Joe Joyce was seemingly one fight away from fighting for the unified heavyweight titles against Oleksandr Usyk – but that came crashing down at the hands of Zhilei Zhang.
The Londoner opted not to sit on the sidelines and wait for his WBO Interim Title to do its work, instead taking on the Chinese southpaw to give fans one of the most exciting heavyweight contests of the year so far.
Joyce came in light, but didn’t move around enough for Zhang to miss with the left hand. After six rounds of punishment, his eye was swollen to the point that the ringside doctor and referee decided to end proceedings. It was Joyce’s first loss as a pro.
‘Big Bang’ Zhang took the Interim title and the mandatory position for Usyk, and has now also been rumoured to be first in the running to face the division’s other champion, Tyson Fury.
As for Joyce, his standing with the sanctioning body has taken a hit. In the most recent rankings update, the WBO has – perhaps harshly – placed him at number five. Before the win, Zhang was in at number 13.
Ahead of him is Usyk and Zhang, of course, as well as Andy Ruiz Jr, Anthony Joshua, Frank Sanchez and Deontay Wilder. He is currently not within the top 10 of any other sanctioning body – although one fight can change a lot on the heavyweight scene.
Joyce is entitled to activate a rematch clause with Zhang, however has been open about taking another fight before doing so. Many in the sport feel his best chance at a world title is to run it back immediately.
‘The Juggernaut’ is represented by the same promoter – Queensberry – as Fury, and the company now has options on Zhang, too.
If Fury is to make a defence of his WBC strap against Zhang, there could be a deal with Joyce to face the winner.
Having said that, the talk of an undisputed fight between Fury and Usyk towards the end of the year may just mean Joyce has missed his chance.