AS WAS recently proved by Chris Eubank Jnr versus Liam Smith, picking the outcome of a rematch that follows a surprise result is tricky. Joe Joyce was not supposed to lose to Zhilei Zhang in April this year and, like Eubank against Smith in January, he certainly wasn’t expected to get stopped. Their immediate return is therefore arguably more compelling than the first encounter, in which Joyce, attempting to protect his mandatory position with the WBO, was a healthy favourite.

Let’s be clear; Joyce has never once looked unbeatable. Yet Zhang made him look so beatable, and so ordinary, anyone who was watching Joyce box for the first time would have been astonished by his lofty ranking in the heavyweight division. Perhaps more shocking than the six-round beatdown itself was the ease with which it was executed. There wasn’t any great artistry from Zhang, nor any breakneck speed, it was orchestrated via a simple but highly effective southpaw left hand, one straight out of the textbook, that was thrown regularly and accurately. This left hand of Zhang, as per the textbook guidance, looped ever so slightly in flight like a baseball being thrown at a modest angle into the air. Joyce’s right eye socket therefore became the dutiful catcher’s mitt, every time the ball inevitably came down.

Why Joyce kept catching it, as opposed to avoiding, blocking, or countering it, is something of a mystery. One that the 38-year-old will need to have solved before he climbs into the ring with Zhang again on Saturday night (September 23). Because if Zhang, 25-1-1 (20), is given the time and space to go about his business again, and dictate both the pace and punching range, it’s difficult to envision anything other than another win for Chinese veteran, this time inside Wembley Arena.

Joyce, 15-1 (14), remains confident that the first contest was a fluke. That if it hadn’t been for his right eye being swollen shut, he’d have been able to see some of the punches coming, the doctor wouldn’t have been called, the referee wouldn’t have stopped the fight, and Zhang, visibly a shade slower at the time of being named the winner when compared to earlier in the bout, would eventually have capitulated. But Joe can’t gamble on his right eye being more robust this time nor the fitness of his opponent being suspect. The first contest was not merely a sliding doors moment where one momentary change would have led to a different outcome; it was the loudest of wake-up calls that should tell Joyce that he is, and always has been, far too easy to hit. It’s true that he’s gotten away with it in the past and, in many ways, his knack for taking punches defined him even more than his ability to throw back. It was inevitable, then, that those blows he used to swallow for fun would one day get stuck in his throat. A change of approach is surely required.

But how much can Joyce really change at his advanced age? Particularly when one considers that, bar the odd punch bouncing off Zhang, he had very few moments of success in the first contest. So unlike Eubank, who showed in round three of fight one what he needed to do more of in fight two, there is very little by way of encouragement for Joyce to build on. Nor was there a sudden and unexpected end, like when Smith halted Eubank in the fourth or like when Hasim Rahman flattened Lennox Lewis back in 2003, that suggests it was just a lapse in concentration that can be corrected with the minimum of fuss. Nor was it one punch that changed the course of the bout, like in 2019, when Andy Ruiz stunned and dropped Anthony Joshua only moments after being knocked down himself. What happened, simply, was that Zhang was better in every department and slowly but surely beat Joyce up.

What might also be true is that Joyce, who has never looked so poor, simply had an off night. It happens. The Londoner, who won silver (that some argue should have been gold) at the 2016 Olympics, surely did not turn into a bad fighter overnight. His wins over Daniel Dubois, Joseph Parker and Carlos Takam were achieved by hard work behind the scenes and a dogged will to win inside the ropes. It seems unlikely that what made Joyce so effective in the past was wiped out in those six rounds back in April. And don’t forget how quickly Joyce’s right eye betrayed him. Though Zhang was landing, almost at will, the fact remains that Joyce, from round three onwards, was essentially blind in one eye. And though the stoppage was perfectly just, one can reasonably suggest that if he could have seen out of that eye, his mission to win wouldn’t have been taken out of his hands by first the doctor and then the referee.

Yet to suggest Zhang’s success was merely the consequence of Joyce’s eye injury would be doing the victor a gross disservice. He beat Joyce in the way most of us expected Joyce to beat him. He beat him to the punch time and again, and though that left cross was the key to victory, big right hooks and clever work to the body also played their part. Some have suggested that Joyce, at 256lbs, was simply too light. Yet that is only two pounds fewer than he weighed against Dubois, when he scored arguably his finest victory to date. And it is that level of performance, when Joyce’s jab was on point and his right hand was used economically and intelligently, that he’ll need to find again.

Zhang lands his southpaw jab against Joyce (Getty Images

The feeling here has always been that Zhang, though big and awkward with a solid understanding of the fundamentals, is not an elite heavyweight. This is the night when he can prove that theory wrong, once and for all. But what he doesn’t have going into this bout is a sense of what it’s like to face Joyce at his best. The Londoner, in contrast, now knows exactly what to expect and will, we presume, be significantly better than last time. It also seems unlikely that an eye injury will occur so early in the bout and, therefore, even if Joyce is behind at the halfway point there will still be an awfully long way to go to get back into the fight. Throw in the fact he’s fighting on home soil, Zhang is yet to convince in the later rounds of a long and hard fight, and the tentative pick is for Joyce to win a messy and gruelling 12-rounder on the cards. Fence-sitting is not allowed on the pages of BN, but if it were, we should also strongly consider the possibility that Zhang will always be wrong for a fighter like Joe Joyce.

The best-matched bout on the undercard would appear to be the super-lightweight 10-rounder between Dublin’s Pierce O’Leary, 12-0 (7), and Beswick’s Kane Gardner, 16-2 (7). O’Leary, 23, is a talented prospect who was a bright young thing in the amateur ranks before turning over, before he reached senior level, in 2019. Gardner has been a professional since 2015 following a solid education in the vest. He can bang with both hands, particularly to the body, and he can make life awkward and uncomfortable for his opponent. But the Irishman, a puncher himself, looks the more polished of the two and can take advantage of the mistakes he will surely draw from Gardner.

Former Spanish lightweight champion Carlos Perez, 19-7-2 (2), has been sourced as the next victim for KO artist Sam Noakes, 11-0 (11). The 26-year-old is an exciting prospect who has had things all his own way in the professional ranks thus far. The acid test will come when he’s faced with serious adversity and frankly, Perez, though rangy and durable, doesn’t appear to be that opponent. Expect another stoppage win, well inside the scheduled 10, for the Maidstone Mauler.

Light-heavyweight contender Anthony Yarde, 23-3 (22), is also scheduled to appear, super-middleweight Zach Parker, 22-1 (16) eases back and there’s showcases for some of Queensberry’s up-and-coming talent like heavyweights Moses Itauma and Tommy Fletcher, light-heavyweight Ezra Taylor and super-featherweight Royston Barney-Smith.

THE VERDICT: Simply a must-win for both heavyweight contenders.