Joe Joyce: 'The aim is to be undisputed heavyweight champion of the world'
W e talk about fear and remorse, audacity and embarrassment and, of course, about art and boxing. A long conversation with Joe Joyce, the unbeaten heavyweight who seems so calm at the easel and in the ring, meanders along many different paths. We talk in detail about his new painting commission and his recent battle with Daniel Dubois, where Joyce ignored all the predictions to offer a stark lesson in the pitiless realities of the fight game while stopping his lauded young opponent.
But the deeper we go the more we return to his mother, Marvel, and the way in which she has refused to allow blindness to diminish her. She has offered lessons in courage and hope which her son has absorbed as, quietly, he has risen to the point where he could be just one fight away from facing Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.Anthony Joshua says he wants to take Tyson Fury's 'head off his shoulders' Read more
I like the fact that, for more than an hour, we don’t talk once about the extravagant fame and wealth surrounding Joshua and Fury. Joyce appears more interested in smaller moments which illuminate his life.
“Generally, before all my fights, I don’t feel fear,” Joyce says as he explains how he dealt with the intensity of fighting the dangerous Dubois. “I’m just relaxed and chilled.”
Yet he admits there was an added edge to the contest eight weeks ago because Dubois had insulted his mum and her blindness before the fight. It was typical of Marvel that she had spoken up before the altercation. After Joyce’s manager, Sam Jones, accused Dubois of feigning illness to avoid a difficult fight as an amateur, Marvel chipped in at the press conference. “Daniel,” she said, after requesting the microphone, “if you get ill before the fight, are you going to pull out?”
“No, my dear,” Dubois said. “I’m going to do you a favour. Because you can’t see your son, after he’s been knocked out you’ll be spared the heartache.”
Joyce explains now: “At the time I didn’t really hear what he’d said but watching the clip back I realised he didn’t respect his elders and he’s saying something nasty to my mum and about her disability. So in the end it was an eye for an eye.”
This last sentence is a rare false step for Joyce. Dubois fought courageously before he sank to one knee in the 10th round because he sensed his right eye had been badly damaged. It was soon confirmed that Joyce’s punishing jab had broken the orbital bone and caused nerve damage to Dubois’s eye.
Joyce soon sounds understanding and compassionate when he considers the accusations from former fighters and keyboard warriors that Dubois had been cowardly when quitting. “It was a smart thing to do,” he insists. “His eye felt like it was going to fall out and so the only way of saving it was to take a knee and live to fight another day. I felt remorse after the fight because I was hearing that he might not box again. It was a big fight but he’s only a young guy and he’s got plenty more to do. For me to finish his career there? No. You could say it serves him right for saying that about my mum but that’s too heavy for a young man with plenty more to come. I believe he will become world champion one day.”Joe Joyce punches Daniel Dubois during their fight in London in November last year. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Londoner Joyce, at 35, is 12 years older than Dubois. He had only started boxing seriously at the age Dubois is now and, before Joyce won his silver medal at the 2016 Olympics they sparred together on the GB squad. “I knew how hard he can hit,” Joyce says of Dubois, “because in preparation for Rio we had some good spars. I was wary of his punch power but I had the perfect game plan. The objective was to establish my jab, take his jab off him and avoid his heavy punches landing cleanly. He just couldn’t get away from that jab. I’m pretty good with my accuracy and timing and I could hear his breathing as I was whittling him down with the jab. But, watching it back, you can see how close it was.”
How was his mum that night? “She was buzzing. It was great to have her, my brother and my girlfriend there to cheer me on.”
His mother lost her sight as a little girl but she continues to live a full life. Joyce talks of his happy childhood but, while he is still close to both of them, his parents separated when he was still young. “I had to help my mum when I was growing up with reading bus numbers or what train station it is,” he remembers. “I’ve always been a guide and carer to her. I also used to make fun of her sometimes. I’d say: ‘Oh, there’s something there!’ and she’d be like: ‘What, where?’ I’d say: ‘Only joking!’ But she was so smart. I remember trying to sneak up on my mum as a child. She could feel me coming. I would try and hide from her and let her walk past and she’d look at me straightaway. I couldn’t get away with things like that.”'They all have the magic – it's almost spiritual': the fighting Dubois family Read more
Joyce laughs, as he does when recalling some of the holidays he and his mum have taken – whether cross-country skiing in Norway, with his mother tied to a guide, or riding around Thailand on a tandem with his baby brother attached to their bicycle in a buggy. When his mother became pregnant with his brother Torann, who is 18 now, “she was still doing kickboxing and kung fu. I don’t know how many weeks pregnant she was but she had this big belly”.
His mother was always as fiery as she was protective and she would call the police to complain whenever Joe was stopped and searched needlessly. “I guess the police would stop someone who looks like they might cause trouble,” Joyce says calmly, “and usually they would target young black males. What do they call it – racial profiling? I was tall and they thought I was much older. But my mother had coached me how to act.”
She would then berate the police on Joe’s return home. “My mum is a strong woman. She could be a little overbearing sometimes but her life is her children and she wants to look after me and Torann. If anything happened in or outside school she’d be first to have a word with the headmaster or the police.”
His mum also encouraged Joyce to “stand tall like a beautiful sunflower”. The heavyweight laughs. “She was always embarrassing me! And she always insisted on me calling her ‘Mummy’, which was not cool in the playground. The last time was Year 4 and the other kids took the piss out of me. So I stopped and called her ‘Mum’ from then on.”
He stresses his good fortune in having such “creative parents”. His dad was an art teacher and his mum did “a lot of pottery; I did my first oil painting when I was seven”. Encouraged by his parents, Joyce completed a degree in fine art before turning to boxing in his 20s – when he was trained by Sid Khan, the brother of the London mayor Sadiq Khan.
Joyce says: “Sadiq Khan used to be in the gym with his son doing boxing, and he actually advised me to go for the Olympics.” That connection with the Olympics, and reaching the final of the super-heavyweight division in Rio, where he was denied gold by a contentious decision, underpins his new artistic commission.Joe Joyce painting at Delta London Studio as part of the Purplebricks campaign. Photograph: Harry O'Neill/Beat Media
In a Purplebricks campaign called “Home Support”, Joyce is one of three painters – alongside the remarkable mouth artist Henry Fraser and the former professional triathlete Vanessa Raw – who have been asked to create artworks to show the backing of the country for Team GB before the Tokyo Olympics.
“I had some ideas that were brewing,” Joyce says, “and it was great to get back in the studio. I did quite a few I wasn’t happy with so I started a fresh painting and built it up from there. It’s like with boxing. You need to practise your skills.”
Joyce cites the early works of Picasso and the street art of Jean-Michel Basquiat as his formative influences. Is he now happy with his final work for the Olympic campaign which will eventually be seen on Purplebricks boards around the country? “I am – it came out really well. I’ll be driving round looking for it so I can say: ‘I did that!’”
Before then Joyce hopes to fight Oleksandr Usyk, the highly skilled Ukrainian who has moved up to heavyweight after dominating as the undisputed world cruiserweight champion. “It gives us an opportunity to fight the winner of AJ-Fury. I’m fairly confident I can beat him. I saw the fight against Derek Chisora. [which Usyk won on points] and he’s put on more muscle and weight and he’s slowing down a little. At the same time I know it’s going to be tough because he’s so skilled. But can he weather my punches for 12 rounds?”
They have fought once before, as amateurs in 2013, and Usyk won clearly. “He was fresh from the London Olympics where he won a gold. I hadn’t fought many southpaws and Usyk’s an incredible fighter. He’s had 350 amateur fights and won 95% of them. So he was too seasoned,” says Joyce. “It was a bit like myself and Dubois where I had so much more experience. It will be different next time and I’m hearing it could be in the spring.”Lennox Lewis: 'I knew I would meet Mike Tyson in the ring' Read more
Joyce has sparred against Fury and, even more often, Joshua. Who does he expect will win when the two British world champions meet this year? “It’s a 50-50 fight but, on recent performances and skills, I think Fury. But at the same time but I wouldn’t be surprised if AJ knocks him out. I think I’m edging with Fury.
“I’ve had so many great spars with Joshua and he’s got fast hands, great uppercuts and real power. He’s hit me with some big shots. He’s also very competitive and disciplined. But he is also much more rigid and conventional. Fury is more elusive, fast, great footwork and head movement. He’s the bigger man and when I was sparring him in Big Bear he hit me with a jab in my eye before I could blink. Sometimes you don’t know where the punches are coming from.
“Joshua did well in his last fight [against Kubrat Pulev] but since he lost to Andy Ruiz he’s been more wary. I remember when I first got in the GB squad we’d go at it toe to toe and have some really exciting spars. But I had very competitive spars with Fury too and when they fight it could go either way.”
The plan is for Joyce to eventually fight the winner and, with the audacity of hope and unlimited vision that his mother has instilled in him, he says: “I love it – and the aim is to become the undefeated and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. That’s what I’m going for now.”