For Zhilei Zhang, the saying life begins at 40 is as accurate as his punching was Saturday when he knocked out Joe Joyce in the third round.
Picking up where he left off in their first fight, a confident Zhang flattened Joyce with a right hand toward the end of the round in front of the Londoner’s home crowd. The win and the manner in which he delivered it might earn Zhang a world title shot in 2024.
Zhang, a native of China who is based on New Jersey, stopped Joyce in six rounds in their first encounter in April, one month before his 40th birthday, and then followed that up with an even better finish in their rematch at Wembley’s OVO Arena, north London, England.
Joyce threw almost as many power punches as Zhang but connected at only a 12% rate, according to CompuBox statistics.
Victory to retain the WBO interim heavyweight title keeps Zhang among the closest heavyweight contenders to earning a shot at world champions Oleksandr Usyk (WBA, IBF, WBO) and Tyson Fury (WBC).
But Zhang still faces a wait to get to Usyk as the WBO’s No. 1 challenger. Usyk is expected to hold talks with Fury about a unification title fight, and IBF mandatory challenger Filip Hrgović is then next in line for a shot at Usyk.
While Zhang, with huge commercial potential from China and an outside chance of facing Fury next in a title fight, faces a potentially exciting 2024, Saturday’s result has left Joyce facing the reality of a second successive setback at age 38. Joyce can take encouragement at the way Zhang’s career has gone into overdrive since he turned 39 but will now be questioning the wisdom of putting on 25 pounds for the rematch.
Joyce partly attributed his sixth-round stoppage loss to Zhang to being too light at 256 pounds. At Friday’s weigh-in, he tipped the scales considerably heavier at 281 pounds, the heaviest of his career.
But the extra bulk did nothing for Joyce, who lacked confidence and pace against an impressive Zhang.
“I’m happy,” Zhang said. “I said it would finish sooner than the first fight.”
Zhang’s accurate left hands decisively shut Joyce’s right eye in their first meeting, but it was the southpaw’s right hand that decided the rematch.
“He got caught with an extremely good punch,” said Joyce’s promoter, Frank Warren. “Zhang is the mandatory challenger for the WBO title, and mid next year the WBO will order a mandatory against whoever is the WBO champion.”
Joyce, from Putney in London, had charged toward the top of the division since winning a silver medal in his last amateur bout at the 2016 Olympics, but knew his career would most likely take a big step back with a second loss to Zhang.
He began Saturday’s rematch as though he would control the fight, moving clockwise away from Zhang’s left hands that caused him so much trouble in April.
But after a promising start, Joyce looked on the brink of defeat in the second round when Zhang landed a left to the jaw and then later in the round landed more shots on a static Joyce.
Joyce was too one-paced, and in the third round Zhang had the confidence to take chances and land punches.
Zhang threw a jab and then a straight right that landed on Joyce’s chin, resulting in Joyce slumping face down on the canvas. Joyce’s senses were scrambled, and the fight was rightly called off.
It was the third successive fine performance from Zhang after a disputed points loss to Hrgovic and then a stoppage win over Joyce earlier this year.
On the undercard, two-time world light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Yarde returned to winning ways with a second-round KO win over 40-year-old Jorge Silva.
Yarde (24-3, 23 KOs), 32, from Ilford in east London, was stopped in eight rounds by unified titleholder Artur Beterbiev in January and got his career back on track with a simple win over late replacement Silva (22-9, 12 KOs), from Portugal.