Zhilei Zhang vs Joe Joyce technical breakdown: Angles of attack

Zhilei Zhang scored an upset victory on Joe Joyce's home turf, battering and bruising his opponent until a doctor stepped in. We take a look at the details.

By: Lukasz Fenrych | 2 months ago
Zhilei Zhang vs Joe Joyce technical breakdown: Angles of attack
IMAGO / Xinhua

Joe Joyce, coming into this, had built a reputation. Indestructible. Unstoppable. His nickname said it all: juggernaut. He was limited, clearly, but he wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable. And yet Zhilei Zhang showed the cracks in that facade, wobbling him severely in the early rounds, and also busting up his right eye so severely that, in the sixth round, the referee called in the ringside doctor, who called the contest to a close.
There were a few reasons why Zhang might have been able to land harder than Joyce’s previous opponents, so let’s take a look.

Check out our live round-by-round analysis of the fight here.

The Breakdown: How Zhilei Zhang beat Joe Joyce

The first big reason was alluded to by Joyce himself in the post-fight interview. It was, if true, a pretty glaring error in his preparation, but it seemed clear. It was this: Zhilei Zhang is a southpaw. That seems too big a factor for Joyce and his team to have overlooked, and let’s be clear: they definitely tried to prepare for it. But heavyweight southpaws are rare as hen’s teeth, and they may simply not have had the sparring available to put their preparation to the test.

Any fighter who rarely fights against southpaws might find themselves struggling, of course. It’s usually, for an orthodox fighter such as Joyce, about closing the space in an open-stance matchup. And about how to avoid the lead hand coming from a different angle than usual. For Joyce, both those things were true, but the most immediately visible problem was something a little different, and resulting from certain compromises he has to make due to his own limitations.

The limitation in question here being simple: Joyce is slow. Even by the standards of heavyweights- even by the standards of big, old, heavyweights, as both are here. This was true from before the moment he turned professional, and he’s had to develop his game a certain way because of it. One of the compromises he’s made is this: if he makes his defence about fully avoiding (or blocking) most shots coming at him, he’d just not have the time to get his own offence going before an opponent steps away.

So instead, what he’s done is built his stance, from the ground up, around being able to move with any shot that lands on him. You could see that in his victory over Daniel Dubois a few years ago. Dubois, though not a southpaw, has some similarities to Zhang, primarily in that he’s constantly looking to load up straight power hands down the center line.

Against Joyce, he landed repeatedly, but Joyce would simply sway from the hips and feet as he took them, and much of the power was defused. It wasn’t an active reaction from the older man – simply the way he was standing allowed him to naturally do so.

Against Zhilei Zhang, throwing similar shots with his left, that simply didn’t work. Almost every shot down the middle snapped Joyce’s head back fiercely. That meant that rather than some of the power being taken by the movement of his body, it all went straight through his head. That’s not good for the brain of course, and most likely accounts for the big wobble he took in the second round, that he did well to recover from. It might also explain why his eye and nose looked so damaged, when usually, despite taking a beating, he walks away looking bruised but relatively clean.

He was simply eating the shots, not just flush, but against his lines of balance. That hurts. And the damage to the eye proved the crucial element here, leading directly to the stoppage.

Zhang sends Joyce wobbling with a big straight left. Notice how Joyce moves with the right hook just before, but is caught square by the straight left.

This factor was exacerbated by another: Zhang’s own head movement, and defence in general, and the confidence it gave him. Joyce is a non-stop mover, his movement unpredictable, back-and-forth, but ultimately constantly encroaching in his opponent’s space. Most of his opponents to date have been flustered by this. Even when they’ve gotten good shots off, they’re already preparing to step back, and that does take some power off.

Zhang was comfortable, especially early on, with taking a shot or two from Joyce, knowing he had the tools to slip or block much of what he threw. That meant he was able to simply hold his feet and be a bit closer to Joyce when he threw the power hand. And that meant the shot was really going through Joyce, rather than catching him with the end of the arc, with much of the power spent.

That defensive ability also helped Zhang stay cool when he did start to slow down. He usually does, and all of Joyce’s opponents eventually do. But most of them start to panic a bit when that happens. They begin to make errors, not responding in the optimal way, and Joyce starts to really get his clubbing power home consistently. In this fight, by the fourth and fifth, Zhang no longer really had the legs to move away as readily as before.

Joyce did start to get inside, and to throw and land combinations. Zhang felt them, and on occasion he was clearly a little bothered. But he didn’t freak out, and he trusted to his ability to still absorb much of the pressure. That meant he himself didn’t fall off a cliff as far as his stamina went- and it left Joyce with a higher mountain to climb.

It’s to Joyce’s credit that he himself never panicked, either. And for all the limitations of his tool-set, he did make some adjustments to get back into the fight. Admittedly, some of those adjustments were reversions to the norm. In the first two rounds, he did seem to try one thing that wasn’t his usual style, possibly in response to the southpaw issue and that was circle Zhang on the outside before coming in.

In principle, that makes sense- fighters are taught to circle with southpaws, to their own left (the southpaw’s right). Correctly done, it takes them away from the power hand- and timed right, whoever can consistently get on the outside of their opponent’s stance can block the movement in that direction.

Joyce isn’t fast enough for that, and he frequently found that, having taken the circling steps, Zhang had just turned with him and was already throwing as he got into stance. That also added to the damage. Many fighters would have panicked in that situation, and either continued, or overcompensated, chasing too aggressively to recover momentum. Joyce, once he recovered the steadiness in his legs, did start to push forward- but carefully, aware of the power of that left down the pipe.

And it should be noted that this might have worked. Zhang, by the fifth, was clearly on the back foot, more defensive and not throwing much. He woke up a bit in the sixth, but that was after the doctor had already checked Joyce’s eye once, and he would have been aware that more direct shots on it would force the referee’s hand.

That was the right move by Zhang, but it doesn’t mean Joyce’s own choice was the wrong one. Within the tool-set he got, the slow and steady approach, building the threat gradually, is and was the right call. It should by no means be said that Zhang was lucky, but it was a fine margin. Had the eye lasted any longer, Joyce may well have found a way back in.

The damage was too much, and the fight was stopped.

And that maybe sums up the lesson here. Boxing is a sport of very fine margins, sometimes. In this case, a simple flaw in the set of the feet and shoulders led Joyce to taking shots harder than he normally does, and Zhang exploited that fully. It’s worth noting before we go that the damage to the eye was, in part, made worse by Zhang’s own choices.

He usually throws his left hand in a variety of ways, hooks and body shots in variation. He did have those tools here, but once he saw how much more damage he was landing with that straight than anything else, he focused on it. So yes, he earned the victory.

The Future: Where do Zhang and Joyce go from here?

With both men in their late 30s, the future is somewhat a matter of urgency. Zhang, with this win, has in theory earned a shot at Oleksandr Usyk, holder of the WBO belt. This was for an interim version of that, so it should make Zhang prime player. In practice, it may very well not (Daniel Dubois has been mentioned as Usyk’s next opponent). But Zhang may have another target in mind. At the 2012 Olympics, he lost a quarter-final bout to Anthony Joshua, and he has expressed interest in a rematch. This win, in London and on a main event on British television, may well give him the exposure he needs for Joshua to accept the challenge.

The other option is a potential rematch, which there is a contract clause for. That depends on Joyce- he did express immediately post-fight that he needs to take a look at what went wrong first, and may take a fight in between. Even if he wants it, if the orbital bone is broken, he may be out longer than the rematch clause is valid for.

Either way, Joyce’s momentum towards a much-desired title shot is stalled, but even without that, he will have options. In fact, he may have more than before. He’d started to build a reputation as a bit of a divisional boogeyman, but with the vulnerability shown here, someone like Anthony Joshua may feel more comfortable taking him on.

So both men have options, regardless of what happens. And, after this entertaining contest, they’ll both have a following eager to see what’s next.

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About the author
Lukasz Fenrych
Lukasz Fenrych

Lukasz Fenrych is an analyst and writer. He has been covering combat sports since 2019, and joined Bloody Elbow's boxing team in 2022.

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