Danny Flexen speaks to Olympic silver medallist and art graduate Joe Joyce, who is building his pro career far from home
Southern California has historically provided a safe haven for exiles of an artistic inclination. In the years surrounding World War II, widely admired German creatives such as playwright Bertolt Brecht, author Thomas Mann and composer Arnold Schoenberg all headed for the SoCal sanctuary as Hitler’s Nazis gained a foothold. Several of these visionaries, Mann included, would develop their own vast Californian homes into something approaching artistic communes, places where like-minded people could convene and collaborate. Joe Joyce is an exile of sorts. Undefeated heavyweight boxer, Olympic silver medallist and fine art graduate, Joyce has ventured to America’s West Coast not to improve his oil painting nor seek out kindred spirits in that regard, but to hone his pugilistic skills under renowned trainer Abel Sanchez, in a Big Bear commune of sorts, where the established and the aspiring congregate, all thankful for the sanctuary and harbouring similar dreams of glory. Joyce is not running away but he sure is running, through both snow and sand.
“It’s quite heavily snowing now,” Joyce observes, over the phone from the Golden State. It is his second camp up in the Big Bear mountains, having previously worked, alongside then-promoter David Haye, with Cuban maestro Ismael Salas. “Before, after training, we would sit around the pool, but now we’re running in the snow; it’s like running in sand, not what I’m used to, but a lot better for the joints. They are a bit more old-school, the training methods Abel has, it’s a completely different set-up to David’s gym with Ismael, where there was a lot more pads and technique, and we had a separate strength and conditioning coach. Here, it’s pretty much what Abel says, I do. I tend to cycle every other day when the weather’s okay or use the rowing machine, more so than running; if I run every day I’ll have no knee or ankle joints left. I’ve got used to it, it was quite tough at first but now I fit in. His methods get results.” While Joyce, 7-0 (7) and yet to go past round eight, has embraced the collegiate aspects of toiling with gym-mates including Gennady Golovkin and Murat Gassiev, he is not living in one of the rooms above The Summit. The Londoner instead rents a house with intensely motivated manager Sam Jones and fellow heavyweight Guido Vianello, a 2-0 (2) Italian who represented his country at Rio 2016, losing in the Round of 16 while Joyce went all the way to the final, losing a contentious nod to Frenchman, Tony Yoka. Joe is far removed from family and longtime friends, but is adapting quickly to life in California.
“I haven’t settled down or got kids so it’s a bit easier for me,” he points out. “Some guys are up here to do a job but are also missing their family. There are no distractions here, it’s very secluded. It’s simple, and for me it’s similar to being in Shefiield with the GB amateur squad, there is not much going on apart from training. I used to be back for weekends, but now I normally go for weekends into LA. We eat nice food, go to the cinema, see some girls…” He laughs, a 33-year-old charismatic “Juggernaut” living his best life. Personally, the adaptation has been virtually seamless but there is a flipside. It’s rare to see such a decorated amateur and exciting, unbeaten heavyweight receive such sparse coverage back home. This treatment is in stark contrast to the attention afforded previous British super-heavyweight Games medallists like Audley Harrison and Anthony Joshua, notwithstanding the fact they took the top prize. Indeed, more UK column inches are devoted to the likes of Daniel Dubois and Nathan Gorman, hot prospects no doubt but lacking Joyce’s unpaid pedigree and fighting at a lower level in the professional arena. Joyce was agonisingly unfortunate not to win Olympic gold and sits at No. 5 in the current WBA rankings, but a combination of his modest character and self-imposed exile leaves him without a localised fanbase or media strategy. This anomaly – a price, it appears, Joyce believes worth paying – could be partially redressed by his status as chief support on a big show back in London on February 23, when James DeGale and Chris Eubank Jr settle their bitter grudge at the O2. Joyce faces former world champion Bermane Stiverne in an ambitious but shrewd piece of matchmaking that may increase his visibility in his native land. “I’m looking forward to it, it’s great to be boxing at the main O2,” enthuses Joyce who previously featured at the venue and at the Indigo, a smaller room within its celebrated host. “It’s gonna be full and busy before the main event; exciting stuff. The card is on regular Showtime in the US as well as ITV Box Office and it’s good to be exposed to the American public as well; PPVs out here go for $80! There are plenty of people in the US, when I was on the Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder undercard, all the British fans came over, I got a lot of support which was nice. “I guess I’m close to being a fringe contender now, and I’ll be fighting all them fringe contenders until I get a world title shot. Maybe there will be a few titles to shake loose. It’s good that I’m fighting back in the UK for my next fight, I need to show my face a bit more, I’ll probably come over a week before the fight. Anthony Joshua is still getting a lot of attention, but there is some there for me.”
Staying away from home comforts and national celebrity are not the only sacrifices made by Joyce in pursuit of fistic success. A passion for art that predates his love of boxing has been forced into a subordinate role. Once a prolific painter, Joe has not picked up a brush in around a year and is in danger of losing an important part of himself, one that could also prove a beneficial distraction from the rigours of top-level sport. “The art side has kind of slipped off a bit,” he says somewhat sheepishly, aware he is responsible for neglecting his art. “When I was doing my degree and afterwards I kept it up a bit more, but now I’m just training; I need to get back motivated. It was either oil on canvas or mixed media – the last stuff I did was in acrylic, it’s easier to dry and a lot more colourful; I finish a painting a lot quicker. I was doing symbology, a little bit abstract. I’ve done portraits and self-portraits, I just need something to inspire me to get back into it. I like Patrick Killian’s stuff, I always chat to him when he’s doing his portraits and he is continually getting better. It’s like with boxing, you keep on improving, the more you do of it the better you get. I guess it’s like riding a bike, you never really forget but you can keep on improving, like muscle memory. “I’ve got some of my work on Facebook, but I’ve got a lot in storage and one of these days I’m going to put on an exhibition. I guess it’s a party trick, a few more strings to my bow. I only started boxing when I was 22, my dad taught me oil painting at seven or eight and I was always good at art and sport. I chose art over sport at university. My dad does guilding and restoring antique frames, my mum always used to do pottery but she’s more musical, she used to do singing.” While some may think it strange a lover of art would find his greatest focus through an often-brutal vocation like boxing, there are parallels above and beyond those Joyce identifies. The need for discipline, the commitment to self-expression and the satisfaction of individual excellence are all apparent in both spheres. Boxing may have entered Joyce’s life far later but it quickly occupied a similar place in his heart. “Growing up I went to swimming club, I was doing karate, also playing rubgy,” Joe, one of five children, recalls. “I think my grandad did a bit of boxing, my dad did a bit of karate, my mum actually did capoeira and kickboxing; she even did kickboxing when pregnant with my brother! “I went to Sacramento State in my final year of uni, as an exchange. I was gonna join the football or athletics teams but I needed to be there for the whole yearto do those, so I ended up doing cheerleading; which is where I learned to do the backflip I do in the ring. “During the summer back home I wanted to hit a bag, do some training, so I joined Earlsfield [Boxing Club]. I graduated uni and came back, took it up seriously. I just kept on winning, I could see myself progressing. I won the GBs and ABAs [national titles], and I got on the GB team. I think I just caught the bug for it, winning my fights and the feeling when you win got me going. I wanted to get onto the GB team, at the time I was working and going training after – a real struggle – but once I was part of the GB setup I was looked after and I could really concentrate. But it was only when I got on the Podium squad around nine months later and [pro-style format] WSB was introduced, I became full-time and it really took off.” His journey remains on the rise. Stiverne, in name at least, is Joyce’s most important fight since the Olympic final. Win impressively – the Haitian has only been stopped in the last decade by the dynamite-fisted Wilder – and the Putney behemoth puts himself up with the likes of Dillian Whyte and Jarrell Miller as top-ranked contenders yet to fight for a world title. Those major championships could be tied up for the rest of 2019 but, despite his advancing years, Joyce feels eminently fresh and is no great hurry to take that final step, so long as he keeps learning. “I think I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and I will eventually get the recognition I deserve,” he reasons. “My few fights been pretty progressive, I’m getting to a good level.” And, should the coronation eventually arrive, Joyce will be able to not only achieve a burning ambition but can also realise the compelling self-portrait that depicts his arms aloft in triumph. That would be a case of life, literally, imitating art.