Back in April, Zhilei Zhang was a boxing dreamer of 39 when he closed Joe Joyce’s right eye and stopped him in six rounds.
It was one of boxing’s genuine shocks and on Saturday, at the old Wembley Arena, they will have a rematch for the right to move just a bit closer to a heavyweight title fight. If Joyce, as expected, had won the first fight, he would have probably fought Oleksandr Usyk a few weeks ago.
Zhang has been marketed as the eating, fighting, man-mountain from China. In April, he was the ideal, but risky, warm-up for Joyce. It was thought that Zhang, who had lost just once in 26 fights, was slow, easy to hit and easy to solve and would be ideal for Joyce to knock out in the last few rounds. Nice plan, wrong man.
Zhang, now 40, fought a smart fight, avoided Joyce’s jabs and straight rights, and connected again and again with his left hand. Zhang is a far trickier southpaw than anybody cared to realise, and he is so much faster than anybody wanted to believe. The brutal truth is that Zhang took Joyce apart; the official end was because Joyce’s right eye was closed, but that is a convenient little fact. Zhang was in total control.
“I took a risk,” Joyce said. “I could have just taken an easy fight and waited for a title fight.” Joyce is right, and he had taken other risks in his previous 15 fights. There is a case, a strong case, that no modern heavyweight has been pushed so hard and so quickly. Joyce has been a delight, beating former champions and challengers, and now he is in the fight of his life to salvage his short career.
Joyce turned 38 this week, the Zhang loss was his first as a professional and his first since a debatable defeat in the Olympic final at the Rio games. Joyce is under immense pressure to beat Zhang – there are very few places that he can go in defeat, and he knows that. There are no hiding places at the top of boxing.
Zhang fought a sensible, risk-free fight the last time and will need to stick to the same simple ‘move, hit and not get hit’ strategy. Joyce, however, will need to be faster and not rely on his fabled chin to get him through; Joyce, like Zhang, is a much better and smarter boxer than anybody cares to acknowledge. Zhang was underestimated in the first fight, hopefully Joyce will be underestimated in the rematch.
The winner moves closer to a fight with Usyk, but Usyk is no closer to making decisions that are out of his control. The heavyweight fight that boxing needs is Usyk and his three belts, against Tyson Fury and his one belt. However, Fury has lucrative business in Saudi Arabia next month against the boxing debutant Francis Ngannou. The holding pattern will continue, the talks are endless, the riches immense.
Zhang and Joyce are fighting for a place in the multi-million-dollar heavyweight queue. Joyce is fighting for a bit more than that, and hopefully it will give him that desperate and dangerous edge. Big Joe needs to control his emotions, box clever, move and slowly break down Zhang with class and not just brute strength.
A Joyce win, his revenge on what will inevitably be a night of drama, would set up some big options for the British heavyweight next year. Joyce has Fury, Usyk, a rematch with Daniel Dubois, and even an outside chance of a fight with Anthony Joshua on his very loose dance card. A loss and there will be a disrespectful clamour to match him with the kids coming through.
Joyce should win a great fight, but it will not be easy on the eyes.