Zhilei Zhang rematch and the curious case of Joe Joyce’s development

The least surprising aspect about Joe Joyce’s defeat to Zhilei Zhang earlier this year was that when what Joyce was trying to do did not work, there was no Plan B.

By the time the end came in round six back in April, the writing had already been daubed on the wall. Joyce’s right eye was swollen, lumpy and bleeding and he could not go on.

Joyce has been moved and promoted admirably since turning over in 2017. When it comes to mic skills, he is not this era’s Muhammad Ali. When it comes to blood lust, he is not a modern-day Mike Tyson. When it comes to a chip on his shoulder, he is not Joe Frazier, and when it comes to charisma, he is not Jack Johnson.

There is nothing wrong with any of that and being the first, and only, Joe Joyce should be all he is concerned about. Joyce comes across as affable, well-meaning and he has always been pleasant to deal with.

But in the ring, he hit an early plateau and never started to advance his skills. That is because what he was doing was working. Until it wasn’t.

Joyce was becoming something of a meme. You charge him up, put him in the opposite corner of the ring to his opponent and let him wail away at his foe until his foe can no longer stand.

It has been fun to watch, and none more so than when Joyce toppled Joseph Parker in a Fight of the Year contender in 2022.

Joyce did what Joyce does in that thriller. He marched forwards and kept marching forwards until a thoroughly spent Parker – who had plenty of his own success – succumbed and finally wilted.

And so goes the story of many of Joyce's fights. He walks through the odd bomb, perhaps a shower of them, and keeps grinding away, throwing his own heavy artillery, until his opponent can’t take anymore.

It is rough, visceral, honest and hard. It has always allowed him to go from A to B in the ring, but against Zhang he needed to go via C and he had no idea what to do when his usual map of directions did not work.

Joyce later said he had not done much work with southpaws, which is a cardinal sin when he seemed to be on the verge of a world title fight.

Joyce had been on the ring apron calling out Tyson Fury in the not-too-distant past. They share the same promoter in Frank Warren and have broadcast agreements with TNT Sports. Moments like that are not manufactured without the say-so of key people and influential players.

In fact, Joyce is the current ‘face’ of the TNT boxing output.

None of this is to say Zhang was the favourite going in the first time around, but it was always going to be interesting to see what Joyce had up his sleeve when what he does is not enough.

It turns out that fighting with his sleeves rolled up did not allow any tricks to be hidden from view.

Joyce was a one-dimensional steamroller. That was the trick.

I recall seeing Joyce as an amateur, but more so as a novice pro after the 2016 Olympics, in which he won a silver medal – and he looked hard done by in the final.

But more than that, there were fights early in his career, and one was the Bermane Stiverne fight in his seventh pro contest, when I was shocked when Joyce took some huge, clean shots to the head.

Sure, you can’t walk in the rain without getting a little damp, but these were swing-for-the-fences-type shots.

Stiverne did not have a lot left then, but he could certainly whack and lesser fighters than Joyce would have been flat on their back with imaginary canaries circling their heads had they taken at least one of those Stiverne bombs. But Joyce, jovially enough, took the shots he needed to take, Stiverne – a former world belt holder – became discouraged, and he caved in six rounds. 

The Joyce juggernaut rolled on apace, but there seemed to be a continued lack of improvement as he moved up the ranks. He beat better fighters, but was not fighting any better.

When Joyce met Daniel Dubois in an intriguing clash of heavyweight prospects, plenty favoured Dubois, but Dubois looked gunshy and Joyce hacked away, causing so much damage to Dubois’s eye that the big Londoner called it a day in round 10.

To his credit, that night Joyce did show some facets to his game, not loading up on every shot, prodding and probing, winning the jab battle and lancing his damaged prey with right hands that Dubois could no longer see.

But Joyce soon reverted to what he always did and bad habits were adopted.

Big Joe trains in Las Vegas with Ismael Salas, but has also been coached by his amateur trainer Steven Broughton, Adam Booth and Abel Sanchez in his 16 pro fights.

At 38, Joyce is not a young man, even for a heavyweight. And while plenty rave about his chin, many do not realise that forms an unholy union with one’s neurological systems and all of those huge shots from huge men that Joyce has guzzled over the years, in the amateurs and pros, will eventually haunt him, whether it happens in his career or it manifests itself in life after boxing.

It won’t suit many to hear that, and that’s okay. This is the sport. But Joyce needs to find another way, and not just for his own well-being. He needs to find another way because if he does the same thing against Zhang on Saturday night, he will get the same result.

Joyce told us he has worked against more southpaws this time and that he knows what Zhang brings to the table. He also said he had brought into his own hype and into the fables of his own durability, too.

But the Chinese giant won’t exactly be quaking in his boots after the first fight.

Joyce seemed to think he could feel that he was gradually starting to make inroads into Zhang in their first fight. He had a far better seat to judge that than I, off TV, but that was not what I saw. Zhang was buoyed by his own success and unlike almost every other Joyce foe thus far never had to deviate from his comfort zone. Zhang’s Plan A worked, so we don’t know if he can adapt or if he has the versatility to cope with a Joyce who tries to win another way on Saturday.

But we should need to find out. 

How Joyce responds to instructions, how he boxes under pressure and possibly even under duress will tell us plenty we do not already know about Joyce. 

If we are to use the lazy styles make fights cliché, then that doesn’t allow us to see Joyce boxing in any other way or with any other kind of strategy. If he has serious world title aspirations, he needs more wrinkles in his tactics than to slam the bulldozer into gear and hope everything in its path crumbles.

There must be something in the Joyce brain trust that likes the immediate rematch. It doesn’t fill one with confidence, but if Joyce has been inclined to learn from the last fight, about his shortcomings as a complete fighter and not about Zhang being better than he thought he was or being left-handed, then Joyce has the physical abilities and capabilities to turn the tables on Saturday. But what he can’t do is the same thing he has always done and expect a different outcome.

It is one thing landing Joyce the right fights at the right time, as I’d contend Frank Warren has done. It is another thing entirely for him to not make the improvements necessary to keep making strides up the ladder, whether it is managers getting drunk on their success with him or trainers not being able to influence him, but the Zhang fight was a vital lesson in April for Joyce’s development. Now is the time to see who was paying attention.