Big Bang Zhang Scores the Upset!

Joe Joyce was stunned this past weekend at the Copper Box Arena in the UK by “Big Bang” Zhang Zhilei. The now 25-1-1 (20) Chinese contender upset the +1,100 favorite in his backyard; the loss drops Joyce to 15-1 (14) and is a massive knee capping. Joyce was highly ranked in the heavyweight division sitting at number 4 according to Ring and the WBO’s interim champion. Essentially, Joyce was locked in for a title shot and saw his opportunity spoiled by Zhang who himself lost an IBF elimination fight last year. For Joyce it has been a major blow to his standing in the division with promoter Eddie Hearn blasting the Joyce hype publicly as fans have began to pour it on the bandwagon. Joyce had established himself by knocking out former titleholders in Joseph Parker and Bermaine Stiverne, undefeated contender Daniel Dubois and winning a decision over former title challenger Bryant Jennings. Along the way he had drawn comparisons to George Foreman based on his clubbing shots, punch technique, physical strength and ability to take a punch. Some observers believed he was a serious threat to Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder. I believe he is a top heavyweight and there are some Foreman comparisons but have always felt his defense was too leaky to be a lock to take over the division. His defense and his sloth like speed were always a liability and for those reasons I saw this fight as closer to 50/50 heading in; a departure from the odds.

Zhang for his part was seen as a big, sturdy, southpaw who had a devastating punch. His Achilles heel has always been stamina and that has shown in his career. His draw to Jerry Forrest saw him gas out after an early lead where he had Forrest on the floor multiple times. His loss to Hrgovic saw him drop Filip in the opening round and take a lead in the fight only to succumb to fatigue down the stretch. Zhang up until Saturday had not scored a stoppage victory past the fifth round. Conventional wisdom heading in was that Zhang had to do it early; after that, Joyce would take over and outwork Zhang to a decision or late stoppage. The fight played out according to this formula.

Zhang was able to get Joyce’s attention early in the first round with his straight left hand and that became the motif. Joyce’s defensive liabilities were on full display at the Copper Box Arena as left hand after left hand continued to score; the left hand scored at will. Joyce’s lack of head movement and responsible defense lead to him being rocked in the second round and falling backwards but staying upright. Referee Howard Foster mysteriously broke them amid Joyce being wobbled but momentum did not shift. Joyce had a better third round as his activity began to get going; but, Zhang continued to land the more telling blows. The left came out like a dart; quick and effortless the punch was difficult to defend. Joyce’s right eye began to show damage by the third round and by the fourth it was swelling significantly. Joyce to his credit never stopped trying nor did he go into survival mode. However, the defense did not improve as the punches continued to pierce the guard and strike up the middle. By the fifth round it was tough to tell if Joyce could see the left hand coming anymore as it felt like Zhang began batting 1,000.

Zhang eased off the gas in the later parts of the fifth round and Joyce forged ahead with activity and pressed forward. Zhang’s mouth was open and it appeared that he was tiring but it was difficult to tell if it was fatigue or if he was biding his time and setting up one big shot. The swelling was not going to improve no matter how much the enswell was applied. Joyce took the fifth through sheer activity and before the sixth round began the doctor came in to take a look. Joyce fought with all the urgency of a man in need of a big punch and Zhang played defense. It looked like the momentum was changing a little before Zhang had an offensive burst of lefts and rights. This prompted Foster to intervene again with the doctor; after a brief pause, the fight was called. Zhang was victorious.

The scores: One judge had it 48-47 Joyce, that is an awful score and has been rightly called out by the UK media. Another had it 48-47 Zhang, I had the same score live. I had given Joyce round 3 and round 5 live but after reviewing the fight I only gave him the 5th; this widened the total to 49-46 Zhang. I believe any combination of the two scores I had are fair, 50-45 Zhang is also justifiable.

The Joyce Hype Train: Is this a delay or a derailment? At 37 he is not exactly young, but he has credible wins and strong attributes. I do not like to pile on a guy after one loss, especially against a proven fighter. Zhang had hype before Forrest only to be written off and written back on after Hrgovic. Joyce is largely the same fighter in my eyes; strong, tough and hard hitting but very flawed. I think dumping on Joyce also devalues Zhang’s win and the challenges in combating his style and attributes. Joyce is still a threat to the division; however, any talk of him destroying Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder should be put to bed.

Zhang’s Hype: I think a lot of fans are falling into the same trap with Zhang as I highlighted above with Joyce. Zhang is now getting a little overrated based on this win. Zhang for me did not elevate to a new position; he is who we thought he was. He was dangerous early and faded in the fifth round. I do agree with ESPN’s Mark Kriegal who on the broadcast asked, “how do you find a sparring partner who can resemble a 6’6″ southpaw who hits hard?”. Zhang is a tall order and reminds me a bit of Corrie Sanders the South African who upset Wladimir Klitschko in 2003. Zhang like Sanders hits hard and is incredibly fast handed but fades after being very dangerous early. I would not favor Zhang over Joshua, Wilder, Fury or Usyk. However, I give him a puncher’s chance in all of those fights given the speed and accuracy of the left hand mixed with a pulverizing right hook. I have a hard time overlooking his stamina issues and low punch output.

Rematch: I was asked how could Joyce win a rematch? I replied : “Circle away from the left hand and jab. It may suit him to get inside where it would take away the straight left. Possibly he can feint to draw the left and counter it. He landed a great looping right hand in the second round that caught Zhang’s attention. I think he just has to be smarter with his punches and keep his right hand home for the left. Zhang did have a powerful right hook so its all possible that fighting in a way so cognizant of the left hand might put him in a position to eat that right hook.

I think the strategy is just caution early because in round 5 and the beginning of round 6 he got inside and just worked a little and dug to the body and had some success as limited as it was. Get through 5 or 6 unscathed and it becomes a different fight”

I would actually like a rematch between these two men at some point. If politics allow, I think a rematch would be an intriguing fight. As far as politics goes, it appears if Usyk cannot get Fury next then he will be mandated to face Dubois. Hrgovic is the IBF mandatory so will be looking for his shot. Zhang only became the interim WBO title holder just now so he still has to wait in line. It is uncertain if the belts will unify or fracture and how that would all play out. There is a great chance Zhang will eventually be back in to avenge his loss or attempt a repeat here. Joyce to his credit has remained confident. He was humble in post fight interviews and was smiling and posing in the ring for pictures. This loss does not strike me as one that will diminish his confidence and the Joe Joyce we have seen so far is the same Joe Joyce we will see next time out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s