There is little doubt that one of the biggest stories occurring outside the ring in the world of Boxing in 2023 has been the on again, off again, back on again, and finally stalled negotiations for a fight for what would be the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the world between undefeated world champions Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk. While that subject will certainly remain a topic of discussion, the longer both champions are idle also creates a ripple effect for others in the Heavyweight division that are all looking to get into position to challenge either champion. Such is the case with undefeated WBO number one contender Joe Joyce.
Joyce, a former Olympic Gold medalist, has boxed his way to an undefeated record of 15-0, with 14 Knockouts and has successfully moved into the mandatory position in the World Boxing Organization's (WBO) Heavyweight ratings, which in theory puts him next in line to face the unified IBF/WBA/IBO/WBO world champion Oleksandr Usyk. Despite this and an impressive knockout win of former WBO Heavyweight world champion Joseph Parker in his last fight in September of last year in becoming the first fighter to stop Parker, Joyce is unfortunately no closer as Mid-April 2023 now comes to facing Usyk. While unfortunately that is likely the result of the stalled negotiations between Usyk and Fury, which if that fight had happened, Joyce would theoretically be in line to face the winner, it now creates a scenario where Joyce needs to fight both as a means of staying active, but also to try and maintain his number one ranking.
Although it has to be frustrating for a fighter in Joyce's position in the politics that be in the sport more or less for the time being maneuvering him out of the equation for a shot at the title, there is a way that this could turn out to be a positive for him. A brief dive into Boxing history by this observer for the reader provides some precedent as to how.
Many of us of a certain age who have followed the sport for most of, if not all of our lives likely remember the circumstances that the legendary Evander Holyfield found himself in during his initial rise as a Heavyweight contender in the 1980"s after an unbeaten run where he successfully unified the Cruiserweight division. As a Heavyweight contender, Holyfield fought his way to a number one ranking in the WBC,WBA, and IBF during the period where those were the three recognized world sanctioning organizations in the days that predated the inception of both the WBO and the International Boxing Organization (IBO). The Undisputed Heavyweight champion in those days was a young and unbeaten Mike Tyson, who in addition to getting into troubles outside of the ring, was facing other opposition in the ring and for circumstances that can be explained simply as the politics of the sport, Holyfield was denied his opportunity to face Tyson.
Holyfield responded to those circumstances by fighting more frequently than the champion, facing both top contenders and former world champions in the process. By doing so, it not only kept him active against the best available competition at the time, but it also kept Holyfield in the public eye. This served to his benefit as he built public support in the process and eventually used that to secure a fight with James "Buster" Douglas, who had defeated Tyson in February 1990, to fight for the undisputed championship in October of that year. Holyfield made quick work of Douglas knocking out the champion in three rounds to win the championship and in the process, ushered in a new era of the division, which was largely dominated by him as its central figure.
While obviously Holyfield had to wait longer than he should have to get his shot, his patience and persistence paid off in the long run and today he is a Hall of Famer and regarded as one of the all-time great Heavyweights. The point of this brief background into a fighter that found himself in similar circumstances as Joyce is now in is simple. Though it has to be frustrating, it can work for him by turning a negative into a positive.
The next step in the career of Joe Joyce will take place on April at the Copper Box Arena in London, England when the unbeaten "Knockout Artist" will face number thirteen ranked WBO Heavyweight contender Zhilei Zhang in a fight that can be seen here in the United States on digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+. Zhang is the first Heavyweight that this observer can remember to hail from China and will enter this fight with a 24-1-1, with 19 Knockouts.
Zhang will also come into this fight however, coming off of his first loss in his career in dropping a twelve round unanimous decision to undefeated Heavyweight contender Filip Hrgovic in August of last year. While Zang, much like Joyce, has punching power and has shown the ability to score quick knockouts in his career, an argument could be made that the two times he has stepped up his caliber of opposition up to this point, it resulted in a draw with veteran Jerry Forrest and the loss against Hrgovic.
With this in mind, Zhang might be looking to not only win this fight, but do so by making a statement against clearly another opponent that is a step up for him. What this could mean is potentially a short, but explosive fight where it may simply come down to which fighter is able to land flush on the other. In terms of each fighter's ability to take a punch, Joyce took the best of what Joseph Parker threw at him including several flush punches that would have likely dropped most Heavyweights and he kept coming forward. The question is how will Zhang respond to Joyce's power if the unbeaten contender lands flush.
Although much of the attention on the current state of the Heavyweight division has centered on the Usyk-Fury saga as well as the recent return of former two-time Heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua, who scored a twelve round unanimous decision over Jermaine Franklin at the beginning of April, it is now time for Joe Joyce and Zhilei Zhang to take center stage to see if either can maneuver their way into a possible opportunity to fight for a world championship, which unfortunately due to the business and political elements of the sport,could prove to be an easier fight to make for either Oleksandr Usyk or Tyson Fury, than a fight between each other for the Undisputed Heavyweight championship of the world appears to be.
"And That's The Boxing Truth."
Joyce vs. Zhang takes place on Saturday, April 15th at Copper Box Arena in London, England. The fight can be seen here in the United States on digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+ beginning at 2PM ET/11AM PT.
ESPN+ is available through the ESPN app on mobile, tablet, and connected streaming devices and Smart TVs. For more information about ESPN+ including schedules, list of compatible streaming devices, platforms, Smart TVs, and to subscribe please visit: www.ESPNPlus.com.
*Card and start times subject to change.
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