I was excited when the first fight was made between Joe Joyce and Zhilei Zhang. It had taken until Joyce stopped Joseph Parker for me to be impressed by him, but after that and given Zhang’s high-paced fight with Filip Hrgovic – Zhang could easily have been given the decision – they looked very well matched, which made it surprising that it was so one-sided.
I was concerned, however, when I saw Joyce weighing in with abdominals. Heavyweights don’t need to be lean. He was 15lbs lighter than he was against Parker; overtraining is a real thing, as we could see when he was in the ring with another super heavyweight in Zhang. Joyce wasn’t as durable as we’ve become used to seeing him, and he was flat, which, given he needed to fight at a high pace, made him close to a sitting duck.
Zhang could not miss with his left hand. In the Hrgovic fight his check right hook really impressed, and I’d therefore expected it to be influential against Joyce, but every time he threw the left hand down the middle it landed so cleanly that he didn’t really need to rely on anything else.
It doesn’t matter how durable a fighter is, he cannot get hit as regularly as Joyce and reach the highest level. Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, the world’s leading heavyweights, don’t get hit regularly. If Joyce continues to fight as he has been, it’ll only be a matter of time before he breaks down – as was shown when he injured his eye.
That that fight was only five months ago makes that injury a big concern this weekend. I fought Manny Pacquiao four months after breaking my right orbital bone against Ruslan Provodnikov, and it really affected me during training. Granted, fight preparations are very different for those in the lighter weight divisions than they are for a heavyweight – there’s a lot more contact and rounds in sparring, for a start. But I had a black eye for two months.
My doctor told me, immediately, that my injury meant that the bone would never be the same again. When he asked if I wanted surgery and for a foil to be inserted, I asked if it would make it more durable. “Absolutely not,” he said. “That eye will never take punches in the same way.”
Suffering it brought the most pain I’ve ever had to endure. Mine was fractured in three places; it swelled up immediately because it had filled up with air and blood, and when the swelling started to move inwards, towards my brain, the pain became unbearable.
Another of my concerns for Joyce is that by taking the immediate rematch he also hasn’t given himself enough time to make the necessary changes he needs to. Zhang repeatedly hit him with the same punch first time around and Joyce looked incapable of making the necessary technical adjustments.
Instead of guiding him and matching him with care and purpose, those around Joyce appear to have long been relying on his punch resistance. They’ve recognised he has a chin made of granite, the athleticism to be 6ft 6ins and yet capable of doing backflips, and the stamina to throw a huge volume of punches. His apparent inability to adjust to Zhang being a southpaw – he had no defence whatsoever for Zhang’s straight left hand – showed a lack of understanding for the fundamentals that he should have at the level he’s been fighting at, as an amateur and more recently as a professional.
His amateur accomplishments – he won an Olympic silver medal in 2016 – means he should have a better grasp of those fundamentals than he’s been showing. It often requires a fighter to be disciplined to continue to work on them, but with his size and power, his jab, coupled with the right hand, could prove as effective as it should be simple. He should also lean on and hold his opponents more – none did so better than Lennox Lewis, another Olympian. Joyce’s work rate and punch resistance should be what he falls back on when the fundamentals aren’t enough for him, not his plan A.
Ismael Salas is an excellent coach, and one proven in transforming fighters, which makes Joyce’s flaws even stranger. But there’s only so much a trainer can do – it comes down to a fighter to apply what they need to and to make the correct decisions in the ring. Some will always prefer to instead bite down and fight.
If Joyce’s conditioning has improved, and he can avoid some of Zhang’s left hands – perhaps make Zhang lead and leave the comfort zone of being a counter-puncher; force Zhang to fight at a fast pace – their rematch could be really competitive. But though I expect it to be more competitive, Joyce’s flaws mean I expect Zhang to win again.
On the undercard Anthony Yarde fights Jorge Silva. Yarde was impressive against Artur Beterbiev in January, and before then against Sergey Kovalev in 2019. He’s a dynamic puncher; he takes risks; he’s explosive; he’s strong; he’s athletic. Beterbiev is an incredibly dangerous champion; Yarde also forced Kovalev to dig deep to beat him. After a tough fight Yarde’s entering a rebuilding fight that should bring him straight back to world level, where he can have another run at the world title he has the ability to win.