Is this a make-or-break moment for Joe Joyce?
The Londoner, never known for his exceptional technical skills or athleticism, has always been a competent boxer with remarkable size and strength. These attributes earned him a silver medal in the 2016 Olympics and positioned him as a mandatory world title challenger in the professional ranks.
However, disaster struck on April 15 when Joyce couldn't evade Zhilei Zhang's left hand, causing his right eye to swell and prompting the referee to halt the fight in the sixth round.
Now, Joyce faces a crucial rematch on Saturday night at the OVO Arena Wembley, a fight he must win if he hopes to secure a shot at a major world title. At 38 years old, back-to-back losses would leave him with a bleak future.
"It's make or break," Joyce admitted to TalkSport.
Joyce (15-1, 14 KOs) clearly believes in his abilities. Rather than choosing an easier opponent to bounce back from his loss, he exercised a rematch clause in the contract for the first fight, showing his determination to regain lost ground and rebuild his confidence.
This decision surprised Zhang (25-1-1, 20 KOs), who expected a second bout to occur after Joyce had a chance to work on his weaknesses in a couple of fights. Zhang believes that Joyce's hasty decision to rematch was a mistake, thinking that a few months wouldn't be sufficient to change his fighting style, especially in terms of head movement and overall robotic tendencies.
Zhang is confident that the second fight will end even quicker due to his opponent's rush into the rematch.
“It’s not rocket science that you can’t change to a different style in a few months,” Zhang told Standard Sport. “That’s why the second fight will end even quicker.”
Joyce was competitive in the first fight but failed to adjust to the straight left hands of his southpaw opponent, who landed the punch almost at will.
The Londoner hadn’t faced a left-hander since Lenroy Thomas in 2018, a fight that lasted less than two full rounds. Joyce implied that lack of experience against southpaws worked against him in the first fight with Zhang.
“He’s used to being in there with orthodox fighters,” Joyce told TalkSport. “He was my first southpaw in a while. It’s a whole different ball game, completely different tactics to face someone who is a southpaw.”
The fact he had some strong rounds in the first fight, he said, is something on which he can build.
“In the first fight I felt, watching it back, there was an opportunity for me to win the fight,” he said. “It’s just the eye kind of like stopped it going to the second half of the fight. So that might make a difference.”
If Joyce beats the WBO “interim” titleholder this time?
He’ll be back to where he was before the upset in the first fight, at the top of the rankings in at least one of the four major sanctioning bodies.
He would then have to resume the waiting game as unified champion Oleksandr Usyk and titleholder Tyson Fury plot their futures. That can be frustrating but it’s exactly where you want to be, in position for a big fight.
On the other hand, if Joyce loses on Saturday, he could see his status as an elite fighter come to an end.