Zhilei Zhang taught Joe Joyce a hard lesson on Saturday night. The first fight had been bad enough, but that was a slow exploitation of a particular weakness. Joyce, though on the bad side of a beating, never gave up and was making the fight closer all the time even as his eye deteriorated.
That was not the story here. From the moment Zhilei Zhang landed his first serious punch, Joe Joyce fell apart, and had no answers. Mistakes led into bigger mistakes and after two rounds of target practice Zhang detonated a bomb that put Joyce down for the first time in his pro career. He didn’t beat the count, and his future at the top of the division is now on very shaky ground.
So what happened? Let’s take a look.
The Breakdown: How did Zhilei Zhang dominate Joe Joyce?
Sometimes in boxing you have to work with what you have.
Joe Joyce talked in the buildup of adjustments to be made. Of preparation not completed before the first fight, work that would be ready now. He’d make tweaks, bring new looks and generally find ways to mitigate the danger of Zhang’s sharp left hand.
And he did. Sort of.
Joyce turned up to this fight with a style and set of tactics that would have made complete sense for someone with some speed. Staying on the outside and circling to his own left to stay away from the power hand. Adopting a stance that saw him drop his lead hand a bit and use it to cover the center line, a big weakness for him the first time round.
That would leave his own left side open, but allow him lean and roll right heavily, to maximise the distance Zhang would have to cover with his lead hand, and open opportunities for counters. It also kept his left eye- still visibly damaged from their first fight- the maximum possible distance from lefts coming around the side. All of those are perfectly sensible adjustments, if you’re fast enough to pull them off.
You can see Joe Joyce’s defensive posture here, his damaged right eye as far away from Zhilei Zhang as possible and the route down the middle covered by both hands.
Joe Joyce, unfortunately, is very slow. That seems harsh, to state it like that, but it’s an unavoidable fact, visible to everyone for his entire pro career, and more true each year as he ages into his late 30s.
After an opening round in which both fights threw a few testers at each other and not much else, Zhang decided in the second to push the pace a bit. He realised that, in actuality, Joyce was not going to be able to counter his leads before he followed with the left, so he had time to try things out. And once he started doing that, he spotted that while he covered that center line from his starting position, when he leaned away the hands were coming down and it was open again.
That was where the first really hurtful shot came from. Zhang threw a left that Joyce blocked, then a straight right that he leaned away from. That move brought his hands apart, and left the channel down the middle open- and Zhang’s next power left went right down it, cracking Joyce on the chin and wobbling him back.
It could be said that the fight more or less ended there. We still got another round and a half of fighting out of it, of course, but that single punch landing saw Joyce completely fall apart. He didn’t know how to react, and it showed, badly. From there on out he alternated between continuing to try the outboxing he’d come in with, and a more aggressive style in which he tried to push towards Zhang and push the tempo. The switch wasn’t done with any sort of tactical thought, though, and Zhang was able to weather the storms with ease and punish him for it.
The problem, ultimately, seemed to be that Joyce’s intent was to come in with a gameplan that let him take over and control the whole fight. That was never achievable for him- but he didn’t probably didn’t need it to be. We know, from his career to date, that Zhang is not a fighter who can keep a high pace for a full 12 rounds. Even in the first fight, there were signs he was slowing. There were certainly no guarantees that an approach to take advantage of that would have worked, but it would have been a lot more likely.
The thing is, he used to know that. Up until the first Zhang fight, really, his gameplan rested on mitigating the limits of his speed and using his size and quite ridiculous stamina to his advantage. He’d keep things relatively tight, move with certain shots rather than trying to avoid them entirely, and push the pace until his opponent broke down. He was always taking damage in the early rounds of fights- he just trusted in his ability to limit what it cost him.
Zhang in the first fight found a particular spot where this wasn’t refined enough and the damage got too much. The lesson Joyce took seems to be that the entire style had to go out the window. He actually had tried to circle on the outside in that fight too – and seemingly came to the conclusion that it failed then because he hadn’t practiced enough, rather than because he simply didn’t have the speed to manage it. Hindsight is easy, of course, but that was a mistake.
Let’s not make it all about Joyce’s mistakes, though. Zhang still had to figure him out and deal with him- and he did that flawlessly. Knowing that the losing fighter has to change some things, he took the first round essentially to just have a look at the plan. In the second, as mentioned, he’d seen a few things and began testing the limits of that plan. He didn’t get reckless, but nor did he waste time- he saw very quickly where the opportunities were, and took full advantage.
The Finish: How did Zhang get it done?
The finish saw that anticipation on full display. The story of both fights till now had been all about that left- but it was a brutal right hand that got the job done here. And he did that precisely by using Joyce’s new gameplan against him.
Put simply, as mentioned, Joyce’s lean-back stance was in part aimed at drawing counters. The idea- again, not unsound in its premise- was that Zhang’s hands are a lot faster than his feet, so if Joyce could bait shots at decent range he might overcommit and leave himself open. The problem was that, even accounting for that, Joyce couldn’t react fast enough to get the counters home, and Zhang realised that pretty quickly.
So in the knockout, we see Zhang feint a jab, then follow it up with the left hand. Joyce on this occasion anticipates it, fades back, and throws a counter. The problem is that by the time he gets it going, Zhang already has a massive right already on the way. He’s able to avoid Joyce’s shot, whereas his own connects with full force.
The effect is exacerbated because, far from overreaching, Zhang was already fully in position, having used that feinted jab to cover up a big step that kept his lead foot right alongside Joyce’s as he tried to step away. Joyce, on the other hand, had expected a bit more time to adjust his back foot and was therefore too square to move with the power punch. It was a perfect bit of trickery to cap off a perfect performance, and a great, spectacular knockout.
The Future: What’s next for Joe Joyce and Zhilei Zhang?
Zhilei Zhang made his feelings clear- he wants Tyson Fury. That might be achievable- despite his good showing here, Fury will probably feel more confident of being able to deal with the 40-year-old giant than Oleksandr Usyk’s nimble fleet-footedness, and Zhang claims they had already been in negotiations before Joyce activated the rematch. Of course, being in negotiations with Fury is a fraught thing, but the cards might come together.
As the holder of an interim WBO world title, of which Usyk holds the proper version, he’s also in position to eventually force a mandatory there, so either way he’s likely got that long-awaited title shot in his future. It can’t be too far in the future though, because even at heavyweight 40 is pushing the limits of a career, and some young, fast contenders are finally starting to come through.
Joe Joyce has a lot to think about. First things first, his coaching situation. His trainer, the Cuban Ismael Salas, is a fantastic coach, but it might simply be that what he teaches is not a good fit for what Joyce can do. But that’s something for them to talk about- he might well find some correct routes in the end. Like Zhang, though, he does not have time on his side, and if we’re honest that one title shot may be gone for him.
He won’t be short of options for solid, money-making fights though. The British scene is pretty busy – a rematch with Daniel Dubois has been mooted already- and he’s also in position, if he wants it, to play gatekeeper to those aforementioned up-and-comers. So while retirement might loom in his future, we’re likely to see him carry on for at least a little while.
After a performance like that, though, he won’t want to see Zhilei Zhang again any time soon.
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