For someone who is such a monolith of a man, there are a surprising number of layers to Joe Joyce. At certain points during our half-hour conversation, Joe Joyce the heavyweight boxer is speaking; at others, it’s Joe Joyce the fine-art student, the swimming instructor, the cheerleader, or the trumpet player.
“When I was a swimming and diving teacher, it was a really great feeling to have someone who was really afraid of the water and to get their head under the water – or have them swimming three, four strokes by the end,” the Londoner tells The Independent. “To have people who have spent their life not being able to swim, and to get them to even put their head under the water in their late sixties and seventies, that’s something I found really rewarding.
“I also played trumpet for quite a few years, I was in the choir at school. I could do a little bit of percussion; I used to go on music holidays. My little brother is the more musical one; he’s at uni doing something musical and was in the Brit School; he was also in Thriller Live. My dad’s an art teacher, he restores antique 8sharer frames, and my mum was into pottery; she does a series of African-esque heads. Growing up, music and sport was encouraged, as was art. I did my first oil painting when I was seven years old.
“It would be nice to make more art and create more things, be more creative than the destructive boxing side.”
These other sides to Joyce are all “authentic” elements of the 37-year-old, as he puts it.
“I wake up Joe Joyce, I go to sleep Joe Joyce. I’d like to inspire the next generation coming up and teach them, lead by example. It’s good to give back. I’d like to lead a movement, like how Muhammad Ali transcended boxing and is one of these pivotal names in history – like Bruce Lee, Bob Marley, Michael Jordan. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to leave behind, or at least something close to that.”
They are huge aspirations for a man who comes across so humbly, but while there is some way for Joyce to go in achieving such status, his profile swelled significantly in the aftermath of his knockout of Joseph Parker in September 2022. “Overnight I saw the change, where people were kind of putting me in the top five [at heavyweight] and were interested and excited about certain match-ups with these top fighters,” he says.
Joyce, who claimed silver for Great Britain at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, hammered Parker to the canvas with a left hook in the 11th round in Manchester to become interim WBO champion. “When I was in there, I couldn’t remember what shot I stopped him with; it wasn’t until I got back to the changing room and they showed me the clip of it. I was like, ‘Woah!’” The final shot capped off an indefatigable performance from Joyce, who marched down the New Zealander relentlessly and was unperturbed by Parker’s best strikes. “He did his best, he put his best effort in, and it wasn’t enough,” Joyce says matter-of-factly, before morphing his voice into a fine impression of a 1970s professional wrestler: “And it’s gonna take a wrecking ball to take me down, I’ll tell you that much!” he bellows, making a whipping motion with his index finger, before his voice cracks into a laugh.
Unfortunately for the Briton, Zhilei Zhang became that wrecking ball in April. While the Chinese heavyweight did not quite take down Joyce, he battered the “Juggernaut”’s right eye to the point of closure, forcing the referee to wave off the bout in Round 6.
With the result, Joyce lost the WBO Interim belt and saw his professional record fall to 15-1 (with 14 of his wins having come via knockout). The clashes with Parker and Zhang, similar to Joyce’s bout with rising heavyweight Daniel Dubois in 2020, were risky affairs on paper. But in a business in which the best rarely do battle with one another, Joyce has shown no trepidation in confronting tough combatants. At 37, he cannot afford to waste time on tune-up fights or meaningless match-ups. As such, he will face Zhang again on 23 September.
“I’m not out here just to earn money or be heavyweight champion of the world,” he insists. “It’s about taking them challenges on and overcoming them. I think some of that can be lost in the sport. It’d be good to bring back those good times of everybody fighting everybody. People don’t wanna lose their ‘0’. I don’t know where that mentality came from… Maybe from Floyd Mayweather? That’s why a lot of the [big] fights don’t happen.”
It is a trend that is at odds with what fans want – one that goes against basic fighting instinct, Joyce argues.
“There’s that excitement when you’re at school, and someone in the playground shouts, ‘Fight!’ It kicks off, and the whole school gathers around… It’s that primordial excitement that people get, it’s that kind of raw entertainment. When I was in primary school, I had quite a few fights – two on one, or they’d start the fight and I’d finish it. I was always a head taller than everyone. Early days of rugby, there’d be five or six guys hanging on to me, trying to slow me down.”
Ironically, a criticism of Joyce has been his perceived lack of speed, but if that is a valid critique then it has not prevented the Juggernaut from building momentum in fights through his pressure and the volume of his output. Before Joyce’s meeting with Zhang, there was a clamour for the Briton to face the likes of Tyson Fury and fellow Olympian Anthony Joshua. The visual of Joyce being scaled by school students on the rugby pitch, coupled with discussions around Fury and Joshua, leads us naturally onto whether Joyce would rather fight five smaller Furys or one gargantuan Joshua.
“Five little Furys would be a pain in the ass, wouldn’t it?” he laughs. “That’d be so annoying, being surrounded by them! They’d be coming from all angles, you can’t hit them, the head movement… But imagine the punch on a massive-sized Joshua… ”
Before long, Joyce might not even have to imagine the punch on a life-sized Joshua, who – as the 37-year-old acknowledges – is an intriguing enough proposition as is. Joyce’s eagerness to embrace such challenges is an endearing element of his personality – and of his approach to his profession.
That dichotomy, between the gentle Juggernaut’s personality and profession, will only make his journey all the more enthralling.
Note: Interview first published in October 2022; article updated in September 2023.