IF YOU believe everything you read you may have been forgiven for thinking that Joe Joyce, the self-styled Juggernaut of the heavyweight division, was simply indestructible. The problem for Joyce was that he had started to believe it himself.
“Maybe I got caught up in the hype a little bit,” he tells Boxing News as he picks through the wreckage of his first defeat. “Maybe I was believing that hype about my chin.
“It’s hard when people are blowing smoke up your rear end all the time. It’s hard not to believe it too.”
However, the illusion was shattered at the Copper Box Arena in April when underdog Zhilei Zhang beat him up and stopped him inside six bludgeoning rounds which caused damage so bad to his right eye that the ringside doctor called the whole thing off.
No longer undefeated and no longer indestructible, there has been plenty of soul searching for Joyce in the five months that followed.
“Zhang exposed a lot of things in my camp,” Joyce adds. “In the build-up to the fight and also myself that I need to get right if I want to conquer this challenge and get to the next stage.
“Instead of being the underdog I was built onto this platform where people said I had an indestructible chin. People were asking who I was fighting next so Zhang was overlooked a little bit. It won’t happen again.
“Some questions needed to be answered and a few changes needed to be made. That’s better for it to happen now than later.”
With no thoughts of rebuilding in the shadows following the first defeat of his career, Joyce has instead opted for an immediate rematch with the southpaw from China, who moved to 25-1-1 (20) as a result of victory on the Olympic Park.
When asked how he has coped with his first loss, Joyce sighs and pauses for thought for nearly 10 seconds. “Yeah,” he says finally. “It did take a few weeks.
“Especially because I watched the fight back and I just saw how terrible my performance was. The morale was low and there was disappointment for everyone. Everyone was expecting me to win, some people had money on me even at bad odds. It’s not a good feeling and I was disappointed in myself and how I overlooked him. But it has given me more drive now I’ve had time to reflect. In this camp I’ve been more switched on and focused.”
When Joyce returned to his training camp a few miles off the Las Vegas strip, the inquest really started. There were showdowns talks involving the whole training team. It was a cathartic process for Joyce who is adamant that the requisite changes have followed.
“We met and we talked,” he says. “It’s a lot more focused now.
“I had my input, they had theirs, we said everything that needed to be said and now it’s about banding together to get the best out of me, to get the victory and then continue on this journey.
“It has been going well, I’ve been working hard, being focused and dedicated in the build up for this rematch. This is my second camp practicing for a southpaw so I’m just making sure I get everything right inside and outside the ring. I’m making sure I’m ticking all the boxes this time round.
“I’ve done some really good sparring and technical stuff in the gym and also my weight has been good. I’ll be a bigger, stronger, faster, better and more tactical juggernaut in the rematch.”
Before April, Joyce had transformed in the eyes of many into the best heavyweight on the planet not called Fury or Usyk. His healthy 15-0 record, with all but one coming inside the distance, and an apparent ability to walk through any and all fire had led to many picking him in hypothetical fights against the likes of Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua. His 11th-round knockout of Joseph Parker in November had announced him as a real player on the world scene.
As such, Zhang was considered by most as little more than a stepping stone for Joyce, who had spoken a lot in the build-up about what might follow after a victory. But, although bookmakers did not give the 6ft 6in 40-year-old much of a hope, his record suggested that this was no gimme. Although he had never beaten anyone of Joyce’s calibre, he had done enough in the eyes of many to beat Filip Hrgovic in August 2022, which remains the sole defeat on his record.
“Looking back at it,” Joyce says. “He has an Olympic background, a silver medalist but I thought I’d cruise onto a victory.
“People were always saying ‘oohh your chin!’ and I kind of got caught up in that hype and started to believe it, started thinking about the next fights on the horizon so I wasn’t as switched on and dedicated as I could have been.
“Then when the fight started, I was surprised by his accuracy and speed. Every time I threw a punch he had a counter coming back directly into my eye – his accuracy was very good. He was targeting my nose, my eye. It’s a difficult fight tactically and stylistically.
“I’ve never experienced speed and accuracy like that before and because he’s a southpaw it’s an awkward style to deal with anyway. I was quite surprised by how solid and fast he was.”
Despite the one-sided nature of Joyce’s numbing defeat, bookmakers are pricing this one up as a 50/50 with Zhang favoured very slightly by a handful. But you sense genuine confidence from Joyce as he speaks of a training camp geared towards righting the wrongs from five months back.
He returned to the UK following his stint in Nevada with weeks to spare in order to adjust fully to the time difference and put the finishing touches to his preparation back where he knows best. The eye injury, which ultimately lost him the fight, did not hamper his training either.
“The eye was fine,” he adds. “It was just bruising that swelled up during the fight so it needed to be ironed out. It took a week for the swelling to go down and maybe two more for the bruising to clear up.
“I had a problem sleeping on my right ear but other than that my body was in good shape after the fight. I didn’t feel too many aches or pains but my eye and nose went – I got a little fracture in my septum. It wasn’t a 12-round war.”
When Joyce’s long-term sparring partner and potential future opponent Joshua got stunned and stopped by Andy Ruiz in the mid rounds four years ago, it required a total tactical overhaul in order for him to exact revenge in their rematch six months later.
But for Joyce, the answer is a little more rudimentary when it comes to the question about what has to change.
“Just not get hit over and over again by the same shot,” he says – only half joking. “I need to have better defence and gameplan. I need a gameplan that is practiced, tried and tested and I’ve done more work on that in sparring and the pads this time. This camp has given me more time to work on things.
“This fight is all about correcting past mistakes. If you watch the first fight back, I was in the fight still, I threw a lot of punches and if it wasn’t for the eye maybe I could have overturned it in the later rounds and come on strong.
“But he’s a cagey fighter and he anticipated my attacks and timed the counters nicely. He hits with power and speed that I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would be a whole different outcome and it’s a hard lesson to learn but maybe I needed to learn it.
“This time I will definitely get it. I believe in my ability. I will get it right and right the wrongs.
“I’m quite patient and I’m making sure I’ve ticked all the boxes. But I’m looking to beat him this time, look better and get the result. It will be so satisfying when I get the victory this time and then I can move on, I’m back on track and back on the rails.”
At 38, this Juggernaut can’t afford any more derailments.