, went through all the sports and I found boxing…
“I’m nearly there at my goal of being world champion – but the others [Fury, Wilder, Usyk, Joshua] all seem to be running scared or doing their own thing at the moment. Why not fight a good fight, fight everyone and keep the fans entertained?
“I look at it like this… everyone has a plan until they punch me in the face. And nothing happens. Then I go after them…”