CRITICISM from fans was once consigned to the letters’ pages of a boxing magazine or an animated chat over a pint down the local pub. Today, with social media channels still astonishingly lax when it comes to allowing anyone to abuse anyone on a public platform, it’s widespread.
Joe Joyce was the latest boxer to feel the wrath on Saturday night after underdog Zilhei Zhang shut the Londoner’s right eye with a steady stream of straight left hands. That Joyce ultimately lost a fight was of course no big surprise; after all, anyone so brazenly reliant on their head as a line of defence was never going to retire undefeated. Nonetheless, that it was Zhang inflicting his first defeat was largely unexpected.
Zhang, though an accomplished amateur and a proven stubborn pro, was deemed awkward, but also cumbersome and beatable. Yet he proved, as others have threatened to prove in the past, that any good heavyweight with a solid grasp of the fundamentals has a chance to outwit Joyce in a boxing ring. The Briton’s incredibly honest post-fight assessment – that he couldn’t get out of the way of Zhang’s left hand – highlighted his shortcomings as much as any of the many punches he’s taken in the past.
But those who were so quick to say that Joyce has been a bad fighter all along, observations that quickly snowballed on social media, are wide of the mark. In a reminder of the fickle nature of boxing opinion, those who two weeks ago were declaring Anthony Joshua unfit to face someone like Joyce were on Saturday night insisting that Joshua would walk through ‘The Juggernaut.’ For me, it remains a highly enticing and hard to call affair.
Though it would be deeply unfair on Zhang to label his victory the consequence of a freak injury, it’s also not a stretch to say that, without it, Joyce may well have found a way to win. Let’s not forget that Big Joe has looked one-dimensional and hittable in nearly every contest prior to this one. But Joyce, through bloody-mindedness, incredible physical and psychological reserves, and serious power in both hands, always managed to bludgeon the resistance from his opponents. What he can’t do, however, is fight one-eyed.
Furthermore, it seems a little rich to criticise Joyce for losing a bout that was widely welcomed by fans when it was announced. With his mandatory spot with the WBO in place, it would have been exceptionally easy for him to do what most other fighters in similar positions do; pick an easy fight or two and wait for the big fight to land in their lap. Problem is, when that shot at the leader comes, challengers are too often ill-equipped to take over.
Knowing that leftie extraordinaire Oleksandr Usyk and switch-hitting expert Tyson Fury blocked his route to the summit of the division, Joyce, to his credit, requested a solid southpaw opponent to further his education in the art of battling portsiders. Whether Joyce can now, at the age of 37, learn from the Zhang defeat is unknown but, what is certain, he’ll be substantially better equipped to challenge Usyk or Fury if he does manage to work his way back into contention than he would have been by blowing out another Christian Hammer-type opponent. Credit Joyce, by looking for a tough opponent, for doing what fans expect but don’t always get from their heroes.
More kudos must of course fall at the feet of the winner. Personally speaking, I don’t recall ever being so wrong about a fighter. Watching Zhang in his amateur days and then seeing him huff and puff his way through the professional ranks, I simply did not buy into his potential. Yet it was clear when he was unlucky not to beat Filip Hirgovic last year and more so on Saturday night, as he used his left hand to close Joyce’s eye with the precision of a dress maker’s needle and thread. Better still, he’s an immensely likeable giant and yet another addition to the heavyweight pack.
Contests like Zhang-Joyce have been the division’s saviour in recent years. Though we have all been exasperated with the failure of the leaders to agree terms and actually fight, there has been an awful lot of contests taking place for us to enjoy. No, the current era may not now fulfil its potential and rival the 1970s as the greatest of them all but an accusation that can’t be levelled at the weight class is a lack of drama. It’s why, perhaps, we get so irate when contests like Usyk-Fury and Joshua-Wilder are constantly teased but never come off. Because we know just how much such bouts would be of benefit, not just for the fans, but for the sport’s position and reputation in the wider world. There really isn’t anything else like a big heavyweight contest to get everyone talking.
This week, new murmurs of those all-conquering showdowns came to light, on the same December bill in Saudi Arabia, no less. After many years of dealing with such rumours and chasing facts about elongated negotiations, it’s frankly difficult, from a sport that should long ago have learnt its lesson from the consequences of crying wolf, to take the idea seriously.
But Boxing News understands that the concept – Fury-Usyk and Joshua-Wilder occurring on the same bill – is being floated amongst the powerbrokers. The danger is that now the boxers have a sniff of the money on offer in the Middle East, any meaningful contests involving any of the big four might be shelved in the interim. It is understood, however, that negotiations for Usyk to face his WBA mandatory Daniel Dubois are continuing.
Life in the land of the giants is many things. It’s infuriating, it’s unpredictable and it’s at times wildly exciting. One thing it never is, however, is dull.