Before 15 April, Joe Joyce’s career was tracking on a trajectory that would soon see him break into the rarefied atmosphere of heavyweight boxing.
Indeed, fights with Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury were in the pipeline and that meant a chance at sitting at the summit of world boxing.
Of course, the dust first had to settle in the industry following the collapse of Fury and Usyk’s clash so while any potential deals were being finalized, Joyce decided it would be in his best interests to keep active.
This led to him accepting a fight with Zhilei Zhang.
A costly miscalculation
Essentially, Joyce’s team had crunched the numbers and come to the conclusion that Zhang was beatable, which would ultimately ensure that the Englishman took his record to 16-0 by the end of their bout.
Put another way, this fight would merely be a means to an end and before long, Joyce would be going head-to-head with the kings of the heavyweight division.
At this stage, it’s worth remembering Mike Tyson’s immortal words: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
In Joyce’s specific situation, he wasn’t punched in the mouth but rather repeatedly in the right eye by Zhang who sensationally grabbed his opportunity with both hands.
Come the sixth round, the ringside doctor and referee had seen enough and awarded Zhang the victory by way of TKO after Joyce’s eye was no longer able to open.
The worst-case scenario had occurred for the 37-year-old Londoner.
For Joyce, the only silver lining was that he had a rematch clause he could activate in order to quickly avenge this defeat and get back to where he was.
However, Joyce has been non-committal on a Zhang rematch and by his own admission, would rather explore the possibility of fighting someone else.
You can’t help but question the wisdom of this plan of action when you consider that by not insisting on a rematch, Joyce is, to a degree at least, admitting that the Chinese heavyweight has his number.
The wider point is there can be no ascension to the throne of the division by leaving Zhang’s box unchecked.
A swift response is needed
Granted, there is no denying the fact that Zhang’s deadly accurate southpaw style and brutal punching ability made a seemingly straightforward night an incredibly awkward one for Joyce.
But at the same time, it is also true that Zhang can be beaten – the only way to do that is by getting back on the horse.
We’ve seen other recent examples of the benefits of not letting a lot of time pass before taking a rematch given that Chris Eubank Jr. is set to take on Liam Smith immediately after losing in late January.
Keep in mind that Eubank Jr. is, as of 1 May, at longer odds of +115 to win in the latest Betway sports boxing odds.
In short, Eubank Jr. has a mountain to climb on 17 June but he is not waiting to climb it while in contrast, Joyce doesn’t have that far to go to beat Zhang on account of the fact that the Chinese fighter does have noticeable weaknesses.
The evidence was there during Zhang’s fight before Joyce when he squared up to Filip Hrgovic and lost by way of a unanimous decision despite landing a string of heavy blows on his Croatian opponent during the early rounds.
The Chinese boxer began to tire in round eight and was noticeably sluggish for the remainder of the bout with Hrgovic which saw him surrender any early advantage.
It’s no mystery as to why this happened as Zhang is 40 years old and undoubtedly nearing the end of his career.
While he still has power in his hands, the opportunity is there for his opponents if they can stay out of the firing line in the opening rounds.
To give Joyce and his team the benefit of the doubt, it did look like this was their initial plan given that the Englishman came into the fight at 256lbs, the lightest he had been since 2019.
This suggests that Joyce was planning to outmanoeuvre his Chinese opponent in the second half of the fight but as we know, never got the chance after Zhang pinned him with a host of early precision punches.
The difference now is that Joyce knows what will happen if he gets too close to Zhang after the first bell – the danger is very real.
However, instead of shying away from another encounter with Zhang, Joyce should stay at the same weight but this time, be slightly more circumspect.
The chance will arise to take the fight to Zhang, but first, patience is needed.
Knock it on the head
The inescapable truth is that deciding to swerve Zhang now will only make this defeat bigger than it needs to be.
Yes, this has been an upset, and Zhang is deserving of a stunning win but Joyce has the means to get his career back on track.
The only way to do that is to confront the giant Chinese heavyweight sooner rather than later.