Joe Joyce: Portrait of the artist as an Olympic boxer

Britain’s great super-heavyweight hope for Rio has a preference for putting paint rather than opponents on the canvas, by Alan Hubbard

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The Independent Online

At 6ft 6in and 17 stone, Joe Joyce is on course to be one of the big hits of next year’s Olympic Games. Note the name, because JJ is one unusual fighter – a true noble artist, as much a dab hand with the paint brush as he is with a left hook.

Outside the ring he is something of a gentle giant, admitting he prefers putting paint rather than opponents on the canvas, though he hopes his proficiency with the palette will help him realise his dream of opening his own studio and holding an exhibition of his work.

Joyce, the super-heavyweight successor to Olympic champion Anthony Joshua on the GB squad, is in pole position to  become the first Briton to qualify for the 2016 Games, having won all five of his bouts while representing the British Lionhearts in the World Series of Boxing (WSB) tournament which serves as a stepping stone to Rio. 

The 29-year-old Londoner, who has a 2:1 university degree in fine arts, is obviously pretty good in the ring, having recently gone into the Havana backyard of the Cuban champion Lenier Pero and defeated him.


That’s some feat, as no other WSB boxer has won in Cuba. A further rare victory in China suggests he can emulate 2012’s kingpin Joshua,  now impressively moving up the  pro ranks.

Joyce remains unbeaten in the current season of WSB, the pro-am tournament in which boxers in mix-and-match national teams scrap without headguards or vests under basic professional rules over five rounds. The top-ranked super- heavyweight boxer at the end of the regular season automatically qualifies for Rio, and should he overcome Russia’s finest in GB’s next fixture at London’s York Hall on Thursday week then Joyce can probably start packing his paintbrushes alongside his gumshield and gloves.

Britain’s new flagship fighter is an intelligent, fascinating figure, who says his role models are Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Picasso and Van Gogh. It is certainly bizarre, to say the least, to discover a pugilist who can chat as keenly  about the work of  another of his heroes, the American Jean-Michel Basquiat – famed exponent of Neo-expressionism and Primitivism – who died aged 27 from a heroin overdose, as he does about slipping a  jab.

Lennox Lewis is among Joyce's role models

His love of art has been inherited from his parents, father Philip, a Scots-born Irishman, and his mother Marvel, whose ancestry is Nigerian. “Dad painted and mum was good at pottery,” he says. “They both loved art and I really got into it at school where I had good teachers who  encouraged me to do an Arts Foundation degree at university.”

His own personal favourite work, produced in a small studio at the south London flat where he lives with his mum, is the lifesize portrait in oils of Ali. “What I used to do at first was draw in pencil but now I go straight to the brush. I’ve had offers for the Ali picture but I don’t want to part with it at the moment, though one day I might put it up at auction.

“The idea of photo-realism is to make the painting more interesting than the photo you are working from.”

He has also produced portraits of Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, tennis’s Williams sisters and  Beyonce (“though that one’s a bit dodgy”) but says his preference is for the abstract and symbolic.

“I really like Picasso. His early work was amazingly accurate  before he turned to symbolism,” he adds.

A former ABA champion and European bronze medallist who won Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow last year, Joyce was  a late starter in boxing. He was into karate and king fu, had a decent rugby career as a teenage flanker and second-row forward with Rossyln Park and worked as a lifeguard, swimming and diving instructor.

He was also into athletics at Middlesex University but an Achilles injury halted his progress as a long jumper and triple jumper. His boxing career only took off at 22 after he wandered into the university gym and started punching the bag before being invited to spar. “Boxing immediately grabbed me. I knew I could be good at it. What appealed to me was that it has so many aspects, so many different training  regimes, and the discipline it  instils. And when you win – wow!  You get such a high from having your arm lifted.”

Joyce joined his local club, Earlsfield ABC, and progressed to the GB squad at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield pre-2012 and regularly sparred with Joshua. “We get on well but every time I’m mentioned, it is in the same breath as him. It would be nice to be recognised in my own right.”

Joyce regularly sparred with British talent Anthony Joshua

No doubt he will be, should he emulate Joshua in Rio. He says he would then seriously consider turning pro should he get “an unrefusable offer”. He will be 30 by then, but luckily for him, heavyweight boxing doesn’t suffer from ageism these days, with the top men now reaching their prime in their thirties. His progress has already been noted by promoter Frank Warren who says: “He seems to have great talent.”

But Joyce is cautious about his  future. “My immediate aim is Rio but after that, we’ll see. Every heavyweight gold-medal winner  thinks seriously about cashing  in. It all depends on what is on offer.”

And then there’s the painting. “Boxing comes first for now,” he adds, “so the aim is simply to keep winning and maintain my unbeaten record through the season. But my ultimate ambition is to be  able to afford a large studio and hold my own exhibition.

“Though I am concentrating on boxing at the moment when my body can’t take any more punishment I can fall back on my art because I will still be able to lift a brush.”

He recognises that still lacking in his fistic armoury is a big ko punch. “I  like to think my way through a fight and use my ringcraft but it’s something I’m working on

“A lot of heavyweights are big and strong but they cannot match me for work rate or the number of punches I throw.  They get tired after the first three or four rounds and that works in my favour.”

The bright lights and big money surely will beckon if he paints a golden picture in Rio though at the moment the artist informally known as JJ seems more interested in visiting the Louvre than Las Vegas.

Clearly, this ring Rembrant is no ordinary Joe.