Sports

Southside warrior: Four months inside Team Joseph Parker

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. Today we’re republishing ‘Inside Team Parker’, the 1972 magazine cover story on the boxer’s rise and rise.

Lupesoliai La’auli Joseph Parker is the greatest boxing hope New Zealand and Samoa have produced since David Tua. A humble and disciplined athlete with a gentle demeanour and a sledgehammer jab, he’s been in training ever since he could make a fist. But can he win a world championship title? Don Rowe spent four months embedded in Parker’s inner circle as he prepared for the most important fight of his career so far. Photos by Reagan Butler.

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After five rounds, Joseph Parker hit a wall. His hands, perhaps the fastest in heavyweight boxing, moved as if submerged. Every shuffle, half step and shimmy was executed with the lag of a satellite delay. Coming forward off the ropes, he grabbed at his opponent, grapevining his arms around the shorter man and driving his chest forward, anything to blunt the barrage of shots that threatened to knock the young champion to the floor for the first time in his career.

It was the moment Parker’s detractors had been waiting for. It’s too much too soon, they said. He was never worth the hype, another product of the pugilistic entertainment complex, churning out pay per view freakshows to the gullible, boxing-starved public.

A tangible pressure infused the crowd. The stakes had changed. Four years of work would be decided in the next half a minute. The suits ran all the way to the nosebleeds and not a punter was in their seat. Ringside, Parker’s corner were near apoplectic. “Chin down,” they screamed, willing their man to hold firm.

Here he comes. Carlos Takam surged forward, his dark skin glistening beneath the spotlights. He pressured the younger man, willing him to break, to freeze up, lose his composure and present his chin for a kill shot.

Backwards again, across the ring, Parker was forced to square up against the ropes, losing the potential torque of a bladed stance. France’s Carlos Takam was fighting for his career now. At 35 years old, his future in the sport hinged on felling the young champion before his friends and family.

Parker leaned forward at the waist, gloves against either ear, elbows tucked tight to block Takam’s hooking punches. His torso was blotched red with exertion and impact. An uppercut split his guard and Parker was looking at the roof. A left hook bounced off his forearm, and another. Takam was leaping into his shots now, throwing his hips forward and squeezing every ounce of kinetic energy from his body. Again Parker bent at the waist, looking to weave under a hook and move to safety, but another uppercut breached his defences.

Something had to give. Takam came forward with a left hook and the coup de grâce right hand, but he slipped and with him fell the momentum. The crowd were robbed of climax, but were happy for it. Everywhere, they looked at one another, exhaling with eyebrows raised. Parker’s assistant Bianca stood catatonic at ringside, eyes fixed on the ring and hands over mouth and nose. Parker laboured back to his corner and sat down heavily.

There were seven rounds left in the fight.

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Photo: Reagan Butler

A paradoxical figure of gentle speech and shocking knockout power, Joseph Parker is the undefeated fighting pride of Samoa and the greater Pacific community. The latest in a long tradition of Polynesian pugilists, he goes by the chiefly 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 thus far, but also his potential for maturity and mana as a man. It will be something Parker grows into. Something he lives up to.

With 20 wins, 17 knockouts, Parker is considered the number one ranked contender by both the International Boxing Federation and the World Boxing Organisation. The other sanctioning bodies that comprise the alphabet soup of boxing all have Parker within the top ten fighters in the world. Not since David Tua has a New Zealand fighter commanded the attention of the international market.

Like Tua, Parker has experienced success on the international amateur stage, and now inches ever closer to a world title shot of his own. But there’s a difference. As Colonel Bob Sheridan, a man who has called over 10,000 fights, including Ali’s greatest moments in Manila and the Congo, puts it: “This is the guy with the skills to go all the way.”

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.

“My dad has always loved boxing,” says Parker. “He always had a passion for the sport, but he couldn’t practise it himself, because he had an injury. When I was three or four, I started punching his hands and he started introducing me to video tapes of the champions of old. By the age of nine or ten, he took me and my little brother to the gym to start training.”

Sala Parker, matriarch of the Parker household, wasn’t so enthusiastic. “Every time we’d go overseas for holidays, Dempsey would go out and get gloves and punching bags and that sort of thing, instead of proper toys for kids. They grew up thinking ‘these are normal toys, we can play around with this stuff’, so it was in their skin from a young age.”

Like many Polynesian migrants to New Zealand, the Parkers put down roots in the fertile athletic breeding grounds of Mangere, South Auckland. For kids on the southside, there are typically several directions life can take, not all of them productive. In boxing, Dempsey and Sala saw a medium through which Joseph and younger brother John could learn both self discipline and self defence.

“When you live in South Auckland, you need all these physical skills to protect yourself,” Sala says. “So that was the initial intention, to get them to protect themselves. As life goes on, they got to like it, but I was very against boxing, knowing the history and what sort of damage it can do to you.”

By the time he was 12, Joseph was a regular at Grant Arkell’s boxing gym in Papatoetoe. “The first time I stepped into the gym, all I had was a feeling of excitement. I was excited to learn more about boxing, to be surrounded by other people who are trying to achieve what I was trying to achieve.

“I really liked boxing because of the focus that you had to have for the training. Not everyone can do it. Soon I started sparring, and with sparring there’s no one you can turn to for help. You’re in there by yourself. You have to be physically in the right shape and you have to be mentally strong at the same time.”

Mentally prepared for combat, Parker was nonetheless completely out of shape. Boxing requires a different sort of fitness to rugby or soccer. Champion athletes from the major sporting codes are routinely made to look like chainsmoking layabouts after a few minutes in the ring. Young Joseph Parker was hardly the cardio king.

“I had my first fight when I was 12. I was a short, fat boy at that time, but my opponent was shorter and fatter, which made me feel a lot better. It was a great feeling winning that fight.”

In all sports, you win some and you lose some. Them’s the breaks. Defeat in boxing, however, has the acrid taste of iron and blood. “My first loss was when I was 13. We travelled down to Rotorua as a family. I went down to a competition called the Golden Gloves and I lost. I was very emotional because my family had travelled all the way down and there were a few things along the way, a lot of trouble along the way…losing the fight and coming back to Auckland, I saw the disappointment in my dad’s eyes and that struck me.”

Losing wasn’t the end of the world, but losing because you were unprepared was not acceptable. “One day my husband was at work and I was the only one that took him to the tournament,” Salar recalls. “He got a blood nose and I was like “Oh, I don’t want to see this”. He was determined to get in the ring, but he was very unfit. So we came home and I said, ‘Would you like to carry on with this sport, son?’ He said he would like to, so I said, “Okay, I don’t want to see that again — bloody noses or whatever. Let me give you a challenge: If you want to carry on, let me know now, otherwise do another sport.

“He said “I want to carry on” and I said “So what do you need to do?”

“Oh I need to train hard.”

“Then do it! Or otherwise quit and get into netball or something else.”

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Photo: Reagan Butler

By 2009, Parker had spent almost ten years under the tutelage of trainer Grant Arkell in Papatoetoe, fighting in large gloves and 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.

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 Paramjeet Samota, darling child of the developing nation’s multi-million dollar investment into amateur boxing.

Parker was making all the right moves, winning the fights that mattered and progressing through the amateur ranks, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of money. “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.”

Funding from the government was scant, too. “I can’t recall a single time the government paid for anything,” says Sala. “My husband’s visa was shot out the roof because we had to arrange trips, pay for sports gear, pay for shoes which were very expensive, we had to provide all that with the very little income we had. “

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. For working class families like the Parkers, sending their son to the far reaches of the Eurasian steppe required sacrifice.

“Early in my career as an amateur, it was very hard to travel the world to different tournaments because we didn’t have the money and New Zealand boxing didn’t have the funding to send us. So my parents supported me by taking out loans and paying for all my travel, for my accommodation and my food. At the end of the year they had a $6000, $7000 loan with the bank.”

In April 2010, when more than 100 world class amateur boxers arrived in Baku for the AIBA Youth World Boxing Championships, most of them did so on the dollar of their respective governments. Parker’s ticket was paid for in part by his coach, Grant Arkell, who remained in New Zealand, unable to afford more than one flight to Azerbaijan.

And so, surrounded by foreign fans, 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 home bronze, New Zealand’s only medal.

“It would really break our hearts,” says Sala. “We trusted him. Around home, he could always manage himself. He was a very, very organised person. I wouldn’t have to iron his shirts, I wouldn’t have to clean his shoes. He did it all. It gave us the confidence that he would be able to look after himself. But still, we needed to be there. In a foreign country, when it comes to sport, your own country will cheer for you, but for Joseph, there was just a small voice. Our hearts were crying out. We wanted to be there, but hey, we couldn’t afford accommodation and airfare, and so it was only our trust and our faith that went with him.”

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

Faced with four more years of unpaid amateur competition ahead of another Olympic campaign, Parker made the decision to go pro. Some said he was rushed, that he wasn’t 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, 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, the heavyweight championship of the world is within reach.

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Photo: Reagan Butler

After six rounds of pad work, training was called off.

Now in the last stretch of a 12 week training camp, Olympic medalist Kevin Barry and his charge had been working three minute rounds with quiet intensity and focus. The young heavyweight was working steadily, throwing shots to Barry’s padded body and right hands over the top. A blue Under Armour shirt clung moist to his mountainous shoulders, every movement a branding money shot. Parker was tightly coiled, throwing hard but pulling his punches at the last second, missing the audible snap indicative of a perfectly placed shot.

The pair moved constantly, treading the same circles they have orbited around one another over the past four years, endless kilometres of circling, shuffling and jabbing. Joseph’s brother John stood ringside, towel and water in hand, watching intently.

Parker worked his jab, flicking his left hand forward, more speed than power, exploding at the last second before impact. He sat deep on his right hands, generating torque as his weight shifted across his body and onto his front foot. Barry has crafted Parker’s right hand into a particularly formidable weapon during their time together.

The pair barely rest between rounds, always talking, faking, feinting, analysing. Disciplined and tight, Parker’s shoulders were high, hands up near his chin. Ten days out from the fight of his life, Joseph Parker was simply honing the skills he’d learned over the past four years.

When they stopped, it was a collective unvoiced decision to call it quits. After nearly half a decade of work, three times a day, six days a week, the team knows when things are firing and when they aren’t. Barry and Parker operate on trust and there’s no time for mincing words.

“Three years ago when Kev picked me up to go back to Vegas, he made it clear we’ve got to be very honest with each other,” Parker says. “Kev said that this would only work if we’re honest about everything, including things like training.”

Sir Bob Jones, Parker’s former financier, was the first to approach Kevin Barry. With the 2012 Olympics approaching, Sir Jones saw the value in engaging a trainer with several champion boxers under his belt. But Parker never made it to London, eliminated from contention in Canberra by old rival Junior Fa, and the deal fell through. When Sir Jones cut ties with Parker in early 2013, ostensibly unhappy with the opponents selected by promoter Duco Events, co-director Dean Lonergan looked to engage Barry’s services once more.

But convincing Barry was only half of the equation, because Barry had worked with another Samoan fighter, a relationship that had taken the pair to the top of the world, but ended in disaster, and with both names dragged through the media in a messy financial dispute.

“It was never in our mind that Joseph would train with Kevin,” says Sala. “The Tua case was still raw at the time, and we thought, ‘We’ve heard a lot of things, how can we offer our son to a person that has a tarnished name already?’ But we had no idea about the full story. All we heard was what was on the news, and now and then other stuff from people in the community.

“But Kevin came to our house. That was the very first time we met him, and he came with a map of his house and everything, and said ‘This is where Joseph will stay, and we’re going to build this relationship on trust,’

We said to Joseph ’go for a trial’, because Joseph is a person that speaks his mind. If he likes you, he’ll let you know. If he doesn’t, he’ll let you know. Kevin promised that he would look after Joseph just like his own son. And he does.”

Three years later, Parker says Barry is like a father. And Dad knows best.

“It’s the bloody media obligations,” Barry said, stuffing focus mitts and sodden handwraps into a well worn travel bag.

As part of a two week media whirlwind, Parker had spent the morning filming a commercial for Tourism Auckland to play ahead of his next bout against French contender Carlos Takam. It was a demanding shoot, requiring skills one wouldn’t normally associate with those required in a champion fighter.

“All that shit gets in the way,” says Barry. “Joseph wants to say the right thing, he wants to show how he’s developed, show he knows what he’s talking about and that he can articulate it well. All of that takes energy that I need from him in the gym.”

Parker himself seemed unfazed, as he always does, skipping rope and rapping to an OT Genasis track playing throughout the gym. Your price is way too high, you need to cut iiit.

From ringside, John gazed up at a huge mural of Muhammad Ali in white. “Hey, who do you reckon is faster, Joe or Ali?”

Hidden inside an inconspicuous fibre optics company in industrial South Auckland, the gym is completely invisible from the road. Behind three doors and past a seven-foot robot sculpture, it’s a simple but modern affair: one ring, some weights, a row of bags, a round timer and some mirrors. The greatest fighters of all time watch from the walls. Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and even Kevin Barry’s old rival Evander Holyfield stare out from posters promoting fights from an age of heavyweight boxing long gone.

The gym is owned by Mike Edwards, who looked on from a folding chair beside the ring. “If I’d have known you were going to play this rap rubbish, I’d never have let you connect your phone,” he told Parker.

“Hey, we always train with music,” Parker countered.

Behind Edwards, a wall was dedicated to more local champions: David Tua, Shane Cameron, and myriad shots of Joseph, increasingly more muscular and mature, each photo a little closer to manhood.

Parker has finished camp here for the last three years. It’s a sanctuary away from the circus outside, a space solely dedicated to putting the final edge on his skill-set.

In the final days of May, Parker made his way to Mike’s Gym around the same time every morning, weaving through swarms of trade vans drawn like moths to the glow of the V-branded bakery next door. Joseph always drove, huge even in the captain’s seat of a blacked-out Chrysler. He spent a lot of time in that car, pulled in every direction by obligations with everyone from Burger King to Jono and Ben.

“The Takam fight was the biggest of my career so far, so we had a lot more media coverage,” says Parker. “I had a lot more things to do. The higher you get in the sport, the more you have to do, and it just comes with the territory.”

The day he arrived in New Zealand, Parker went directly from the airport to the gym, worked out for 14 rounds, then shot across town to arrive at Barkers’ flagship store on Auckland’s High Street, parking the car himself. Parker was there for a suit fitting. The increased media obligations merited a new look. Out with the tracksuits and in with the fitted suits. “When I look good, I feel good. And when I feel good, I do good,” he grins.

Joseph was affable, calling Kevin ‘Dad’ and his assistant Bianca, ‘Mum’. While he was measured and fitted, however, Barry took control of the situation, standing close and maintaining eye contact. It’s an assertive style, one evident throughout fight week when he consistently front-footed the circling press.

His breath smells of gum, and both himself and his son chew voraciously. “When did you start writing?” he asked me. “Who publishes you? What website do you work for? What was your involvement in fight sports? What sort of access do you think you’re getting? 60 Minutes wanted to do a special, following around for the last two weeks of camp. I told them it’s not happening.”

When Kevin Barry says no, he means no — unless the person asking is Sala Parker. And so it was that on a rainy afternoon several days later, Joseph Parker was welcomed on to Mangere East Primary School in South Auckland. The hall was packed with hundreds of children performing a haka as Joseph and John made their way through the crowd to the front of the hall.

“Joseph Parker, our Champion and Future Champion of the World,” read a banner. After a short speech, the “Toa o te Ao” (champion of the world) was seated in the Lucky Ducky chair, a rainbow seat adorned with yellow ducks, and plied with questions on everything from training routines to the possibility of a Trump candidacy – easily the most difficult curveball in two weeks of press.

“I visit a school every time I come back,” Parker tells me later. “It feels good that the kids are there because they want to see me, rather than just being at a press conference because it’s their job. It’s great to have the opportunity to be there, to try to inspire or motivate the kids. If the message gets to even one of them, if you can inspire or motivate even one of them, then you’ve done your job.”

As much as he loves it, however, every event takes energy away from training, already difficult after a gruelling camp. Leaving the school, Parker waded through a tide of kids grabbing at their hero. His Chrysler, engine running, was swarmed, with kids reaching and clambering and struggling to touch the prizefighter. He drove slowly but inexorably towards the gate, shaking hands, taking selfies, stopping the occasional kid from climbing through the window. It was a hero’s farewell.

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Joseph Parker. Portrait: Reagan Butler

A low hum filled the air as an Air New Zealand 747 descended through the drizzle towards Auckland International Airport. Far below, in grey Papatoetoe, the plastic booths of an otherwise unremarkable fast food joint were crammed with cameras, microphones, sound booms, technicians, producers and journalists. A confused Asian family chewed warily at a distant table.

Financing a military campaign has always posed a challenge to logisticians and Parker’s road to the title is no different.

But sponsorship comes with compromises, and seemingly strange decisions like holding a press conference in a Burger King come to seem entirely reasonable. Still, there was no denying the absurdity of the moment as Parker’s black Chrysler arrived outside.

“Quite a few times, his promoters have said, ‘Can we get Joseph to do this act, and to do this line?’,” says Sala. “I said, ‘That’s not Joseph, and you can’t make Joseph a person he’s not.’”

“About two years ago Joseph came to us and said that he regrets the whole thing. He doesn’t want to be in the media or on TV or in interviews, and he doesn’t like the word ‘celebrity’ or being popular. In the end, though, he decided to do it for his own future, and to help us out. But to be a celebrity or in front of the camera wasn’t ever his intention.”

In the past four years, Parker has gone from boy to man in the public eye, his media skills improving alongside his boxing. But, as in his early fights, there have been obvious deficiencies in his performance before the cameras.

“In the beginning, when I was talking with the media, I wasn’t very confident and I didn’t have a lot to say. They would ask questions and I would be very shy. I wouldn’t say a lot. Now that I’ve grown into the person that I am today, I think I’ve improved in the boxing side of things but also in the media.

Kevin taught me a lot about dealing with the media. One of the things he said, which stood out, was just to be myself. He said ’Nobody knows more about you than yourself, nobody can talk about you better than yourself, so when you’re speaking to people about yourself you should be confident, because you know best.’”
Barry nonetheless still acts as a filter, monitoring the questions Parker is faced with. In a room where every ear is tuned towards soundbites to be captured, processed and used as catalysts for controversy, Barry makes sure that there’s no silly business, no gotchas.

One slipped through the gaps at Burger King, however. Comedian Guy Williams, staying on brand with an awkward cringe-humour, took the opportunity to place a takeaway order. “I’d just like to ask the fighters, um, can I have a Whopper combo?”

Takam, a man who has fought for serious cheques on the most polished promotions in the world, looked as though he’d been told the fight would take place in fat suits with novelty gloves. Arms crossed, his biceps threatened to tear through a thin cardigan. His clenching jaw sent ripples across his bald head. It marked the beginning of a rapid and considerable shift in his attitude towards the media.

After a couple of seconds Parker took the mic, replying, “What, to the face?” There was grateful laughter from the press, no longer squirming with vicarious embarrassment, but a sense of the absurdity of the situation persisted.

On a tip-off from an industry insider, Takam was asked about his time sparring with Parker’s rival Junior Fa – a supposed secret. There was no need for translation. Takam was finished speaking with the press, and he would maintain his silence, even at the weigh-in several days later.

“Takam won’t be talking to media,” Duco’s media manager Craig Stanaway announced with a pointed expression. “It’s usual to talk to media, Joe will do five minutes, but not Takam. So…take that as you will.”

It wasn’t just the press Takam was sick of. Backstage, while Sky Arena attempted to film a promo, he was still surly, shaking his head when given directions and generally refusing to play the game. It was clear he felt as though he was being treated like a joke, and fair enough. Perhaps jaded by Duco’s occasionally less-than-competitive matchmaking — a necessary part of building a boxing contender — the press and public of New Zealand had been treating the fight like a foregone conclusion.

But amongst Parker’s camp, and among those with a comprehensive understanding of boxing, it was clear that Takam was in New Zealand for one reason, and it was to ruin the party for Parker and the boxing faithful.

“If there’s an underdog in this fight,” Barry told the press time and again, “it’s not Takam.”

When Joseph Parker arrives in New Zealand, he’s met at the airport by Sala, Dempsey, John and sister Elizabeth. “Mum always brings raw fish and kumara” he says. “I eat salmon in Vegas, but it’s not the same.”

The Parkers eat and pray together in the dining room of their Mangere home. In the lounge, a life-sized cut-out of Parker looks at walls covered in a lifetime of Parker family achievement. Interspersed with pictures of Christ are those of John, Elizabeth, Dempsey, Sala. A framed certificate from the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration confirms Joseph’s chiefly title. One wall is dominated by an impossibly huge flatscreen. “Joseph decided we needed it to watch him fight,” Sala explains. “When Joseph arrives, he comes home, we say grace, and thank God that he’s come home to us in peace, and sound. That’s our family routine.”

After dinner, Joseph and John take up residence in the five star Pullman Hotel in central Auckland.

“John is my right hand man,” Joseph says, of his brother. “He’s my best friend. When I’m back in New Zealand, John moves into the Pullman, and he does everything for me. Anything I need, ‘John, can I please have some ice’, he’ll go get me ice. He’s my righthand man. Without John, everything would be more difficult and a lot more stressful.” Regardless, John still gets the fold-out bed.

Around twilight on the night of the Takam fight, I knocked on the door of room 825 and was greeted by a Team Parker shirt holding a GoPro. Inside, Parker and a crew of seven were gathered in front of a flatscreen, the latest Street Fighter illuminating the room with an anime glow.

Boxes of water and Gatorade were piled against the walls. Everywhere, there were Musclepharm products with their lime green logo, clothes, and G-shock watches. There were suits, shirts, ties and shoes, but Parker wore a Blues singlet. We could have been in the lounge of someone’s flat.

Parker handed me a controller, and the game began. Street Fighter, Ken vs Ryu. Joseph took round one easily. I came back for round two, as Ryu. As the tie-breaker began, I considered whether I should throw the match. For all the talk of hard work in the gym and the inevitability of victory, I don’t want to mess with the juice. Boxing is won and lost in the intangibles.

Dinner arrived on a trolly: plate upon plate of broccoli and chicken pasta, a fight day tradition. The food is offered around and the boys tuck on in, as though they must all perform. Room service is surely familiar to this room by now.

Joseph is constantly changing the music, adjusting the tunes for his mood, and generally vibing. A big dude in sunglasses walks around GoPro-ing everything, and the boys maintain a Periscope feed for the world. Parker takes the GoPro and dances around, rapping with it.

As Parker fishes in a suitcase, a friend offers a prediction: ‘Third round knockout brother, and Anthony Joshua runs scared.”

Parker ignores him, coming up with a black leather vest and matching shorts – his uniform for tonight’s assignment.

“See this, bro?” he asks “Heaps of snakes. Killed ‘em all with my teeth like argh.”

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Photo: Reagan Butler

Behind two police cars, a white stretch limousine glided across the parking lot of the Vodafone Events Centre. The driver, impeccable in black, strode to the rear door on the righthand side, opened it with an almost imperceptible flourish, and ushered an anonymous man in a suit onto the pavement. The real movers and shakers in New Zealand aren’t household names.

Inside, more familiar faces milled about the corporate tables. Max Key sat on his phone, dyed blonde hair combed back like Draco Malfoy. Sporting legends shared Heineken and bread rolls with reality stars, while outside, the great unwashed queued patiently. Joseph Parker’s fights have never been promoted on the strength of their undercard, but even now, the first of the suits were taking their seats.

Backstage there was food too. “Cheese and tomato,” said John, inspecting the contents of a sandwich. “We’ve made it!”

Despite the harsh fluorescent light, Parker’s changing room had the feeling of a house party. Above the banter of the hotel crew, the same hiphop soundtrack pounded from a portable stereo: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, OT Genasis and The Game.

A row of belts, the story of Parker’s career made material, sat along a bench. The halogen reflected off their gilded straps. WBA, WBO Africa, WBA Oceania, WBO Oriental, WBA Pan Asia, Eurasia Pacific. A title for every day of the week. Parker himself was relaxed, dancing, throwing combinations at the air and singing to the world via Periscope.

Around 8.30, he slipped into a side room with Barry to wrap his hands, the first sign that things were kicking off. There are 27 bones in the human hand, and a boxer with Parker’s power could shatter them all, should he punch with a naked fist. It’s imperative that they be wrapped with all the care of a samurai oiling his sword. Every trainer has their own method of preparing a fighter’s hands, but the principles remain the same: using tape, gauze and cotton padding, the bones of the wrist, the metacarpals, and the knuckles are pulled together, strapped and reinforced. The wrapped hand undergoes a metamorphosis from dexterous appendage to thumping club.

At 8.50, representatives of the sanctioning body officials arrived to check the first stages of the wrap. It seems redundant and paranoid, until one considers boxers that can and do tamper with their wraps, sometimes going as far as to lace them with Plaster of Paris which, when hydrated by the sweat produced by a fighter’s hand, hardens and forms a vicious weapon.

Five minutes later, representatives of the International Boxing Federation arrived, followed shortly by the ringside doctor.

By 9pm, Parker’s hands were wrapped. The mood had shifted, not towards melancholy, apprehension or dread, but a sense of the impending bout, as if the fight was casting an echo back in time, a magnetic force pulling the fighters together. Joe picked up the shadowboxing now, punching with authority, focusing in on a projected target. Satisfied, he sat, eyes shut, and opened a muesli bar.

Parker’s repose was interrupted when the officials burst again through the door. Takam’s camp had expressed concerns around the manner in which Parker’s hands were wrapped, and the officials were obliged to mediate. As he had with the press, Barry took the initiative and talked the harangued suits down.

“Here, he can use some of the tape, too,” he said. “You want to give some to him? Bring him in here. He can sign them himself, if he wants.”
Instead, they left and returned with Takam’s manager. The balding French suit inspected the tape, looked briefly at Parker’s hands and pleaded acquiescence with upraised palms and a French shrug.

“I think this guy will give us grief after the fight,” Kevin said, as he left. “As soon as we get back, nobody is allowed in. I don’t give a fuck who they are.”
At 10pm, Joseph changed into his black boxing shoes, followed by his shorts and vest at 10.05. Joseph’s cutman made his final preparations, checking over his kit: adrenaline, vaseline, ice, cotton swabs and water.

A knock on the door at 10.08 admitted former All Black Ali Williams, one of the few guys around who was bigger than Joe. Two corporate types swung by with their wives for photos a few minutes later.

At 10.11, the shadowboxing picks up again. Parker is moving faster, snapping his shots a little more. Nobody watches the TV now, nobody cares.

Kevin and his son and assistant Taylor work over the gloves, pushing the padding away to expose the knuckle, stretching the glove out, loosening the strings. Once on, they won’t come off again until his future in boxing is decided.

“Every time this guy steps, we hit him.” says Kevin. His eyes are flashing, chin forward and posture set. This is his changing room, and he’s setting the mood. The music, however, is up to Parker. “Chuck some Yeezy on”.

Dempsey Parker arrives at 10.20 as JP starts to hit the pads.

“Body, body, body. Break this bastard down. Work off the double jab.”

Parker is sweating now. “Put some Kendrick on,” he tells John between breaths.

Pop, Parker hits a jab. Pop, bang as the right hand follows close behind. Pop, bang, whack as Parker throws to the head, the body and the head once more. Kevin is picking up the pace now. The floor beneath the pair is speckled like the first rain on concrete.

Wham, Parker finishes on a sledgehammer of an overhand right, the slam deafening in the small changing room. “Yes JP, there we go baby.”

The team comes together to pray. They pray that Parker might find success, that he comes through unscathed, and that God lends his protection. They thank God, for today and tomorrow. I’m drawn into the circle of arms, too. Nobody is allowed to disturb the juice. On Amen, the room starts to move. Drake’s “0 to 100” begins to blast.

Parker’s belts are handed out – “Not upside down this time!” – and even Kevin is feeling the beats. “This guy can’t box with you, Joseph.”

Four knocks on the door, and we’re off.

*

“We lost that round.”

Some coaches lie, valuing morale over perspective. But Kevin and Joseph’s relationship is built on trust. Barry was unequivocal. Round five was Takam’s. The next round would set the tone of the fight.

“Don’t stand there, Joe, all right? Stay low, keep off the ropes. I need you to box.”

If, at that moment, the prime minister of New Zealand had ziplined across the Vodafone Events Centre in nothing but his socks, not a person in the building would have noticed. All eyes were trained on Parker. What had a gulp of water and one minute on the stool done to replenish Parker’s depleted gas tank? Could he reach a second wind, so crucial over the championship rounds?

The bell rings and Takam walks Parker back into his corner. Parker is squared up again, but now he’s varying his punches, going low and high, low again, faster than Takam can react. Parker throws a jab, setting the scene for an uppercut, a crunching body shot, another soft jab. Takam can’t judge which shots are coming hard until it’s too late.

By round seven, Parker has a different intensity. Leaning forward, he has eagle eyes – the closest one sees him to anger. Slick now on defence, he pulls his right shoulder back, tucking his chin behind his raised left deltoid in a shoulder roll. He’s showing Takam a few different looks now, faking him out and making him cautious.

Eight rounds, almost 25 minutes of boxing. Takam lands first one then another big uppercut. “Chin down!” Taylor screams from the corner. Parker offers a decoy left hook then barrels a right straight down the tube. Takam wobbles, the concussive blow scrambling his brain’s desperate signals.

Parker throws again and again, high and low, straight and hooking, 26 punches without pause. The crowd roars. Takam wobbles but doesn’t go down. He backs off and Joseph exhales hard. Every man Parker has encountered thus far would be a puddle in the centre of the ring by now, but Takam is still coming on. It doesn’t matter. The final three rounds are an exercise in resilience, and boxing smarts.

“Too quick, too strong,” I said to Parker backstage.

“Too happy,” he replied, examining the swollen knuckles of his right hand.

For the next several hours, Parker would field congratulations from three All Blacks, most of the Warriors, Evander Holyfield and even the gypsy king, Tyson Fury. He would issue his own message, too, a forced and awkward call-out of IBF heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, which Joshua dismissed immediately. “I think he was put up to that. I don’t think that came from him. I didn’t feel no passion, I didn’t feel his heart in that.”

Compared to the Takam fight, Parker’s next bout in Christchurch two months later felt more like a glorified sparring match. Of course every man has a puncher’s chance, and a fighter with 21 knockouts has more than most. But as Solomon Haumono, a 40 year old former professional league player fell to the floor in the fourth, Parker looked almost disappointed.

Ringside, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, Samoa’s prime minister of 18 years, was pleased.

“It’s good, very good,” he told me, as the victor was announced. “We are very proud.”

But Kevin Barry was less impressed.

“How was that?” I asked as he left the ring.

“Well, it was a good knockout.” And it was. Throwing a hybrid hook/uppercut known as a shovel punch, Parker dropped Haumono with a single concussive blow. But holes remained. Parker has a tendency to raise his chin, forgivable against an inferior fighter, but something those at the top of the world will look to exploit, violently. If Haumono can touch his whiskers, Anthony Joshua can certainly do the same. What differs is the consequence.

Everything must be tailored now to Joshua, IBF champion of the world and the face to Tyson Fury’s heel. At 24, Parker has youth on his side — former Ukrainian champion Wladimir Klitschko held the heavyweight strap until he was 40 — but a deadline of a different kind looms. As the mandatory challenger, Parker is guaranteed a shot at the belt between November and January 2017. Haumono, while a lesser challenge than Takam, showed there is still work to be done.

Parker is slated to fight again in October, taking on the 6”7 German, Alexander Dimitrenko, a dry run for the inevitable match-up with AJ.

Beyond that, the politics of boxing are murky. It will be up to Duco to negotiate with Joshua’s manager, Eddie Hearn. Who knows when the fight will materialise. But to Parker, it’s a done deal.

“One year from today,” he says. “Joseph Parker will be champion of the world, and a very happy man.”

Read FIGHT WEEK part one, a chronicle of Parker’s amateur experience and transition to the professional prizefighting ranks, and part two, following Team Parker as they prepare for the May 2016 Parker vs Takam fight, IBF eliminator and richest prizefight in New Zealand history.


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