Joyce v Zhang – Battle of the plodders for a place among the elite

‘Juggernaut (noun): a massive, inexorable force… that crushes whatever is in its path’ (the Merriam Webster online dictionary.)

You can watch boxing for a long, long time and still occasionally find a fighter who baffles you. Heavyweight world championship contender, Joe Joyce certainly fits that category.

Watching Joyce box can be quite a challenging intellectual exercise. ‘What is he actually doing well?’ You ask yourself. Answers are not always self-evident. Despite that, he keeps winning.

Now unbeaten in 15, with 14 KOs, the 6ft 6 and 271lb, aptly named ‘Juggernaut’ is an imposing physical specimen, as anyone with serious heavyweight title ambitions must be these days. He is also clearly in possession of an absolutely, rock-solid chin.

Watching opponents throw hands at Joyce’s head is a like watching hailstones bounce off a road. Now matter how big they are, and no matter how fast they fly, they never seem to make a dent.

Offensively, Joyce throws an accurate jab. However, he throws it, like the rest of his punches, as if he is underwater. Somehow – and this is the confusing thing – being Frankenstein slow, even by heavyweight standards, does not seem to affect his success rate. Joyce just keeps coming forwards, absorbs everything his opponents chuck back and wears them down through sheer bloody mindedness.

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As a result, he’s a fighter who grows on you. Everyone loves a trier. Once you have watched him the first few times and know what to expect, you start to appreciate his unyielding, unflinching performances. There’s something reassuring and steady about it. In the same way that the sun travels across the sky, night follows day, then day follows night, and the South London juggernaut will plod his way from round one to eventual victory.

The whole strangely low-key Joyce experience is completed by his persona, which, like his fighting style, is uncomplicated. Smiling, self-deferential, even a bit awkward and shy, he’s like the gentle giant at school who was in the bottom set for everything, but everyone was mates with. In an age in which others engage in trash talk or offer scripted inspirational soundbites, seeking clicks and attention, Joyce smirks and says what comes naturally.

Having beaten the likes of Daniel Dubois and Joseph Parker, he now finds himself up against Chinese leviathan Zhilei ‘Big Bang’ Zhang, a man who combines the physique of a panda with the face of a Bond villain. The two face off on Saturday for the WBO interim World Title, which means a belt and a step towards fighting one of the real big boys in the future. The full WBO title is currently held, of course, by Ukrainian maestro Oleksandr Usyk.

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Charmingly, Zhang’s talent for trash talking is not much better than his opponent’s. He told Joyce recently, “your jaw is going to pieces!” Then went on to explain, matter of factly, that Joyce will be “undone by a perfect KO punch.”

Joyce responded in characteristic style. “Zhang is a big, strong southpaw who is massive, and he has been to the Olympics and all that. I think it will be a great fight.”

World In Sport Prediction

Zhang matches Joyce in stature and probably has the edge on speed. Both men carry power, but ‘Big Bang’ has to be privately concerned that Joyce seems impossible to hurt.

Zhang lost, last time out, on points to Croatian Filip Hergovic, while Joyce’s inexorable momentum remains unbroken. For those reasons, it seems likely that the contest will follow the same pattern as the rest of the juggernaut’s career so far. Joyce may be outboxed at times. He may ship some heavy shots. He may look cumbersome and unwieldy and laboured, but he will keep coming forward, and keep applying pressure. Nothing will deter him and the fight will end, with an exhausted Zhang crumpled on the canvas, somewhere around round ten.

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