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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Steve Bunce

Joe Joyce now faces a harsh truth – he needs protecting from himself

Getty Images

Joe Joyce walked to the ring looking like a condemned man at Wembley late on Saturday night.

A few minutes later in round three, Joyce was dropped face first for the full count of ten by Zhilei Zhang. The grim observation, the way he walked with his eyes as blank as rock on the way to the ring, was right.

Back in April, Zhang closed Joyce’s right eye and stopped him in round six; the immediate rematch was risky, possibly unnecessary and finished with the shocking end. Joyce was a big, big favourite in the first fight. Joyce at 38, and after just 17 fights, might be facing a genuine crisis in his short career. In the Wembley ring he looked hesitant, reluctant and seemed to wobble from every punch Zhang landed. Joyce was renowned for his ability to absorb punishment and not flinch - that dubious boxing superpower is gone.

In April, Joyce’s mistake was to rely on his fabled iron chin, and this allowed Zhang to take control and get the stoppage; in the rematch, Joyce had no faith in his chin and Zhang was dismissive and then concussive. It was a bad finish, a single punch and down went Joyce in a heap. He regained his feet, but the count was over. His career is now in chaos.

In the silent and stunned aftermath, Joyce talked about continuing his career, but he might need protection from his own intentions; he looked slow, uncertain and fought like he was battling demons. Sure, a repeat loss was not unimaginable, but a one-punch knockout was not on any agenda. The harsh truth is that Zhang, an Olympic silver medal winner in 2008, is now 40 and has never looked like the danger man he has become in the two Joyce fights. Zhang’s record is now 26 wins in 28 fights and there are very few good names in his history; Joyce somehow transforms him. Zhang demanded a fight with Tyson Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion, in his victory speech. It’s not a fantasy and had Joyce left Zhang in a heap, he would have called out Fury and it might have got made.

Zhang had a relatively easy run to the Wembley rematch, but Joyce has been matched hard from fight one back in 2017; in 2016 at the Rio Olympics, Joyce lost a bad decision in the final. In the professional ring he was on an early mission, knocking out former world champions, world-title challengers and unbeaten prospects. He got caught, sure, but he always found a way to get to his opponents. His record was 15 wins with 14 knockouts before the first Zhang fight. He was a genuine top ten heavyweight contender, and he was avoided. It was a brilliant career until he entered the ring to fight Zhang.

In the short fight, Joyce moved with caution in the opening round, Zhang followed him and the pair with a combined weight of over 40 stone made the old ring shake. In round two, Zhang got closer, Joyce looked uneasy and was rocked a couple of times. Joyce never looked happy – Zhang never stopped smiling. The final right hook, which was more of a cross, sent Joyce down and out. The official time of the stoppage was 3:07 of the third – Joyce lost this fight a long, long time ago.

Zhang will now be the division’s most avoided fighter and Joyce, if he continues, will be on the wish-list of every young fighter on the globe; they both deserve better than that.

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