Joe Joyce must pile on weight and take Zhilei Zhang rematch – it is his only ticket back
Joyce must look to redeem himself after a worrying defeat that exposed his flaws
What now for heavyweight Joe Joyce? A first career defeat at the hands of China’s Zhilei Zhang in what is being seen as the upset of the year has exposed the sliding doors of the complex game of thrones of the heavyweight division.
Unlucky to win silver and not gold in the Rio 2016 super-heavyweight Olympic final, Joyce went into his 16th heavyweight contest this weekend with a reputation as the throwback fighter who would meet all-comers head on.
Yet has his decision cost the 37-year-old a world championship contest? It was the manner of this victory that was most surprising – or perhaps not so in retrospect – given the ease with which 39-year-old Zhang landed his left hand from various angles on the British heavyweight to such an extent that he closed the Briton’s swelling right eye within five rounds for a combination of the doctor and referee to wave the WBO Interim heavyweight title fight off.
In the land of the heavyweights, the one-eyed fighter will never last long. Joyce had gone into this fight with the reputation of having the best chin in boxing, a growing legion of supporters for his honesty, a refreshing lack of trash-talking opponents and a fearlessness to fight anyone. No shilly-shallying over big payouts, or egotistical purse splits. Just good old-fashioned fights. But Joyce’s chin could not save his closing right eye, which was peppered from the opening salvos by the man from Henan Province. Indeed, by the opening seconds of round two it was possible to see that for Joyce, the fight may not go beyond six rounds, and with his eye like a timer and Zhang using all his experience to boss the bout, it became a hapless task for ‘The Juggernaut’.
Instead, it was ‘Big Bang’ Zhang who provided all the fireworks, and once into his rhythm, made Joyce look cumbersome. Indeed, I gave Zhang the first four rounds, and the Chinese fighter even let the fifth round go to his foe, as Joyce desperately tried to make inroads. Zhang simply moved, covered up, caught most of the punches on his high guard, while giving the odd, mainly left-handed, rapier reply. Then, into the sixth stanza, referee Howard Foster called the ringside doctor over for a second time to examine Joyce’s hematoma, and the official had it confirmed medically what he was seeing for himself. The fight was off. Zhang and his team celebrated; Joyce shook his head.
A rematch is possible, although Joyce himself was ambivalent post-fight that he could opt for a fight in between. Certainly, it looks as if he might struggle again, stylistically, against the southpaw skills of the towering Chinese fighter, and his very educated left hand. The pattern of this fight might just play over again and again. Joyce had no answer to the speed of the left hand; and arguably, though he looked lean, he might have just come in a little light at 18st 4lb (to Zhang’s 19st 12lb).
“I haven’t fought a southpaw for a long time, so I need to look over the tape,” said Joyce, who will be disappointed when he reviews it. “But I’ll be back. It’s not the end of my journey. If I decide to rematch him next or whenever, I’ll be back anyway. I’ll review the loss and see where I can make improvements.”
But why change the habit of a lifetime? Joyce lost nearly a stone from the weight where he has enjoyed his greatest successes to date, and it is worth his efforts to get back to his optimum size and take on Zhang at his own game while avoiding the Chinese’s potent left-hand. After all, a victorious rematch may be his only ticket back to the heavyweight title party.
Joyce will have to think long and hard about his next move. The good news at least, for Joyce, is that he was released from hospital in the early hours of Sunday morning with no reported facial fractures.
So what next for China’s new star at the heavyweight top table?
China suddenly has a major player, no question, and a very big one – 20st and 6ft 6ins tall. How good is he really, given he has little time to waste when he will be 40 next month? Zhang grew on everyone throughout fight week in London. A gentleman fighter, who revealed something of a sense of humour through the week, he is without question a man on a mission to make himself more well known to his fellow countrymen, of which there are 1.4 billion, leaving a huge market for him to exploit. In the manner in which he exposed Joyce with his left hand, there will be a new legion of followers flocking to see more.
This was Zhang’s first pay-per-view event beamed back to the Republic of China, and it will have had some impact. “I don’t have a second, or a minute to waste, I have to make this my time,” Zhang told me last week.
Minutes after the bout had finished in his favour, that determination remained as prominent. “I want the world title and I will fight all of them. I showed Chinese power,” he told this correspondent.
“I’d like to fight Fury in Beijing, but if Joyce wants the rematch in London – or Beijing – I’ll do that too.”
In one sense, as Zhang took Joyce’s face to task with his piercing left hand, he took the mantle as the man on the rise in the division – durable, astute, and the one who will face anyone – chasing a new crock of gold and a potential world title. In the game of power-broking on the chessboard of the heavyweight division, the victory makes him the WBO’s mandatory challenger to Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk, but after a slow burn for Zhang, Olympic silver medallist in Beijing in 2008, and beaten four years later by Anthony Joshua at the London Games, Zhang has arrived in the right market. As his relatively new team, the Lane Brothers, Terry and Tommy, were at pains to point out last week, Zhang has something special they have seen in him.
“Zhilei can punch and he’s a southpaw,” Terry Lane pointed out. “And I know that everybody’s talking about the granite chin of Joe Joyce. And I am a Joe Joyce fan as well. I mean, I have been following his career and greatly, greatly respect Joe. But he just hasn’t been in there with a puncher like Zhilei. He does some things that are a little more nuanced than I think people have appreciated over the years. But I don’t think this is going the distance.”
How right Lane was, and if Fury fancies a trip to Beijing for a major event, and a new market, that would work. Whatever happens, victory for Zhang has made him a new irresistible force, for now, among the division’s movers and shakers.
This article first appeared on Telegraph.co.uk