Zhilei Zhang produced one of the best performances from an overseas heavyweight in a British ring for many years to stop Joe Joyce in the sixth round.
The Chinese southpaw, who is only a few weeks away from his 40th birthday, boxed beautifully to bust up Joyce so badly that referee Howard Foster had no choice but to wave off the fight after 1:23 of the sixth.
The previously undefeated Joyce shipped so many hard left hands that his right eye was forced almost completely shut and, after two looks from the ringside doctor, Foster decided enough was enough.
Zhang, who became the new WBO interim heavyweight champion as a result of the upset victory, said: “Today is mine. It belongs to every Chinese person who showed up. I’m 39 but I’m disciplined and I trained hard. My next step is to go for the title.”
Zhang made a bright start while Joyce was sluggish in the opener. After a tentative opening 30 seconds, Zhang started to find a home for his left hand almost straight away. Joyce could not see it coming and had his head snapped back a number of big shots from ‘Big Bang’ including a superb two-punch combination which started with a straight left to the belly and a right hook to the chin.
In the break between the first and second, trainer Ismael Salas told Joyce he was ‘asleep’ in the first three minutes. He did not wake up in the second, either.
Indeed Joyce seemed to be quite badly hurt in the second when Zhang landed with a right hook-left cross combination from his southpaw stance. The Londoner looked to be in danger of an early exit but he managed to clear his head and get himself back on the front foot before the bell.
And Joyce emerged for round three with renewed vigor and finally started to put some shots of his own together after the early scare. He had, however, already sustained some serious damage to his face, particularly round that right eye which was already swelled almost completely shut, and Zhang was still peppering him at will.
Another series of hard left hands landed on the problem area in the fourth as the Chinese Olympic silver medalist began to turn this into a genuine crisis moment for Joyce. Zhang was even calling Joyce on whenever he attempted to work the body.
Joyce’s trademark chin ensured he never once hit the deck but his eye just could not stand up to the power and regularity of Zhang’s straight back hand and as soon as Foster called in the ringside doctor it was obvious the writing was on the wall. After one inspection, the referee allowed it to continue but the swelling continued to worsen and, after the second visit from the doctor, he ended the fight.
Joyce, 37, said: “I’m disappointed with my performance. The right hand kept hitting me and I couldn’t get out of the way. It was a good fight but I could have done better.
“I haven’t fought a southpaw for so long. Credit to him, he’s a good fighter. It’s just disappointing I expected to win like I normally do.
“Zhilei Zhang is a good fighter who hits hard, he’s an awkward fighter because he’s a southpaw and he hits hard. I’d like to apologize to all my supporters. I’ll be back, my journey is not over, this is just a hurdle I tripped over.”