Clearly, Joe Joyce did not intend for the cruel irony of the themed ring walk he’d planned for his bout against Zhilei Zhang. Joyce, known professionally as The Juggernaut, opted for the imagery of another fictional character, The Terminator in his pre-entrance video and sound. The familiar percussion from the movie theme played as footage of Joyce staring into the camera with the character’s iconic infrared eye, robotic metallics breaking through his flesh. The implication was one that had been the prevailing narrative around Joyce as a fighter, that he was an indestructible violent machine, willing to withstand the heaviest artillery the division had to fire at him and continue to march forward.
There was good reason for this reputation too. Joyce had been statistically one of the busiest fighters in terms of punch output, and one of the easiest to hit flush. He had been hit with nearly all of his opponent’s best shots, occasionally bouncing his head backwards but never anything more. This included the best punches from Top-10 heavyweights he’d faced such as Daniel Dubois and Joseph Parker. There may be no other top-level fighter in the sport whose main selling feature, one they tout themselves no less, is their ability to absorb and withstand punishment, but Joyce’s durability had been remarkable enough to buck the trend.
Joyce’s ability to take a punch and remain standing and clear-headed is still not in question, and remains something to behold. However, upon leaving the ring on Saturday night after less than six rounds with Zhang, Joyce resembled the Terminator, but not in the way he’d hoped. His eye bloodshot, then swollen and closed grotesquely, so much so that the doctor could not justify allowing the fight to continue. For the first time in his pro career, Joyce tasted defeat, in the most
The fight, and its hideous physical end result, validated the justifiable fears Joyce’s detractors and fans alike had about his style. Very few fighters go through their entire careers without ever being hurt, particularly in the heavyweight division. As competition increases, odds are that a man weighing more than 200 pounds skilled enough to be fighting on the international level will eventually hurt you. In Joyce’s case, he was hurt for the first time in his career early in the bout, as Zhang sent him stumbling backwards midway through the second round with a straight left hand.
Those left hands landed more than they missed throughout the night, quite literally. According to CompuBox, Zhang landed 78 of 140 power shots, or in other words, 56% of them. Joyce was never again wobbled the same way he was in the second round, but the shots began to do serious cosmetic and structural damage very quickly.
"I thought I could have carried on. I was taking his shots fine and stuff. It’s just unfortunate the eye closed up," Joyce told TALKSport following the bout. "I’m fine, I’m completely fine, but yeah, now it’s closed up, so I can’t see out of it now."
It was a stunning result, and not just because Zhang was listed as roughly a +600 underdog universally heading into the fight. The reason oddsmakers and many fans felt that way was because they had seen Joyce not just defeat, but knock out fighters who seemed to have a more diverse skillset than Zhang did. In addition, Joyce’s other lauded attribute aside from his chin was his motor, his ability to throw a pile of puncher per round and maintain that pace for an entire fight. That ability alone, against a fighter whose stamina had been questioned (albeit unfairly to a degree, as Zhang’s hospitalization following his draw to Jerry Forrest was far more complicated and serious than simply being exhausted), seemed like a juicy bet for Joyce and his supporters. Seemingly, that was the wager that Joyce placed in this bout too—if he could withstand Zhang’s onslaught early, eventually he would tire out and become susceptible himself.
That very well could have happened if Joyce’s face had held up, but when a near-300 pound giant is slamming you with every second left hand he throws, your face can only withstand so much.
"I couldn't get away from his straight left. He kept on nailing me in the eye and it swelled up my eye,” Joyce told Kal Sajad of BBC Sport following the bout. “That's what happens when you take risks. Sometimes it doesn't go your way, which is it's annoying."
Stylistically, Zhang turned out to be all wrong for Joyce. For one, he’s a southpaw, which Joyce admitted in his post-fight interview with BT Sport that he needed “more practice” facing. But beyond that, he is a big physical presence who simultaneously was not panicked by Joyce’s pressure but also quite amenable to shuffling backwards and punching off his back foot. In addition, Zhang’s short, technically sound punch delivery was too quick and snappy for Joyce to parry away or block with any regularity. While Joyce’s corner reminded him repeatedly that his head was remaining on the center line, there was no erasing long-embedded habits on the fly.
The loss didn’t so much as expose Joyce’s limitations as it did illustrate how quickly they can—and ultimately did—inhibit him. Joyce’s defense was never thought of as particularly elusive, but now his durability, in a cruel way, finally can be questioned. Will his eye become an ongoing problem for him moving forward, as it has for many fighters who suffered similar damage in the past have encountered? In this fight, his mind and his heart wanted to fight, but his body—more specifically his eye—just couldn’t hold up.
"It looks like I've got a terminator eye now,” Joyce joked to BBC Sport. “It's unfortunate but I'll be back. I thought I was doing well in there."