ON reflection, we were probably all guilty of falling for the idea that Zhilei Zhang had been brought over from China simply because he presented the perfect foil, personality-wise, for the equally awkward Joe Joyce while all the popular kids avoided them both.
Throughout fight week, and indeed the weeks preceding it, the two heavyweights formed quiet the double act, with each one trying to upstage the other by way of tongue-in-cheek, wholesome “trash talk”, as well as numerous soundbites lost in translation to an amusing degree. It was easy and forgivable therefore to think Zhang was no more than Morecambe to Joyce’s Wise, or vice versa. It was easy to think he offered nothing more to Joyce than his personality.
And yet, how wrong we were. Because tonight (April 15) in London, Zhang, a man who turns 40 next month, removed his mask without warning to turn on both Joyce and the rest of us, doing so with a shocking sense of purpose and defying all our preconceptions. In an instant, Zhang was no longer the jovial fall guy with time for everyone. He was instead a horrible, six-foot-six southpaw who, in 2008, won an Olympic silver medal. He was a solid pro whose only defeat, against Filip Hrgovic, was a contentious one, and he was, after three minutes, seemingly going to cause Joe Joyce, his latest opponent, all manner of issues at the Copper Box Arena.
It happened so quickly nobody could even prepare for it. Seconds in, Zhang’s smile had disappeared, his act had dropped, and all of a sudden he was sharp, twitching, ready to blast Joyce in the face with his straight left cross whenever the opportunity presented itself. Ready, aim, fire. Rinse and repeat.
This being Joe Joyce, of course, opportunities for that were plentiful and soon enough big shots were landing early and often, most of them produced by Zhang. Clearly, he trusted the left hand, which was thrown from the southpaw stance with a speed and snap many believed “Big Bang” didn’t possess, but other shots Zhang also liked included a smart right hook upstairs as well as hard digs to the body, which had the effect of stopping Joyce in his tracks as he looked to advance.
Of all the shots landed, though, it was the left hand that stood out and it was the left hand Zhang used to momentarily stagger Joyce in the second round. This, an early breakthrough, was a flashpoint nobody saw coming, just as the left hand was a shot Joyce did not see coming, and it left us all somewhat stunned as a result. Stunned, on the one hand, to see how easily Zhang had been able to land that particular shot; a shot executed perfectly, I might add. But also stunned to see how the punch then affected Joyce, this man we have grown accustomed to seeing deal with heavyweight punches as though he is merely clawing the sleep from his eyes following an eight-hour kip.
There was no such response against Zhang. Rather than eat the shot and simply plough forward, Joyce felt this one down to his toes and had to then endure the sight of Zhang, excited by the moment, try to land further punches in an effort to get him out of there early.
That was never likely to happen, despite the heaviness of that initial shot, yet nor did it really matter. For that early shot, we could already tell, was no fluke, Hail Mary, or a one-time thing. It was instead a shot Zhang was able to throw with regularity, each as smooth as the last, and one for which he now knew there would always be a home.
In many ways, and quite the surprise, there was a Corrie Sanders feel to Zhang at times, especially when he snapped that left hand and found Joyce’s static head on the end of it. With his hands low, and with him constantly circling, Zhang was a stylistic nightmare for Joyce from the outset and capitalised on the confusion he sensed in his opponent by nailing him with punches whenever he paused for thought.
Perhaps, in the end, Zhang, 25-1-1 (20), was just all wrong for him. He is, after all, a heavyweight of similar stature and was on the night 22 pounds heavier than Joyce, who, for better or worse, was 15 pounds lighter than he was last time out (against Joseph Parker in September). Moreover, he is a southpaw, and a big one at that, which happens to be a stance and style Joyce has not faced for some time and one he admitted after the fight was a contributing factor to his lacklustre performance. Maybe, while Joyce can steamroll smaller men and walk through their punches, doing the same with someone like Zhang, a tough and large man in his own right, is not quite so simple or straightforward.
What’s also worth keeping in mind, too, is that although Joyce has long been praised for his sturdiness and his relentless pursuit of a toe-to-toe brawl, there are, according to history, only so many times a fighter can continue that approach and expect success. Eventually, without them knowing it, all the punches they celebrated taking on better nights will one day come back to haunt them, thrown now by different hands belonging to different men. Eventually, as a fighter’s age increases, so does the likelihood of the miles on their clock causing some kind of mechanical or operational fault, one nobody beforehand thought to check or so much as consider. “It normally runs fine,” they say. “Never had a problem with it before.”
That’s not to say Joyce, at 37, shook hands with Father Time tonight in London, nor is to say we have seen the best of him. But, certainly, through the five and a half rounds the Londoner spent in the company of Zhang, he won very few of them and seemed nothing like his usual self. He was more circumspect than normal, which is something rarely said of “The Juggernaut”, and he was also struggling to make an impression on Zhang with shots of his own, something typically crucial when it comes to Joyce getting his opponent to fight his fight.
This all may have happened in the fight’s second half, of course, had it gone that long; past form suggests Joyce is a man who grows and improves as the fight goes on. However, this fight for whatever reason felt different than all the others. Joyce seemed different and Zhang, too, seemed different. There was a seriousness to both that nobody expected. Zhang’s likely owed to intense concentration and the importance of implementing a game plan. Joyce’s, meanwhile, owed more to concern, for he, like us, had not seen this coming. He, like us, had fallen into Zhang’s trap. Lulled, it appeared, into a false sense of security, expecting one thing only to be delivered something else, Joyce once saw a slow, ageing and lumbering fighter and believed he would not only have a field day but saw in Zhang a sort of kindred spirit, a man after his own heart, his reflection. In that sense, you could say Joyce went into tonight’s fight blind; blinded both by his own toughness and his own belief that Zhang represented just another routine fight against another slab of meat. It was then within a couple of rounds, with his right eye swollen, Joyce, 15-1 (14), knew differently. It was then, when stopped because of this swollen eye by the doctor one minute and twenty-three seconds into round six, Joyce couldn’t see anything at all.