Sports

FIGHT WEEK: Joseph Parker and the unpaid grind of amateur boxing

As the country counts down to the Joseph Parker vs Andy Ruiz WBO world heavyweight championship fight, The Spinoff presents FIGHT WEEK, an inside look at the life and career of Joseph Parker, culminating in the Barkers 1972 magazine cover story Inside Team Parker on FridayFirst, a chronicle of Parker’s amateur experience and transition to the professional prizefighting ranks.

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 It was a hot night in March, 2012, and Joseph Parker stood once again in the squared circle, this time in Canberra. He knew the man standing opposite him. They’d fought before. In fact, Uaine Fa Jr was one of the few fighters to hang with Parker on the super heavyweight circuit, taking an easy decision victory over the young Aucklander in 2009. Three years later they made ready to fight again, this time with Olympic contention on the line.

At six foot five, Fa is taller than Parker, and fights as ‘The Iron Giant’. He’s experienced internationally, fighting European sluggers on obscure promotions around the globe. It was never going to be an easy bout. In the first round, Parker racked up a 2-1 lead, landing the cleaner shots and generally staying out of trouble. In the second, however, Fa rallied, fighting back to a three point lead, one which he would maintain through the final deadlocked round, winning 11-8. Parker’s Olympic dream – the end goal of more than a decade of training – was over. His rise to international superstardom, however, was just beginning.

Joseph Parker v Sherman Williams Official Weigh In at Trusts Stadium, Auckland, October 2014.

Joseph Parker at the official weigh in for his fight against Sherman Williams at Trusts Stadium, Auckland, October 2014.

A paradoxical figure of gentle speech and shocking knockout power, Parker is the undefeated fighting pride of Samoa and the greater Pacific community, a highly touted amateur boxer turned professional heavyweight contender.

At just 24 years old, he goes by the honorific of Lupesoliai La’auli, a title bestowed upon him by his mother’s village of Faleula on the island of Upolu. The title is an acknowledgement of Parker’s success, but also his potential for maturity and mana as a man. It will be something Parker grows into. Something he lives up to.

Parker comes from quality boxing stock. His father, Dempsey Parker, is named after the legendary William ‘Jack’ Dempsey, heavyweight champion of the world and America’s darling pugilist during the peak of the Jazz Age. From the time young Joseph could make a fist, Dempsey had him working the pads, learning basic footwork and combinations – the beginner’s toolkit for boxing. His mum Sala, now head of his management team, was always close by.

“Back then, my mum would save up what she could just to buy my boxing shoes,” says Parker. Everything had to be saved up for, because I wasn’t getting paid to fight.”

Parker attended Marcellin college, a low decile but well-regarded school in Royal Oak, Auckland. For Polynesian kids at low decile schools, there are typically several directions life can take, not all of them productive. Fortunately, under Dempsey and Sala’s watch, Joseph and younger brother John maintained their discipline through competitive pugilism, at first casually, and then – after taking to the ring as chubby pre-teens – with total conviction. “When I had my first fight, I was short and wide. Luckily, the other guy was even shorter and even wider,” Parker told the students of Mangere East Primary last week. “After that, I started to work as hard as I could, I ate healthy and I trained all the time. You can still eat burgers – just not every day.”

By 2009 Parker had spent almost ten years under the tutelage of trainer Grant Arkell in Papatoetoe, fighting in large gloves and near-comical headgear on the amateur scene. The chubby boy was becoming a heavily muscled man, and his technical growth was in close pursuit. In a breakout performance that year, Parker defeated super heavyweight champion Yamiko Chinula, a grown man nine years his senior, in a fight some insiders advised Parker’s coach not to take. But Arkell was confident: Parker was smooth, light on his feet for a big guy. He hit hard, fought smart and he was fast. Maybe the fastest around.

A year later, Joseph fought at the Commonwealth Championships in India, beating a highly ranked Pan-American fighter before losing the final to India’s Parmjeet Samota, darling child of the developing nation’s multi-million dollar investment into boxing.

Joseph was making all the right moves, winning the fights that mattered and progressing through the amateur ranks – essentially boxing’s apprenticeship scheme – but there just wasn’t a whole lot of money.

Almost every boxing champion in history has cut their teeth on the amateur scene. It’s the only way to get to the Olympics as a boxer, for one thing. Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, and David Tua all fought in one point in thick gloves and headgear, wearing bibbed singlets and getting paid absolutely nothing for their efforts.

Because there is no prize money in amateur boxing, athletes rely on sponsorship and government funding to compete on the world stage. Flights around the world aren’t cheap, and for working class families like the Parkers, sending their son to the far reaches of the Eurasian steppe is no small task.

In April 2010, when more than a hundred world class amateur boxers arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, for the AIBA Youth World Boxing Championships, most of them did so on the dollar of their respective governments. Parker’s ticket however was paid for in part by his coach Grant Arkell; a father and grandfather who eventually remained in New Zealand, unable to afford more than one flight to Eurasia.

And so, against foreign fighters surrounded by foreign fans in the capital of Azerbaijan, Parker entered the ring cornered by Australian stand-ins. He defeated his first opponent, a Turk, before losing 6-8 to a Croatian in the quarter-final. Parker took bronze, bringing home New Zealand’s only medal.

In October that year, Parker returned to India, this time to represent New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. However, after just one bout, he suffered defeat and returned home emptyhanded. Though he was awarded New Zealand Junior Pacific Sports Person of the Year in 2011, Parker ran into yet another obstacle in early 2012, one that would change the trajectory of his career forever. That obstacle was Uaine Fa Jr, and the Iron Giant would not be slain.

And so, with the prospect of four more years of unpaid amateur competition ahead of another Olympic campaign, Parker made the decision to go pro. Some people said he was rushed, that he wasn’t quite ready, but Parker spent more than a decade in the amateur ranks, earning hard fought victories over international Olympic contenders and future prizefighters alike.  And besides, as his fights thus far have shown, professional boxing is a different game. It’s faster, more violent. The headgear is gone, the shirts are off. Professional boxing rewards the puncher in ways that amateur boxing simply cannot, as Parker’s near 90% KO rate can attest to.

Joseph Parker was born into a boxing lineage and worked for almost a decade in the shadows, scrounging for airfare, fighting for free. Now on the professional circuit with all of the comforts that come with being a successful athlete, he is on the cusp of superstardom, riding 21 straight victories with 18 knockouts. One more win on Saturday will see him become the WBO heavyweight championship of the world.

Tomorrow: Don Rowe follows Team Parker as they prepare for Parker vs Takam – IBF title eliminator and the richest fight in New Zealand history.


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