Joyce welcomes jeopardy against Zhang as his world title pursuit continues tonight

Joe Joyce makes the first defence of his WBO interim heavyweight title tonight at the Copper Box Arena, against a similarly seasoned Chinese contender in Zhilei Zhang who has insisted he’ll leave London this weekend with some new hardware. It’s a high-risk matchup between two Olympic silver medallists, but Joyce wouldn’t have it any other way as he pursues the division’s top guns.

Joyce hopes Zhang will join an ever-growing resume

The glamour and hubbub around fight week, here at BT Tower on Thursday

Joe Joyce gave the Manchester Arena crowd precisely what they were hungry for last time out – a highlight reel knockout victory – as he absorbed Joseph Parker’s best punches before probing and pressuring him into submission last September.

WBC champion Tyson Fury, one of Parker’s friends, was among those emotionally invested at ringside. He made a conscious decision to call out both unified champion Oleksandr Usyk and Joyce after peppering Derek Chisora in their December trilogy, but failed unification talks mean he’s currently idle on the sidelines.  

When I ask Joyce to assess the last six months (203 days) since, he can’t believe it’s been that long already.

“I had a bit of time off after a great knockout, went to Las Vegas before Christmas for a pre-camp, then started an early camp at the end of January.

I’ve been training there [in the US] for quite a while, working on my skills, improving technique, so I’m in a good place and firing on all cylinders.”

He tipped the scales at 256lbs during Friday’s weigh-in, his lightest since a UD12 win over Bryant Jennings to retain the WBA Gold heavyweight strap in July 2019.

It’s no surprise to see him in better shape than of late, given the extensive physical work he’s been doing under head coach Ismael Salas.

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When I bring up Salas, he smiles. The world-class Cuban trainer, who has worked with world champions aplenty, sees another in the Juggernaut given his determined mentality and willingness for the uncomfortable.

Having teamed up while Joyce was still being co-promoted by David Haye and Richard Schaefer in his transition to the pro ranks, it was a decision that has paid dividends for the 37-year-old. Much of the hard yards goes unreported.

But such is life, and he’s okay with flying under-the-radar in that sense. The growing recognition his in-ring performances have garnered though, mean he’s far from an unknown quantity as far as his boxing ability is concerned.

I wrote this piece back in July 2021, about how time was of the essence for Joyce. Nearly two years on, it still is: so why so long between fights? He sighs.

“That’s the way it goes in boxing. As you progress, bigger fights for more money, they take longer to build and make if they’re gonna get made.

I can only box and be in the positions from winning, it’s all very complicated with the different sanctioning bodies, who wants to fight who, it’s a minefield of meandering through.

I’ve got some great names and won a good collection of belts, am almost there as a world champion… I can be in some bigger fights and get some world title belts.”

Zhilei Zhang (24-1-1, 19 KOs) humanised Filip Hrgovic last time out, on the Usyk-Joshua 2 card in Saudi Arabia last August.

Big Bang is two years older than Joyce and poses a tricky southpaw style that can cause problems, while many still deem him undefeated after a controversial UD result went the Croatian’s way that night in Jeddah. High-risk, low-reward for Joyce.

He doesn’t mind and given the sustained stagnation atop the heavyweight division, it’s refreshing. The theme on this card centres around keeping your eye on the prize, as upsets and poor displays often prove costly if guilty of looking too far ahead.

World title challenger Denzel Bentley has shared the fact he has multiple fight options on the table, but they will evaporate should he lose the British middleweight strap against a tricky mandatory challenger in Kieran Smith.

Former unified super-featherweight world titlist Mikaela Mayer returns against an opponent in Lucy Wildheart on 24 hours’ notice after the BBBofC denied Christina Linardatou clearance to fight, with Katie Taylor and other big names in her sights.

The big question is, will Joyce keep winning in destructive fashion or does he fall into a Sebastian Fundora-shaped trap tonight?

Tonight’s fight card is as follows

Denzel Bentley looks to defend his British middleweight title once more

12 rounds
WBO interim world heavyweight title: Joe Joyce (c) vs. Zhilei Zhang
WBC Intl Silver, CWLTH lightweight belts: Sam Noakes vs. Karthik Sathish Kumar
10 rounds
British middleweight title: Denzel Bentley (c) vs. Kieran Smith
WBC interim world lightweight title: Mikaela Mayer vs. Lucy Wildheart
6 rounds
Heavyweight: Moses Itauma vs. Kostiantyn Dovbyshchenko
Welterweight: Eithan James vs. Georgi Velichkov
Welterweight: Sonny Ali vs. Richard Helm
4 rounds
Light-heavyweight: Seth Gyimah vs. Darryl Sharp
Middleweight: Joel Kodua vs. Dale Arrowsmith

All pictures and quotes shown in this piece, captured or procured by me