Can ‘Juggernaut’ Joyce rumble through ‘Big Bang’ Zhang?
On Saturday night, at the Copper Box Arena, London, veteran heavyweight contenders Joe Joyce and Zhilei Zhang will meet in a 12-round contest for Joyce’s Interim WBO belt. A trinket that acknowledges his position as the leading contender beyond the famous four and positions the custodian as one of Oleksandr Usyk’s obligated opponents in a presumed to be Furyless 2023.
Joyce and Zhang are two amiable bruisers who will almost certainly entertain the audience they draw this weekend. The venue can host in the region of 7,000 spectators, and the viewers tuning in via BT Sport in the UK and ESPN+ in the US will expect big punches and precious few backward steps to be taken. It is hard to imagine they will be disappointed.
🔥 𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗝𝗨𝗚𝗚𝗘𝗥𝗡𝗔𝗨𝗧 𝗥𝗘𝗧𝗨𝗥𝗡𝗦 𝗧𝗢 𝗔𝗖𝗧𝗜𝗢𝗡 🔥
🏆 Joe Joyce 🆚 Zhang Zhilei
WBO Interim Heavyweight Championship 🏆
— Boxing on BT Sport 🥊 (@BTSportBoxing) April 10, 2023
There is a shared humility and respect between the two and an air of gentility that belies their ruggedness once they step between the ropes and the bell rings. Attempts to extract sound bytes or even the semblance of acrimony provides only comedic moments, as Zhang wrestles with English and Joyce fumbles and chuckles in his own search for a pithy one liner. It is this peculiar awkwardness that distinguishes both men from their better-known contemporaries and endears them to boxing followers. Promoters would probably prefer a table and a bouquet of profanities were thrown at press conference to fuel the viral surge but know not to expect it of Zhang and Joyce. They are the antithesis of the modern prize-fighter for whom the advent of social media demands ever greater noise, and it seems ever greater inactivity.
It is a refreshing combination.
In a sport of skill and nuance, where the best secure advantage in the invisible millimetres between hitting, missing and not getting hit themselves, a fight between Joyce and Zhang is something of an outlier. Joyce rumbles forward, seemingly impervious to the power of the punches he ‘eats’ on the way in and with a high punch output of his own. Zhang surprises a little with the lower guard of a fighter more mobile than a man can be at 6-6 and 270 pounds and boxes from a Southpaw stance.
The truth that neither can hide, is that they are largely simplistic and methodical fighters who can take a punch and have good power too.
— Top Rank Boxing (@trboxing) April 11, 2023
At 37 (Joyce) and soon to be 40 (Zhang), there is also no longer time to expect improvement or change. Nor is there time to waste in a holding pattern, as mere voyeurs to the impotence of the ‘big four’. The two men are what they are and share an eagerness to box for a world title and discover the extent of their ability before it is too late. Of the two, Joyce has a markedly more impressive resume despite turning professional much later than Zhang and approaches the weekend as a prohibitive favourite with bookmakers.
His victory in September against Joseph Parker, by knockout in the 11th, confirmed his busy, relentless style is good enough to dismantle world-class fighters. Parker landed thunderous right hands throughout the fight but failed to discourage the London-man. The Joyce chin appears to be impenetrable and his ability to throw leather from bell to bell and deep into the championship rounds ensures he is a nightmare to fight despite ponderous footwork and a slow-arm style. He breaks his opponent’s will. Parker finished the fight busted up and with a broken spirit.
Zhang’s form is less impressive, only two names of merit appear on his 9-year professional record and against neither fighter did the Chinese fighter, now resident in the US, secure a victory. Jerry Forrest, a gatekeeper to the top 20, appeared unfortunate not to snatch more than the Drawn verdict submitted by the judges but more recently Zhang himself felt hard done by in defeat to up and coming crowd-pleaser Filip Hrgovic. In the former, Zhang showed a lack of adaptability once it became clear that a gutsy Forrest didn’t plan on using the knockdowns suffered in each of the opening three rounds as a doorway out of the fight.
Zhang persevered, a point deduction for holding in the 9th illustrating the fog of fatigue he survived, and he eked out the Majority Draw. One judge gave it to Forrest 95-93. Against a disinterested and apparently distracted Hrgovic, his father had passed away in the build-up to the original May date for the fight, Zhang was busier and made several break throughs, most notable an opening round knockdown. It is the bittersweet perversity of boxing that Zhang has become emboldened and more popular in the aftermath of that defeat and the draw with Forrest.
His matchmaking before and between those fights was dismal and led to a lack of interest in the towering former Olympian. Despite a silver medal in Beijing 2008, losing by knockout to the mobile Italian Robert Cammarelle, and a quarter final run at London 2012 – losing to Anthony Joshua, interest soon waned such was the moribund level of opposition and his largely unexciting style.
He has credentials and size, as well as power early as the knockdowns of Forrest, Hgrovic and the trial horses that came before them can confirm. But he’s old and questions remain about his capacity to fight at a good pace over distance fights.
Joyce arrives at the fight in a much stronger position in the heavyweight hierarchy. A deepening resume and a growing number of observers sensing he could be the right fighter, in the right place and time. Could he have the optimum style to defeat those holding the belts and the keys to heavyweight riches? His work-rate is unrelenting, against Parker, in the face of his best opponent to date, Joyce slowly turned up the pressure through the middle rounds – throwing 79, 70, 72, 102, 96, 95, 85, 93 punches from the 3rd to the 10th, until the Kiwi finally wilted in the 11th.
— Top Rank Boxing (@trboxing) April 10, 2023
He soaked up some enormous punches to do so too. As a nostalgic, it is sacrilege to compare fighters across generations and there are many things Joyce does not possess that second career George Foreman did, but the expressionless face, the willingness to walk toward punchers, to be impervious to the impact of their power shots and to just keep throwing bombs of his own does encourage the notion.
This is a further test of Joyce’s place in the heavyweight picture and a last opportunity for Zhang to gate-crash the world-title scene – Joyce has momentum to lose, and Zhang has everything to gain. Neither will worry too much about finesse or those margins of millimetres that the very best work within – it will be heavy punches, exchanges and a battle of will, fitness and chin.
Joyce is likely to win any fight determined by those three factors. On Saturday, perhaps by stoppage between 7 and 9 rounds.