MUCH like how a footballer becomes better in the eyes of fans the more time they spend on the bench, and much like how an ex becomes less repulsive with the passing of time, the reputation of heavyweight Joe Joyce has only enhanced as a result of the incompetence of his peers in recent months.
Slowly but surely, not unlike his fighting style, Joyce has emerged as the breath of fresh air the division needs at a time like this. He is a man honest, both in his fighting style and ambition. He is also direct and to the point and, on the face of it, wants to do everything the others in his division are keen to avoid.
For obvious reasons, then, finding a heavyweight like Joyce restores your faith in the heavyweight division and what it can offer. His call-out videos, rather than foul-mouthed and unnecessarily confrontational, are instead tongue-in-cheek and fun. His fight negotiations, meanwhile, take place off-camera and, were it up to him, would always result in the fight getting made.
Next for Joyce this Saturday (April 15) is a test against China’s Zhilei Zhang, a character every bit as interesting as the Londoner. For Zhang, like Joyce, is a fighter slow and ponderous inside the ring, yet strangely effective with it and, moreover, blessed with a personality at odds with most of the others in the division right now.
Which is to say, rather than take themselves too seriously, Zhang and Joyce have, in the build-up to this fight at the Copper Box Arena, come across like a couple of pen pals meeting for the first time and realising all of a sudden, having used Google Translate for all their emails, they have no ability to communicate other than to fight. This leaves them in a position amusing but also extremely dangerous.
Because, despite their appearances, and despite the amiable nature of their characters, Joyce and Zhang are both solid heavyweights with a lot to offer at the top end of the division. They are also, stylistically, two fighters who could produce either one of the most awkward fights of 2023 or, conversely, one of the wildest. We wait to find out.
From Joyce’s perspective, this may not be the fight he wanted next, or indeed the fight he deserved, but it’s a decent one all the same. Apparently, Joyce had eyes on the bigger fish in the heavyweight tank, having sprinted to 15-0 (14) as a pro, and will presumably be all the more frustrated not to have caught one in light of how the heavyweights he was chasing have conspired to make a pig’s ear of various mooted fights. Still, never one to complain, Joyce will nevertheless make do with Zhang and will know, based on both Zhang’s physical presence and the history of the heavyweight division, that it would be foolish of him to look past his next opponent or pay too much attention to what is going on with his heavyweight rivals.
That, to be fair, is something you never sense with Joyce. In fact, it is his very single-mindedness, both in the ring and in more general terms, which probably makes him such a danger to the rest. For Joyce, unlike them, is a heavyweight able to keep things simple and not overthink anything. This allows him to relax in the ring and maintain a low resting heart rate while others hyperventilate. It also allows him to fight as hard in the final round as he does in the first, not that a final round is something Joyce experiences too often (just once, in fact, against Bryant Jennings in 2019).
Last time out, in September, there appeared an outside chance he would hear the final bell for the second time in his pro career, but Joyce, of course, was having none of it. His opponent, Joseph Parker, despite a bright start, slowly succumbed to Joyce’s suffocating style and was, by the time the 11th round arrived, very much at the mercy of the Joyce left hook used to finish matters.
It marked the first time Parker had ever been stopped. More importantly, for Joyce, it represented the first big win he had secured against a man who had been in there with some of the best; with his stoppage win comparing favourably with the decisions the likes of Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte previously secured against Parker.
That, for now, is good enough for Joyce: to compare favourably with his British peers and occasionally better their results. Yet he will know, also, that at the age of 37 he can’t go on much longer being called a work in progress or simply climbing the heavyweight ladder one rung at a time. He has the experience, as both an amateur and now a pro, to mix it with the best in the division today, and his ability to fight a hard 12 rounds, although he has only done it once, is perhaps unmatched in a division in which most fighters fight in bursts and are forever looking for respite.
Similarly erratic and unorthodox is Zhang, his next obstacle. The 39-year-old from Zhoukou rarely attacks in straight lines, nor with straight punches, and is often seemingly on the brink of defeat as much as he is on the brink of victory. In his last fight, for instance, against Croatia’s Filip Hrgovic, he appeared exhausted from early on and, along with the equally exhausted Hrgovic, continued to carry this appearance throughout the contest. That, however, didn’t stop “Big Bang” working, nor did it stop him having his dramatic moments against Hrgovic, who some felt was in the end slightly fortunate to come away with a decision victory in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Zhang certainly felt that way. He had been defeated for the first time in his pro career and, not only that, knew that a win against Hrgovic on the undercard of Oleksandr Usyk’s rematch against Anthony Joshua would have opened some lucrative doors in the future. As it is, while Zhang continues to represent a marketable option for the men at the top should he get back in the win column, he must first prove he can beat a man like Joyce in order to earn that opportunity.
Because Joyce, like Hrgovic, is a clear step up from the previous opponents on which Zhang has built his 24-1-1 (19) pro career. He is better than Jerry Forrest, who held Zhang to a 10-round draw in 2021, and he is arguably better than Hrgovic, too, although that will one day need to be proved in the ring.
Clearly, though, Joyce presents a different challenge for Zhang than Hrgovic did. He will, for one, be much fitter and more active than the Croatian. He will also be aggressive and look to impose his will and physical strength on Zhang, someone who, at 6’6 and 275 pounds, is hardly lacking in that department himself.
For a few rounds it should, as a result of this, be a fascinating sight to behold. Zhang brings with him a southpaw style, yet is far from what you would call slick, whereas Joyce brings with him an improving array of punches, a thudding jab, and a chin nobody has so far come close to cracking with a single shot. Indeed, talk to anyone who has sparred Joyce, or fought him, and they will say only Deontay Wilder, arguably the hardest heavyweight puncher of the modern era, has any hope of one day doing that.
If true, that will make it a hard fight for Zhang, just as previous opponents have discovered when sharing a ring with Joyce. For there is only so much Zhang’s southpaw punch-picking and movement will achieve in the company of a man who appears completely oblivious to the threat of whoever happens to be unloading in front of him. In this fight, too, Joyce will find himself gifted a bigger target than usual, as well as a man with slower reactions and hands, which can only add to the excitement from the Juggernaut’s point of view.
No doubt the fight will get messy at times, and no doubt people will criticise the lack of speed on display, but in Joe Joyce you are watching a heavyweight anomaly; someone who, in terms of style and personality, brings something different to the table, and something much needed in 2023. He is also a tough nut to crack and, until he is cracked, one struggles to see how an opponent like Zhilei Zhang will be able to fend him off and keep him off long enough to win too many of the rounds. He may end up hearing the final bell on Saturday, if his durability allows it, but the more likely outcome is that Joyce forces a stoppage late on, somewhere between rounds nine and 12.
In the night’s chief support contest, British middleweight champion Denzel Bentley, 17-2-1 (14), returns to domestic action in a second defence against Kieran Smith, 18-1 (7).
Bentley, from Wandsworth, flirted with fringe world-class last November when challenging WBO middleweight champion Zhanibek Alimkhanuly in Las Vegas, but, alas, came up short. He gave a good account of himself, however, enough to suggest he could one day succeed at that level if built up correctly, and, moreover, revealed his ambition and attitude in simply taking the fight in the first place.
Now, back at a level with which he is more familiar, Bentley looks to defend the belt he won in a mini classic against Linus Udofia in May 2022 before then defending it in fine style when stopping Marcus Morrison four months later. An exciting, aggressive puncher, Bentley is always good value and will no doubt be all the better for his experience in Las Vegas last year.
As for Smith, this will be his first big test since being stopped in six rounds by Troy Williamson in April 2021. Since then, he has won twice, against journeymen, which means you have to go back to 2019 to find his last decent wins: a pair of 10-round decisions against Vincenzo Bevilacqua, unbeaten in 16, and Ivan Montero (in a bout stopped at the 2:10 mark of the 10th round, making it a Technical Decision even if the scores were given as if 10 rounds were completed.)
Bentley, it would seem, has moved beyond this kind of level now, despite coming up short in his first world title fight. One would expect him therefore to retain his title for the second time by securing a stoppage in the second half of the fight.
Down at lightweight, meanwhile, there is an evenly-matched battle – on paper anyway – between the heavy-handed Sam Noakes, 10-0 (10), and Karthik Sathish Kumar, 10-0 (4).
While both lightweights are unbeaten, with a combined record of 20-0, one must not get too carried away in light of the fact six of Kumar’s 10 fights have taken place in India, his homeland, against a variety of novices and debutants. Needless to say, despite bringing with him a healthy-looking record, this Commonwealth title fight against Noakes in London will represent a huge step up in class for the 26-year-old from Chennai.
Also on the Copper Box card, American Mikaela Mayer, 17-1 (5), fights Greece’s Christina Linardatou, 14-2 (6), over 10 two-minute rounds in the women’s lightweight division, and heavyweight prospect Moses Itauma, who has gone no further than 35 seconds so far as a pro, has his third pro fight against Kostiantyn Dovbyshchenko, 9-12-1 (6).