Zhang, Joyce Provide Tonic for Heavyweight in 2023

Boxing Scene

Despite the multitude of kudos 2023 has earned in boxing, the biggest caveat has come from the biggest men.

Tyson Fury found a way to make a presumably large check without having to do any serious boxing. Anthony Joshua engaged in get-right action after consecutive losses to Oleksandr Usyk while Usyk, outside one controversial round, made easy work of a mandatory in over his head. Deontay Wilder and Andy Ruiz? Absent. Dillian Whyte? Out of a Joshua rematch due to a failed PED test.

2023 has been a great year for boxing overall.

It’s been largely a dumpster fire at heavyweight.

Arguably the best exception came in April.

Undefeated Joe Joyce wasn’t undefeated anymore after six violent rounds with China’s Zhang Zhilei (25-1-1, 20 KO). The UK’s 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist built a reputation quickly in the paid ranks. Despite appearing painfully slow and defensively liable, Joyce won his first fifteen fights by imposing his size, heavy hands, and showing off an impressive set of whiskers.

In Zhilei, the 6’6 Joyce who has competed between 250-270 pounds, found a fighter who could match his size. He could also match his pedigree, having won his own silver medal in 2008. Standing 6’6 and weighing a mobile 278 for their first fight, the two-time Olympian Zhilei used an edge in speed to beat Joyce to the punch, busted up his eye, and forced a stoppage. 

This Saturday, they’ll do it again (ESPN+, 5 PM EST).

Ostensibly, they’re fighting for the interim WBO heavyweight belt and a mandatory crack at Usyk. Usyk’s next mandatory due, Filip Hrgovic, is the only man with a win over Zhilei and the decision was razor close. Zhilei is already 40. He could have tried to play the waiting game. Like the 38-year old Joyce (15-1, 14 KO), waiting probably doesn’t feel like much of an option.

The check was right to make a sequel. There were still likely easier ways to make a living.

It’s a scrap on brand for the post-Klitschko era at heavyweight.

As much as 2023 has sucked at heavyweight, the last seven or so years have had something the previous decade often felt like it was missing: fun big men scraps. Since Fury upset Wladimir Klitschko, the entertainment value has been up in the flagship division.

There were superfights like Joshua-Klitschko and the Fury-Wilder trilogy along with the stunning upset in the first Ruiz-Joshua fight to lead headlines. Below the tip-top of the marquee, the supporting cast at heavyweight has held up their end of the bargain. 

Luis Ortiz gave two scares to Wilder and traded knockdowns in an unexpected war with Charles Martin. Whyte’s fights with Dereck Chisora, Joseph Parker, and Alexander Povetkin all brought thrills, win or lose. Ruiz had to come off the floor against a Chris Arreola with one more in the tank. Before his loss to Zhilei, Joyce’s win over Joseph Parker in 2022 might have been the heavyweight fight of the year.

The Zhilei-Joyce rivalry fits in with any of it. If Joyce can make adjustments and up his game for the rematch, this is a case where chapter two could exceed the first and given the sheer mass in the ring at Wembley Arena this weekend, that’s an exciting possibility. 

It’s easy to marvel at the skill and speed one might find in lower weight classes, but there is no substitute for the raw essence of the sport on display at heavyweight. Past 200 pounds, it’s every man left to his merits no matter where they land on the scale. Two heavy handed, Olympic caliber behemoths trading leather is never unwelcome.

In 2023, this pairing is the saving grace for a whole division.         

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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