Zhilei Zhang’s upset of Joe Joyce in April might have been a shocker, but he showed Saturday it was no fluke.
“Big Bang” Zhang put his British foe to sleep in their rematch with a hard right KO in the third round, retaining the WBO interim heavyweight title that could set up a clash with champion Oleksandr Usyk.
Six months ago, Joyce was one of the rising stars of boxing, holding a 15-0 record (14 KOs) and awaiting a mandatory shot at the WBO heavyweight title held by Usyk. Rather than sit around, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist opted to face Zhang.
Joyce entered the fight as an overwhelming -1100 favorite against a boxer who appeared to be a very similar fighter. A hard-hitting, not-so-quick southpaw, Zhang quickly showed he had the more accurate hands. He connected on 78 of 140 power shots, bruising Joyce all the way up to a sixth-round doctor’s stoppage for a TKO win.
A rematch was soon set up, giving Joyce a chance to take back his place in line for heavyweight glory. Oddsmakers took Zhang much more seriously this time around, but Joyce had an opportunity to recalibrate.
Zhang, for his part, seemed content to pursue the same strategy of battering Joyce’s right eye, which was nearly swollen shut in the first meeting. As he said Thursday via ESPN:
“Yes, it is nice and simple. I know his weakness is his eyes and I’m gonna go for his eyes,” Zhang said.
Two days later, here we are. Zhang evened things up by slamming Joyce’s left eye this time, on his home turf at Wembley Arena. Even before the knockout, Zhang looked like the person who deserved the title shot, landing 29-of-56 power punches. Joyce landed 6-of-52.
What’s next for Zhang, now 26-1-1, depends on what happens with Usyk. The WBA (Super), IBF and WBO champ is still looking for a unification fight against WBC champ Tyson Fury, but that has been true for months. And Fury is currently training for an Oct. 28 bout versus former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. So even if Usyk waits on Fury, or just bypasses him, Zhang isn’t the Ukrainian’s only challenger.
Filip Hrgović, who defeated Zhang in August 2022 to give the Chinese boxer his only loss, is the IBF mandatory challenger.