ON the face of it, if there was one type of fight the handlers of Joe Joyce would have been desperate to avoid throughout his career it would have been this: a rematch. After all, a rematch, by its very nature, implies a need for change and malleability on the part of the defeated fighter, and these, alas, tend to be things fairly low on the list of what Joe Joyce, 15-1 (14), does well inside a boxing ring.
That’s not to say the “Juggernaut” cannot adjust, of course, nor that the importance of a rematch won’t trigger the change necessary to have him reverse his fortunes. However, in theory at least, the idea of Joyce of all people being involved in a rematch seems incongruous; completely at odds with the kind of heavyweight he appears to be and the very strengths of his style.
That he now finds himself preparing for one this Saturday (September 23) says as much about Zhilei Zhang, his opponent and scourge, as it does Joe Joyce, one could argue. For it was Zhang, the unheralded southpaw from China, who laughed in the face of those who called him an even more basic and predictable operator than Joyce when securing a sixth-round (injury) stoppage victory back in April. It was also Zhang, 25-1-1 (20), who became the first heavyweight, in the pros, to expose the limitations of Joyce’s style – rudimentary yet hard to stop – and show the rest of the world that the Londoner could be not only deterred but outboxed.
This was an all-important aspect of their first fight and one wonders now how important it will be in the grand scheme of things; that is, ahead of Saturday’s rematch and, for Joyce, further down the line. Because there can be no doubt that a lot of what made Joe Joyce such a formidable threat for so many years, albeit at a somewhat comfortable level, was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a fighter capable of putting a dent in him or even keeping him off. Indeed, so strong was his momentum around the time of his loss to Zhang, the only names people were offering with any kind of conviction – as far as heavyweights with the skills to possibly neutralise Joyce – were names like these: Oleksandr Usyk, who has already defeated Joyce as an amateur, Tyson Fury, who might be the only heavyweight more unique and awkward than Joyce, and Deontay Wilder, whose power is sufficient to soften even the toughest targets. Outside of that trio, however, people were mostly scratching their heads when it came time to think of names. Already, it seemed, without so much as challenging for a world title, let alone winning one, Joyce was being elevated to a position within the top four or five heavyweights in the world and few would have said this was a position of which he was undeserving, either.
Therefore, the prospect of Zhileil Zhang exposing Joyce at the time he did came as an almighty surprise. It came as a surprise not only to Joyce, who may well be guilty of growing to rely on his toughness the way a great puncher often relies on their power, but also to those, like me, who perhaps naively believed his combination of thick-skulled durability and endless stamina would be enough to overcome most heavyweights in an era consisting of fighters keener to talk about fighting than actually doing it. In that sense, Joyce was not just an anomaly, but a refreshing one, too. He appeared to do everything the others either couldn’t do or didn’t want to do and at the age of 37 was both conscious and afraid of time in a way that others more fortunate weren’t. This, of course, gave Joyce an urgency the rest of them lacked. It gave him an urgency in the ring, which was forever contradicted by his overall lack of speed, and it also gave him an urgency when it came to matchmaking, for Joyce, unlike the rest, was willing to fight anybody and at any time.
For a brief time, in fact, this was enough to herald Joyce as the heavyweight the world had been looking for; the very antithesis of the bigger names and bigger egos doing all they could to supplant the competition side of things and replace it with business and business alone. He was childlike in the best of ways and yet, when the first bell rang, there was perhaps no heavyweight more manly and grown up than the “Juggernaut”. He fought the way you want them all to fight and, despite the evident flaws, and the gaping holes in his defence, Joyce merely added credence to the idea that what makes boxing such a thrilling sport to follow, and what makes boxers such compelling characters to observe, is not perfection at all but instead imperfection and how these boxers, when both aware of their imperfections and doing all they can to pretend they don’t exist, go about then trying to stay upright and alive in the presence of someone doing all they can to exploit them.
Joyce, if nothing else, embodied this idea rather wonderfully. He was thrilling to watch because of it and, because for a time nobody seemed to know how to deal with him, it became very easy to imagine a scenario in which Joyce, via sheer bloody-mindedness, made his way to the top of the division, all the while exposing the others’ lack of passion for fighting the way Joe Joyce prefers to fight. In that respect, maybe the thought was idealistic, predicated more on our disappointment with the others than any real hope in Joyce’s basic style defying all logic. Or maybe the truth is that toughness, in a sport in which the majority possess it, was never really going to be enough for a fighter to reach the top unscathed.
Either way, Joyce, in 2023, has been scathed. We know that now. It was not a bad beating, no, nor was he lifted off his feet, much less knocked out. Yet, even so, the ease with which Zhang outmanouvered him, controlled him, and, more importantly, escaped him, means, for someone like Joyce, whose entire mystique was wrapped up in him being too hot to handle, there may have been no defeat more profound.
Some may argue, of course, that Joyce getting knocked out, given all the praise for his chin, would have been a far tougher loss to swallow, and in that there be some truth, but, all the same, the mere fact that his threat was extinguished by a ponderous, if smart, 40-year-old from China will give plenty of people hope. It will give Zhang hope that he can repeat the trick this weekend and it will also give many others hope, for they now know, like Zhang, that there is a way around Joyce and that getting around him, or simply surviving him, does not require the Herculean effort many previously thought it did.
Zhang, in truth, did all the simple things against Joyce (only did them very well). Ensuring he was light on his feet, and always first to the punch, he bamboozled Joyce with angles and movement, as well as a sharp counter left hand, and he also used his size, plus Joyce’s unfamiliarity with the southpaw style, to put him in positions in which Joyce clearly didn’t feel comfortable. This was enough in the end to ensure Zhang hurt Joyce when he needed to be hurt and that he got away whenever he sensed Joyce, as is his custom, tried to use the stinging sensation of battered pride as his fuel to rev his engine and motor forward.
In short, it was an undeniably clever display from Zhang; one very few believed he had in his locker, never mind saw coming. He got ahead in the fight and he then stayed ahead, even at a time when Joyce, having started to purr, edged a little closer to Zhang and, in turn, a little closer to reducing the deficit on the cards.
That he was then unable to reduce this deficit further had a lot to do with the eye injury he suffered, of course, more than it did, say, any exclamation mark Zhang applied to the fight itself. In fact, the appeal of Saturday’s rematch between them may well be found in Zhang’s inability to apply said exclamation mark and the ambiguity that was left behind as a result of both Joyce’s injury and the fight’s premature end. For the reality is, while the win itself was conclusive enough for Zhang, even if robbed of a conclusive finish, there can be no escaping the fact that Joe Joyce is the ultimate 12-round heavyweight and therefore any fight of his that doesn’t go that distance – and hasn’t been finished with him horizontal on the canvas – leaves us all asking, “Okay, but what happened?” In other words, for Joyce not to finish the fight – that is, not being allowed to – leaves us all wondering. It may even leave Zhang wondering, too, this despite his dominance and the fact he showed he could control Joyce for half of a fight.
True or not, that’s ultimately where the intrigue lies this weekend: in the wondering. We wonder, first of all, if Zhang can perform as well as he did in fight number one and whether this time, if needed, he can stretch that performance into rounds seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven and twelve. We also wonder if Joyce, this rigid, one-dimensional machine of a fighter, can somehow now change aspects of his game at the age of 37 and appear differently from one fight to the next; something he has yet to do as a pro, regardless of the changes in opponents and in the importance of fights.
As always, it will be a balancing act. For on the one hand, if just to avoid a repeat of April, Joyce must naturally change, yet, equally, he must also try to continue to believe in what has taken him this far and continue to believe that the very simplicity of his style remains a rare and powerful tool against the best heavyweights in the world. Because the moment he starts to suddenly doubt that and opts to place all emphasis on change and becoming something else, is likely the moment the force of old fades and Joyce finds himself stuck in some dangerous middle ground, trudging even slower than usual through the mud of uncertainty and mixed messages. It is then you will see what it really means to be confused. It is then you will see what it really means to malfunction.