Boxing fans take no prisoners.
Just one bad performance, in Joe Joyce’s case a horrendous six rounds, can transport you from a nailed-on future world champion to a fighter out of his depth at the top level.
“People are quick to shoot you down when things don’t go your way. I have been a victim of that,” the 38-year-old British heavyweight tells BBC Sport.
Joyce was considered by enthusiasts as the division’s most avoided contender, a man with the capabilities of dethroning champion Oleksandr Usyk and who would have the beating of Anthony Joshua if the two met.
Then came the shock defeat by China’s Zhilei Zhang in April.
‘Big Bang’ Zhang landed thunderous power shots with ease before referee Howard Foster halted the contest at London’s Copper Box Arena.
On Saturday at Wembley’s OVO Arena, ‘Juggernaut’ Joyce plans to “correct his mistakes” in a rematch with 40-year-old Zhang.
“I’m going to win this fight and it will just be a little blip in the long scheme of things and the trajectory of my career,” Joyce says.
“Then it won’t be a big thing. People will be like ‘he made the adjustments and was successful in the rematch’ – people won’t remember.
“Things happen and can change quite quickly.”
‘Dark times’ for Joyce after Zhang loss
Joyce, with his right eye swollen shut, was gracious in defeat and vowed to come back stronger. His pride dented, undefeated record no more and, most significantly, world-title aspirations derailed.
Over-rated, one-dimensional and too slow were just some of the critiques hurled towards the 6ft 6in Londoner after he lost his WBO ‘interim’ title and number-one challenger spot for unified champion Usyk.
“I was still in the fight and if it hadn’t been for the eye I might have managed to turn it round in the later rounds,” he says.
But for ringside observers, Joyce looked out of sorts throughout. There was an air of inevitability from the moment southpaw Zhang landed a solid left a minute into the fight.
Joyce – a 2016 Olympic silver medallist – suffered a first defeat in his 16th pro fight, having stopped 14 of his 15 previous opponents.
He says all the talk of a potential dust-up with fellow Briton Joshua or a world-title shot at Usyk may have provided a distraction in the build-up.
Joyce also admits facing “dark times” in the weeks which followed the loss.
“It took me a couple of weeks to get over it,” he adds. “It wasn’t the fairy-tale ending to a fight where everyone is excited and happy to see me. It wasn’t a good look.
“I’m a pretty positive person but it was a hard knock to take. I needed a little time.”
Can Joyce get to grips with southpaw style?
The signs were there before fight night. Joyce cut a deflated figure and spoke of his own ill-discipline at the weigh-in after coming in 1st 8lb lighter than his opponent.
“There’s a lot of things to nit-pick in the camp leading up to the fight and also in my performance,” Joyce says.
“It’s all been rectified this time round. The weight issue and different bibs and bobs. They all added up and ultimately made me lose the fight”.
Joyce is a staggering 1st 11lb heavier for the rematch, the most he’s ever weighed as a professional, but boxing trainer Dave Coldwell feels the weight difference was “not the main problem” and he “didn’t appear to have a single clue on how to deal with a southpaw” fighter.
Zhang was selected with potential future bouts against Usyk or the switch-hitting Fury in mind.
“Joe couldn’t get to grips with the style. He wasn’t moving at all, just walking on to shots all the time,” Coldwell added.
“It could have been down to a lack of preparation, or quality, or southpaw sparring. It’s already difficult to find big guys in the heavyweight division who are really good. But finding southpaw sparring with a big guy who is really good is like stardust.
“In order to win the rematch, I think he needs to target that body of Zhang, tire him out, take away his strength and zap the energy.”
‘I thought I’d be world champion by now’
Joyce turned professional aged 31 and was fast-tracked through the paid ranks, debuting in a 10-round contest against Ian Lewison.
His breakthrough win came as an underdog against Briton Daniel Dubois in November 2020, a fighter at the time considered one of the brightest heavyweight prospects in world boxing.
“It can’t be three years ago? Was it 2020?,” Joyce asks. “Oh my days. I better get my skates on. I thought I’d be heavyweight world champion by now.”
A win over Zhang would place Joyce back in the queue to fight unified champion Usyk, but he may have to wait for his shot.
Ukrainian Usyk beat Dubois, his WBA mandatory challenger, in April and is likely to face IBF number one Filip Hrgovic next.
“Yes, I’d like to fight Usyk. Yes, I’d like to fight [WBC champion] Tyson Fury. But when it’s going to happen will be hard to say,” Joyce says.
“Fights happen once or twice a year at this kind of stage. I’m just happy to be where I’m at but I’m also pushing to where I want to be. Zhang is standing in the way. I need to beat him to move forward.”
Asked if he regretted taking a risky bout against hard-hitting Zhang, Joyce says: “Yeah in a way. I could have had a nice easier fight, biding my time for a world-title shot.”
To keep his world-title hopes alive, Joyce had no choice but to activate his rematch clause.
If he can overcome Zhang, he says this time he may sit back and wait until the WBO mandatory is ordered.
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