After taking two overhand rights flush on the chin at the end of the first round of his bout against Christian Hammer last Saturday, Joe Joyce had a knowing glance on his face. His eyebrows raised, his lips pursed, the facial pronunciation of “whew, okay.” In that moment, Joyce could have been thinking any of the following and it would have made sense: 1. “I shouldn’t have been hit by those,” 2. “Those were some hard shots,” or 3. “I have quite the chin.”
Joyce’s nickname “The Juggernaut,” is the best kind of nickname, one that provides alliteration that rolls off the tongue, and one that is rooted in his actual characteristics. In the past, Joyce has said that his main attributes are his “engine” and his ability to take a punch. Joyce may not be blindingly fast—in fact, sometimes he seems noticeably slow—but he is certainly not unathletic. A former track-and-field standout, rugby player, swimmer, Kung Fu and Wushu practitioner, ballet dancer, NCAA cheerleader at Sacramento State, Joyce is probably among the sport’s more well-rounded athletes, at least in terms of resume.
Just as he was trying to solve with his broad sampling of athletics throughout his life, observers likely see Joyce in the ring and think “what IS he?” Joyce doesn’t quite fit the archetype of any brand of heavyweight. He’s athletic but not what one would describe as fast. He punches hard, but his punches aren’t thrown, nor do they land, in an eye-catching manner. He’s a pressure fighter, but not an all-out swarmer. He’s big, but not imposingly so standing in front of others in the weight division.
Why Joyce has been so effective can be difficult to describe. The consensus seems to be that his constant presence alone has been a breaker of wills in the ring.
The right hands that connected from Hammer in the early going certainly weren’t the last ones to find their mark, but they were the last ones to seem concerning. Once Joyce had determined he was able to absorb those shots and continue to move forward, the fight was effectively over.
"I don't mind too much," Joyce said of the punches he took in speaking with Andi Purewal of Boxing Social following the bout. "I can take punches, I'm a tough guy. But there's plenty of room for improvement. I'm not the finished article yet, but it's exciting for the fans."
Although the outcome of the bout wasn’t in question after the second round, the method of victory still was. There was still the question of whether he would be able to stop Hammer, a heavyweight that had proven durable in recent years against fighters bubbling just below the elite level. At this point, simply defeating Hammer isn’t an indication of much beyond a heavyweight being at the European level or above. However, actually stopping Hammer remains a statement, an indication that you’re likely better than the sub-elite. Typically, Hammer is able to not only absorb punches himself, but also slow the tempo of a fight to a sloppy, frustrating slog. Against Joyce, he found the pace, as color commentator Carl Frampton described, “uncomfortably fast,” and had exhausted himself just trying to work that hard, that often by the end of the third round.
Joyce threw a right uppercut to the body again and again, and accompanied it with jabs to the midsection sneaky right hands to Hammer’s side when the two would engage in close. Then, in the fourth round, Joyce’s brow went the opposite direction it went in the first. His gaze narrowed, and he ripped a left hook to Hammer’s body that made him take a knee so defeatedly that the referee didn’t bother to count before waving the fight off.
Joyce did what a heavyweight who purports to be of the caliber he claims to be should be able to do to Hammer. In that sense, he answered a few questions. One wouldn’t have been foolish to think that even a Hammer coming in on short notice would have been able to drag Joyce, coming off a layoff, into a sloppy snoozer. But every Joyce fight begs as many questions as it answers, which is what makes him the most intriguing figure in the upper reaches of the heavyweight division at the moment.
Without easily fitting into a particular category as a fighter, Joyce is a difficult fighter to forecast against the division’s best. Joyce is the poster boy for “more than the sum of his parts” in the ring. Skill for skill, attribute for attribute, many other heavyweights in the world would best him. If you were to place Joyce on a heavy bag next to heavyweights demonstrably worse than him and showed him to a total outsider, they might think the others were the title contenders and not him.
Of course, boxing isn’t a skills competition, it’s a fight. And in a fight, the attributes Joyce visually possesses to anyone’s eye are alluring when placing him in fantasy matchups. What if he can walk through the punches of the division’s very best too? Could other top heavyweights keep up with his tempo? Is it possible that Joyce could simply grind more classically skilled fighters down at the championship level?
On the flip side: Could his openness defensively be perilous against even better fighters? Would better conditioned fighters than the ones he’s faced to this point be impervious to his insistence upon a torrid work rate?
One way or another, when Joe Joyce fights, eyebrows are raised.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman