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.
Great boxing rivalries
Great boxing rivalries
1/10 Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier – 1971, 1974 & 1975
Possibly one of the greatest rivalries of all time, not just in boxing but in any sport. These two titans met three times, with Ali taking home the spoils 2-1. The first was known as the ‘Fight of the Century’ in which two undisputed title holders came together, it ended with Frazier winning after 15 rounds via unanimous decision. The final fight was dubbed ‘Thrilla in Manilla’, where Ali retained all three of his heavyweight titles.
2/10 Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling – 1936 & 1938
Among two of boxing’s most historical fights. With Schmeling’s origins of Nazi Germany, these two represented something a little more than just two heavyweight boxers at their peak coming together. Louis was undefeated coming into the first fight while Schmeling already had 60 fights under his belt. The German won it with a 12th round knockout. By the time the pair met again, Louis had won the world Heavyweight title. It only took him one round to knock out Schmeling. Louis’ performances gained him national recognition and became one of America’s first African American heroes.
3/10 Micky Ward v Arturo Gatti – 2002, 2002 & 2003
The first time these two met proved to be The Ring Magazine’s ‘Fight of the Year’. A famous left hook body shot in the ninth brought Gatti to his knees and proved the deciding factor in the judges’ decision. A rematch was agreed immediately with Gatti knocking Ward down in third, however the American managed to finish the fight before losing by decision. The final fight also won The Ring Magazine’s fight of the year, Ward knocked down Gatti in the sixth, but before the referee could count to ten, the bell sounded. Gatti was able to come back and win via unanimous decision.
4/10 Nigel Benn v Chris Eubank – 1990 & 1993
In what was initially a fierce domestic rivalry, became one of world interest between these two British greats. Eubank was originally the challenger and began shouting out for Benn after only 10 fights. After winning his WBO middleweight title, Benn agreed to face Eubank. With each fighter saying they were going to knock the other one out, it was the challenger that actually did. With a technical knockout in the ninth round. The re-match was watched by half a billion people worldwide, with both defending titles it was so even, it ended in a draw.
5/10 Gene Tunney v Jack Dempsey – 1926 & 1927
Fighting twice, these bouts have gone down as two of the most famous in boxing history. Tunney won the first over 10 rounds via unanimous decision. The second is why these two were forever known in boxing history. In the seventh round Dempsey threw a flurry of punches to knock Tunney down for the first time in his career. The referee couldn’t count until Dempsey had reached a neutral corner. He didn’t oblige, buying Tunney valuable time. Tunney managed to rise at a time many say was over ten seconds. This is why the fight is known as the Long Count. Tunney went on to knock down Dempsey in the eighth and win by unanimous decision.
6/10 Manny Pacquiao v Juan Manuel Marquez – 2004, 2008, 2011 & 2012
One of the greatest modern day rivalries which will go on to be imprinted in boxing’s history. Having fought four times to this day, Pacquiao has won two, Marquez one and the other being a draw. Marquez winning the most recent with a sixth round knockout, handing the Pac-Man back to back defeats. The Ring Magazine awarded it not only ‘Fight of the Year’ but also ‘Knockout of the Year’.
7/10 Ken Norton v Muhammad Ali - 1973, 1973 & 1976
Ali’s second defeat came to the man known as ‘The Black Hercules’. In what was their first fight, Ali was the 5-1 favourite and had won 10 fights since his first lost to Frazier. Norton broke Ali’s jaw in the fight, despite The Greatest carrying on, he lost on a split decision. Six months later, Ali avenged Norton winning also on a split decision and re-gaining his NABF Heavyweight title. The third and final fight was some three years later after Rumble in the Jungle, Ali won via unanimous decision.
8/10 Marco Antonio Barrera v Erik Morales - 2000, 2002 & 2004
Involving two of more modern days most famous Mexican boxers, the Barrera v Morales trilogy is a famous one, spanning over three different classes. Their first fight was in the super-bantamweight division with both holding titles. Morales won the first on a close split decision. Deciding to move up classes, Morales went to Featherweight, where again he met Barrera for a title match. This time Barrera won, in what was Morales’ first ever career defeat. The third and final time they met was in the Super-Featherweight division, where again Morales lost and with it his WBC title.
9/10 Riddick Bowe v Evander Holyfield - 1992, 1993 & 1995
These two Heavyweight giants came together three times in a famous blockbuster conquest. In the first fight, Holyfield walked in with Lineal, WBC, WBA & IBF Heavyweight titles having beaten Buster Douglas and George Foreman. Bowe had never tasted defeat and to everyone’s surprise, won via unanimous decision. The re-match went the distance with Holyfield winning on a split decision. This was Bowe’s first and only career defeat. The third, unlike the other two, was ended after eight rounds when Bowe knocked out Holyfield.
10/10 Sugar Ray Leonard v Thomas Hearns – 1981 & 1989
These two first met in a heavyweight clash with both boxers’ welterweight titles on the line. Ray Leonard known for his boxing skill, and Hearns for his vicious punching. The epic battle lasted 14 rounds before Leonard unleashed a series of punches, forcing the ref to stop the fight. The re-match, known as ‘The War’, had both fighters again holding titles, this time in the super-middleweight class. After 12 rounds of back and forth punishment, the fight was scored as a judge’s draw. The two never fought again with Hearns moving to light-heavyweight.
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.
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.”
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.Reuse content