Sam Jones, the manager of unbeaten heavyweight Joe Joyce, talks to Danny Flexen ahead of his man’s step up against Bermane Stiverne
Asking enthusiastic boxing manager Sam Jones to provide negatives regarding his star client, unbeaten heavyweight and 2016 Olympic silver medallist Joe Joyce, is like asking Jacob Rees Mogg to pick holes in Brexit. Jones is not a paid mercenary, he’s a true believer, possibly more convinced by his 7-0 (7) project than the fighter himself. Fittingly, Jones puts his money where his mouth is, accompanying Joyce to his snow-capped Big Bear training camps, while perennially chasing and sometimes making ambitious matches for his charge. The biggest leap thus far will play out on February 23 when former WBC heavyweight champion Bermane Stiverne visits Joyce’s native London not as a tourist but a prospective usurper, looking to burst Joe’s bubble in his home territory, at the O2 Arena, as chief support to James DeGale vs Chris Eubank Jr. Stiverne’s is a big-name scalp but the match has still drawn criticism from some quarters, owing to the Haitian’s age (40), lack of recent activity (this is his first fight in 15 months) and the fact reining champ Deontay Wilder destroyed him in a round of their rematch, Bermane’s last contest. In fact, Joyce is a startling 1/12 to emerge victorious from what is on paper his sternest test.
“I think it’s been quite good,” insists Jones on the reception to the showdown he crafted. “People respect the fact he’s a former world champion, of course he was slightly humiliated in his last fight but Deontay Wilder can do that to anybody. He also took Wilder 12 rounds [in their initial meeting, in 2015], and to do that he’s got to be something.
“Joe deserves a hell of a lot of respect. Stiverne is a great opponent for Joe at this stage. The betting odds are very harsh, they are just doing that based on his last performance. Look at Sergey Kovalev, he got KOd by Eleider Alvarez then got back in and boxed his head off; everyone is entitled to a bad night and that’s Stiverne’s only really bad night. Animals are at their most dangerous when they’re wounded and his pride’s not all there, he’s got something to prove. Joe’s got everything to lose.”
It’s a tricky dynamic in that Jones must try to project this fight as competitive and a dangerous challenge for his man, when he was instrumental in what is objectively a marvellous piece of matchmaking. How many times have we seen the rusty veteran, having been in with the best, still offering name value, get served up to the fast-rising, hard-hitting hopeful with all the momentum behind him? Joyce may be 33 but he boasts freshness, amateur pedigree and a calm, steely focus that can be rather disconcerting. That cool drive is complemented by Jones’ more ebullient determination and encouraged their dual exodus to the Californian mountains. This is Joyce’s second training camp under the tutelage of highly respected trainer Abel Sanchez.
“It’s freezing cold,” laughs Jones, who regularly runs through the wintry conditions with his friend, but sounds like he’d be more at home in the Bahamas, sipping a cocktail on the beach. “We’re on top of the mountains, it looks spectacular, but there’s nothing to do here: it’s just training, eating, sleeping. Joe looks devastating, he’s punching harder than ever. He’s been sparring [10-3-1] Jonnie Rice, my other heavyweight Guido Vianello [an Italian Olympian who moved to 2-0 last weekend] and Malik Scott has just come in. With Abel, it takes a while to gel with someone properly, it’s like getting into a new relationship, it’s not comfortable, you have to learn about each other and that’s what they’ve done.”
Former construction boss Sanchez is refreshingly realistic about his latest development, stating in previous interviews that while Joyce is not technically the most refined student he has ever taught, his athleticism, fitness and power is more than enough to work with. Jones is not required to be as objective, nor should he be. Managers are there to back their men to the hilt in public and do the what needs to be done behind the scenes; the velvet glove cloaking the iron fist. Jones is no fool and he reluctantly recognises that Joyce could and perhaps should be a bigger star back home. Whether his cause will be helped by a big fight back in London, but one that, while broadcast by Showtime Stateside, has been placed on a relatively new UK pay-per-view platform in ITV Box Office, remains to be seen. Jones is, perhaps unsurprisingly, bullish.
“It’s Al Haymon’s first UK show, Joe is coming off a big win against Joe Hanks [KO 1 in December], so this keeps the momentum going,” he notes. “It’s a very good financial deal for Joe. Would we have liked it as a main event in its own right? Yes. But I believe Joe will be on the Tyson Fury vs Wilder rematch show, then Joe’s next fight will be a main event, whoever it is against. I also think this is going to help the buys of the ppv.”
The long-term future for “The Juggernaut” is harder to predict. As Jones alludes to, WBC ruler Wilder is finalising negotiations for a return against Tyson Fury, who looked unfortunate to only draw with the big-punching champion in LA atop the show on which Joyce smashed Hanks. Anthony Joshua holds the other major belts and, following his US debut this June versus Jarrell Miller, mandatory obligations may well come calling once again. Should Joyce defeat Stiverne next week, and in impressive fashion, he would elevate himself just below or alongside the likes of Dillian Whyte and Dominic Breazeale as a leading contender. With the main highway to the top partially blocked, how does Jones keep his man busy and motivated while awaiting his marquee assignment?
“Well, Joe is No. 5 in the WBA now but everyone in boxing knows Bermane Stiverne,” Jones points out, subtly delaying his answer. “In America Hanks is known as ‘The Future’ and in America people took notice when Joe knocked him out. When joe beats Stiverne people have to take notice.
“We’ve got our own plan, if Joe takes out Stiverne, there’s the Trevor Bryan fight which hopefully would be some kind of eliminator for the WBA ‘Regular’ title Manuel Charr has; he’s got to fight Fres Oquendo, but we could go down the Adam Kownacki route. There’s cake for everyone in the heavyweight division right now. We’d fight Kownacki in his back garden, in New York, the Luis Ortiz fight is there too. He’s advised by Al Haymon, we’re with Al, so it’s easily made, but from a fans’ perspective, Joe against Kownacki is a barnstormer, neither will take a backward step. If we go down the WBA ‘Regular’ route, people can say what they like, it’s a world title, Canelo holds one.”
There he goes again, accentuating the positive. It’s a regular refrain from Sam Jones but this is no mere cheerleader. He’s as devout as he is shrewd and, one senses, intensely loyal. Given the shark-infested waters of the heavyweight division, and the sport in general, that could well prove his most valuable quality.