Behind the scenes: How coronavirus affected preparations for the Dubois-Joyce fight


The fight between unbeaten heavyweights Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce was postponed with just over three weeks to go before the first bell.

It was the first of the big heavyweight fights to officially be called off, the first of many to fall inevitable victim to circumstances. One day it was on — there was an assurance from the venue, the fighters were preparing in different parts of the world — and then it was off.

It was scheduled for the iconic O2 in London on April 11, it was nearly sold-out and it was a rare fight between two genuine prospects. It would have been a sell-out, the type of fight that cynics doubted would ever happen and a fight that the fans wanted.

Dubois is 22, unbeaten in 14 fights with 13 finishing early and Joyce, the silver medal winner from the Rio Olympics, is 34, unbeaten in ten fights with nine stoppage or knockout wins. They are big heavyweights, both ranked by the various sanctioning bodies and the real prize for their fight was a leading ranking with the WBO.

“The winner of this fight will get a world title fight, that’s the way it works,” vowed Frank Warren, the fight’s promoter, who has a promotional deal with both boxers, but has guided Dubois since he turned professional as a teenager back in 2017. “This fight is the biggest risk I have ever taken.”

Dubois was preparing with Martin Bowers at the Peacock gym in London’s east end and Joyce was in Las Vegas with his business manager Sam Jones and in the fighting city he had reunited with Ismael Salas, his first coach.

It was all going so well for both boxers and then the severity increased, the fears started to become facts and the fight was in jeopardy. All fights globally were in jeopardy. The fine plans and dreams of both boxers were placed on hold.

“We were in Las Vegas for five weeks and it was perfect,” said Jones. “We were at Ismael’s gym and Joe looked great — really great. I have never seen him so motivated.

“The sparring was unbelievable — you would pull up a deckchair and sit there and pay to watch it. It was heavy sparring, not playing about. That is why you go to Las Vegas — we were not there to see the sights. It costs a lot of money and you have to make a lot of sacrifices to move to Las Vegas and set up camp. It was, I mean this, worth every penny because Joe was ready.

“But, I was keeping my eye on the virus. I was looking at dates, looking at Joe and just hoping the fight would still happen in April,” Jones added. “I knew the fight was selling and I’m convinced that it would have sold out. That might sound selfish now, but that was my state of mind then.”

It was similar at the Peacock, Dubois and Bowers were putting in place the last details, the last days of a perfect camp.

“It was getting real close with Daniel,” said Bowers. “He had done the first part of his sparring and the two main sparring partners were due in, they were flying in and a few problems started to show.

“They were due in on the 20th to arrive on the 21st and then have a day off and get in the gym for two hard weeks from the 23rd” added Bowers. “That was the plan. Daniel was in great shape then — it was all going to plan.”

A film crew from ESPN visited the Peacock to interview Dubois on March 12 and the crisis was being discussed, but there was no real panic.

“I will be ready whenever this fight happens,” insisted Dubois at the time.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, there were plans for Joyce and Jones to evacuate, to fly back to Britain and finish the training closer to home, closer to their families and closer to the venue. There was also a very loose discussion about the show taking place behind closed doors in a studio at BT — all talk of studio shows or boxing shows behind closed doors had firmly collapsed by the Monday of the following week, the same that the European Olympic boxing qualifier was cancelled.

“I came home on the Thursday (12th) and Joe returned on the Sunday (15th),” continued Jones. “Salas is still there, his gym is closed, but he is just waiting. The original plan for the fight had been to fly back on the 28th — two weeks before the fight. That would have been perfect. I was in daily contact with Frank (Warren), looking at alternatives and other dates — there was nothing that anybody could have done to save the date.”

On March 17, the fight was called off and a new date, still at the O2, was announced: it will now be on July 11.

“I had to close the gym on the Friday of that week, I had to,” said Bowers. “I had started to limit the amount of boys coming in — just the ones getting ready for fights and then I had to close to everybody. There were no fights, I had to close the gym.

“This is like an extended out-of-season break, like a Christmas break for the boxers,” Bowers continued. “I have told all the boys to monitor their weight, avoid people and go for a run. That will not be enough to fight, but it means they will get back in the gym in shape. Daniel is always in shape.”

Now Dubois and Joyce are preparing behind closed doors, working in their gardens, sneaking an essential run. They know they are the lucky boxers, fighters that have made enough money to not have to worry about their next fight, paying their rent, eating. The planned undercard featured a dozen fighters and many will now be struggling. The new date is important for more than just the two men in the risky main event.

“The new date gives us all time,” added Bowers. “They need to be back in the gym and they need the sparring. There are no shortcuts in a fight like this.

“I hope I can get the same two sparring partners back if any flight embargos have been lifted and, hopefully, they have not had another offer, ” continued Bowers. “The sparring partners, like all fighters in the game, need to make money; they might get offered some other work or a fight elsewhere. They might not be available when we get back in the gym.”

The British Boxing Board of Control has extended their period of isolation until the end of April, a date that is likely to be amended again. The postponement of the Olympics means that three more Saturdays in July and August are now available for boxing shows. They are potentially crucial dates.

“Can you imagine how many great fights there will be when this over?” said Jones. “It could be every weekend, doubling up some Saturdays, midweek shows. The business will be busy, fantastic, and we need it — boxers need it, trainers, everybody in the business needs it. Everybody needs it, but boxing will return.”

So far, dozens of shows in Britain have been called off, pushed back and some boxers will drift away from the sport. When the Board lifts their ban on live

boxing, there will be shows merged with other shows, a packed schedule and the sport will need big fights like Dubois and Joyce. The pandemic has only delayed the inevitable and one day they will fight and it will be a classic.

“Let’s see when we get back in the gym,” said Bowers. “I’m counting down the days now.”

Everybody in the boxing business is doing the same thing.

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