Joe Joyce declared his “journey will continue” after his world-title ambitions were rocked by a shock first career defeat against Zhilei Zhang.
Referee Howard Foster stopped the fight as Joyce struggled with a swollen eye, having suffered repeatedly against the hard hitting of China’s Zhang.
“I’ve had my loss but I’ll be back,” Joyce told BBC Sport.
“The journey will continue.”
Joyce’s swollen eye, inspected twice by the ringside doctor, was hindering his sight by the time Foster called a halt.
But the Londoner said: “I can still see through it, I think it’s just bruised. It’s a formality to go to the hospital now to check it’s not fractured or anything.”
In addition to his undefeated record, Joyce’s defeat has also cost him his WBO interim belt and his status as mandatory challenger for unified world champion Oleksandr Usyk’s WBO title.
Joyce had made his ring entrance to the theme from sci-fi film The Terminator, but said afterwards: “It looks like I’ve got a terminator eye now. It’s unfortunate but I’ll be back. I thought I was doing well in there.”
Heavy hitter stops the ‘Juggernaut’
Throughout fight week, there was much talk on when Joyce – who had held mandatory challenger status since July 2021 – would get his world-title shot.
Although it was not something Joyce was guilty of himself, many fans and pundits may have overlooked the threat of ‘Big Bang’ Zhang.
Joyce’s relentless approach, which often leaves his defences exposed, has earned him the nickname ‘Juggernaut’.
In previous fights, such as last September’s win over Joseph Parker, Joyce’s much talked about ‘granite chin’ enabled him to shrug off a heavy hit as if it were a gust of wind.
But in east London, Joyce faced arguably his biggest-hitting opponent to date. Zhang, who was 1st 9lb heavier at Friday’s weigh-in, is a considerably bigger puncher than Parker.
A southpaw heavyweight with strong amateur pedigree – winning silver at the 2008 Olympic Games – the 39-year-old’s only loss came on points to Filip Hrgovic in August, in a fight many observers felt he won.
“I couldn’t get away from his straight left. He kept on nailing me in the eye and it swelled up my eye,” Joyce said.
“That’s what happens when you take risks. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way which is it’s annoying. I thought I’d reach a victory here and it’s just disappointing I didn’t.
‘I might have a fight before the rematch’
Zhang has catapulted himself into world-title contention and is now the WBO’s number one challenger for Ukraine’s Usyk.
The sanctioning bodies have a rotation policy for mandatory defences, meaning Usyk must first defend against WBA mandatory Daniel Dubois, with IBF number one Hrgovic second in line.
Joyce’s promoter George Warren confirmed there is a rematch clause with Zhang. Much will depend on the extent of the Putney fighter’s eye injury, but there is sufficient time for Joyce to avenge his loss and reclaim the number one WBO spot before the mandatory is called.
But Joyce is slightly cautious in committing to an immediate rematch.
“We’re going to discuss it,” he said. “I could have one in between. I’m just going to decide. I’m going to have some time off and reflect and watch the tape back and see where I went wrong.”
With a packed heavyweight division, there are other options for Joyce should a world-title shot not materialise.
Fellow Briton Dillian Whyte was in attendance and, before the fight, declared his interest in a domestic match-up.
Joyce has also previously said he would one day like to face two-time world champion and former amateur team-mate Anthony Joshua.