A formidable newcomer has entered the heavyweight boxing scene with a bang.
Zhilei Zhang, a skilled southpaw hailing from China, delivered a punishing left hook that shut Joe Joyce's right eye and led the ring doctor to halt their scheduled 12-round fight in the sixth round at London's Copper Box Arena.
This impressive victory over the previously undefeated Joyce has derailed his shot at his first title, and thrust Zhang from a fringe contender to a legitimate opponent capable of taking on any challenger.
“Today belongs to me,” Zhang said through a translator in the ring. “It belongs to everyone who showed up, it belongs to every Chinese who showed up.”
Zhang's victory over Joyce was achieved with a straightforward strategy: his powerful left hand, which he used to devastating effect throughout the fight. Even from the opening bell, Zhang's straight left found its target repeatedly, causing Joyce to wobble and swell around his eye.
CompuBox statistics showed that Zhang landed an impressive 78 out of 140 power shots (56%), with almost all of them coming from his lethal left hand.
Despite this, Joyce (15-1, 14 KOs) remained in the fight, and as it progressed, he began to outwork Zhang (25-1-1, 20 KOs), winning Rounds 3 through 5. However, Zhang's earlier dominance proved to be too much for Joyce to overcome, leading to the stoppage of the scheduled 12-round fight in Round 6, and providing Zhang with a career-defining victory.
After the fight, Joyce conceded that he was unable to avoid Zhang's left punch. This resulted in the ring doctor being called to the apron to assess the eye between Rounds 5 and 6, and again in the final round as it had almost completely closed. The referee, Howard Foster, was informed by the doctor of the situation and eventually stopped the fight at 1:23 of the sixth round.
In his post-fight interview, Joyce appeared stunned. He had been in a strong position to face either of the heavyweight titleholders, Tyson Fury or Oleksandr Usyk, in his next fight. However, he now needs to return to the gym and begin the rebuilding process, which will presumably focus on improving his defense.
“He hits hard,” Joyce said. “And he has an awkward style because he’s a southpaw, and a powerful southpaw at that. I just kept getting hit with his left hand. I’m disappointed. I apologize to all my fans and supporters.
“… I’ll be back. My journey isn’t over. This might be a hurdle I tripped over but I’ll be back.”
Meanwhile, Zhang made history.
The 2008 Olympic silver medalist, who is based in New Jersey, gave a strong performance in a losing cause against contender Filip Hrgovic last August, which pumped life into his career and earned him a shot at Joyce.
Then, on Saturday, he turned in the performance of his life to take Joyce’s WBO “interim” belt. That made him the first Chinese heavyweight to hold a world title of any kind. And he did it at 39 years old.
Now he can target Fury and Usyk.
“I’m 39 years old but I’m disciplined,” he said. “I train hard. The next step, I’m going for the title.”