Joe Joyce’s rematch with Zhilei Zhang is ‘make or break’ challenge

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Is this do or die for Joe Joyce?

The Londoner was never a great technician or athlete but he was a competent boxer with unusual size and strength, which enabled him to win a silver medal in the 2016 Olympics and become a mandatory world title challenger as a professional.

Then, on April 15, disaster struck. Joyce couldn’t avoid the left hand of Zhilei Zhang, which closed his right eye and forced the referee to stop the fight in the sixth round.

Joyce will have a chance turn the tables in a rematch Saturday night at OVO Arena Wembley, a fight he must win if he hopes to have an opportunity to fight for a major world title.

Indeed, a 38-year-old with back-to-back losses doesn’t have much of a future.

“It’s make or break,” Joyce told TalkSport.

Joyce (15-1, 14 KOs) obviously believes in himself. He exercised a rematch clause in the contract for the first fight rather than face an easier mark to get back into the win column and rebuild any lost confidence.

That surprised Zhang (25-1-1, 20 KOs), who expected the second fight to happen after Joyce had a fight or two to work on his weaknesses, which the 40-year-old from China said includes not moving his head and fighting robotically in general.

Zhang believes his rival made a mistake by jumping into a rematch.

“It’s not rocket science that you can’t change to a different style in a few months,” Zhang told Standard Sport. “That’s why the second fight will end even quicker.”

Joyce was competitive in the first fight but failed to adjust to the straight left hands of his southpaw opponent, who landed the punch almost at will.

The Londoner hadn’t faced a left-hander since Lenroy Thomas in 2018, a fight that lasted less than two full rounds. Joyce implied that lack of experience against southpaws worked against him in the first fight with Zhang.

“He’s used to being in there with orthodox fighters,” Joyce told TalkSport. “He was my first southpaw in a while. It’s a whole different ball game, completely different tactics to face someone who is a southpaw.”

The fact he had some strong rounds in the first fight, he said, is something on which he can build.

“In the first fight I felt, watching it back, there was an opportunity for me to win the fight,” he said. “It’s just the eye kind of like stopped it going to the second half of the fight. So that might make a difference.”

If Joyce beats the WBO “interim” titleholder this time?

He’ll be back to where he was before the upset in the first fight, at the top of the rankings in at least one of the four major sanctioning bodies.

He would then have to resume the waiting game as unified champion Oleksandr Usyk and titleholder Tyson Fury plot their futures. That can be frustrating but it’s exactly where you want to be, in position for a big fight.

If Joyce loses on Saturday? He could be finished as an elite fighter.