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Joseph Parker, film star
Joseph Parker, film star

Pop CultureMay 18, 2020

On set with New Zealand’s hottest lockdown filmmaker, Joseph Parker

Joseph Parker, film star
Joseph Parker, film star

With the possible exception of Sam Neill, no New Zealander personality has been pumping out the Covideo content quite like heavyweight boxer Joseph Parker. Patrick McKendry joins him to talk viral content and boxing.

Joseph Parker is celebrating the easing of New Zealand’s strict coronavirus lockdown regulations by walking up the long driveway of his parents’ home in Mangere with Joe Esposito’s song made famous by 1984 film The Karate Kid sounding from the phone in his pocket.

Here he is singing a line from a tinny synthpop tune that couldn’t be more 80s if it turned up in neon leggings, as his friend and collaborator Kerry Russell films the action.

“History repeats itself, try and you’ll succeed.”

Another Parker/Russell lockdown video is on its way. Within a few hours, their take on the inspirational movie in which the underdog defies the odds – featuring a cameo from Parker’s dad Dempsey as the sage instructor Mr Miyagi – would be published on Parker’s increasingly popular social media channels.

It’s just the latest high-cheese, high-production-value video released by the New Zealand heavyweight boxer that has provided millions with an a humorous distraction from the grim reality of a pandemic.

The Karate Kid is the latest of a list of classics to which Parker and Russell have paid homage over the last couple of months. It began with Parker copying Hugh Grant’s famous dance scene in Love, Actually, and has included musicals Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and comedies Stepbrothers and Anchorman.

Kerry Russell, Dempsey Parker and Joseph Parker in action. Photo: Patrick McKendry

The pair have conscripted others, including heavyweight champion Tyson Fury – the most eager participant – famous ring announcer Michael Buffer, promoter Eddie Hearn, Kiwi league player Shaun Johnson, All Black Ardie Savea and car racer Scott Dixon.

The Love, Actually video is the most popular and has been viewed more than 1 million times. It has prompted interview requests from around the world, including from the BBC, and they haven’t stopped. Parker’s sister, Elizabeth, attempts to coordinate them.

Currently he is fulfilling an interview or podcast request at a rate of one or two a day, a triumph of self-promotion for a 28-year-old former world champion who was in danger of fading into the background of the division after a difficult last couple of years during which high-quality opponents have been hard to find. After his first video he picked up about 6,000 followers on Twitter in a couple of hours.

The videos have become increasingly complex – Parker plays multiple characters in Back to the Future and also Stepbrothers and Anchorman, the latter two with the added difficulty of a split-screen camera-editing trick (in other words, he plays all the characters in the scene at the same time). The Stepbrothers clip, made more difficult by the changeable weather conditions, was shot with a $500 GoPro. In Anchorman the suits and facial hair are all Parker’s – he and Russell took delight in reading a description of a “Hollywood-style” fake moustache in one piece.

That they are of such high quality and churned out at such a quick rate (and so popular) is a testament to Parker’s acting skills, Russell’s creative thinking, camera-work and editing ability, and their determination that doing something during lockdown was far better than doing nothing. If you can entertain while doing so, then so much the better.

As Parker wraps his hands in preparation for punching a bag for the first time since before his most recent fight against American Shawndell Winters in Texas in late February, I ask him about the attention the videos have received.

“It’s surprising because we didn’t expect the reaction and it’s funny because this is getting more attention than some of my fights,” he says.

“The reaction has been very positive. Because of what we’re going through, we’re just trying to have some fun. At the start [of the pandemic], as Kerry says, funny people were actually being serious – you know, ‘stay indoors’, and we just wanted to do something that’s a bit different; to tell everyone to stay indoors, but to be positive, even though it’s hard.”

Parker freely admits Russell, who has covered Parker in a news sense as a producer and camera operator since the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and more recently has worked with him on a personal level to increase his profile on social media, is the ideas man.

Russell was the only outsider in Parker’s bubble, which includes partner Laine and their three young daughters Elizabeth, Shiloh and Michaela, during lockdown and brought groceries and supplies along with his camera and a little inspiration. Laine, who plays herself with a strait-laced intensity, and the girls have also featured in the videos.

Parker, who has never watched Love, Actually, was initially hesitant at Russell’s suggestion he mimic Hugh Grant’s hapless dancing British prime minister. “He sent me the clip and said ‘watch this’. A day went past… I eventually watched and went ‘hmm’.”

Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to make a fool of himself but decided to trust Russell and do it anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? The results speak for themselves.

“Oh mate, he’s awesome,” Russell said. “I’ve spent 20 years working with New Zealand’s top athletes and none of them come close. Joe is just relaxed, genuine, funny and honest.”

How important is that chemistry between the pair? “It’s very important because we understand each other and I can just relax and be myself,” Parker says. “If you’re working with someone you’ve never worked with there could be a wall – you probably couldn’t relax.

“He just tells me what to do and I try to do it. Sometimes I reckon I nail it and he wants me to do it all over again just for a laugh.

“He slapped my face in Back to the Future. He did that three or four times and it got harder each time.

“It’s hard for other athletes and people we ask to send in their videos because they’re not sure what they’re getting themselves into. But after they see them they know Kerry does a good job and they trust us. Tyson was probably easiest to deal with – he’s the most famous out of the lot and sent both his videos back the next day.”

I put it to Parker that all elite boxers must play roles to some extent and therefore they must all be good actors. Heavyweights in particular are invariably charismatic – and Parker is certainly that – but they must deceive in the days leading up to a fight, and during the fight itself.

Once in the ring they must deceive their opponent and even occasionally themselves. Am I hurt? No. Tired? No. Losing? No.

“I can understand that,” Parker says. “We are pretty good actors. If you are sore or maybe it hasn’t been the best camp, you must act confidently no matter what. Everything must appear perfect, spot on. There must never be problems.

“The press conference is where you try to get the edge. You must be the macho guy, the alpha. The reality is, in a fight, even if you’re winning, you still feel tired and sore. But you must tell yourself ‘no, you’re fine’.”

As far as practice goes, “I was always acting at home – making my parents feel sorry for me,” he says.

Dempsey and mum Sala didn’t exactly confirm that to me, although Sala did say her son was a natural at many things. He is also a self-taught musician – a dab hand at the piano and guitar.

“What we’ve done has brought out what I’m really like,” Parker says. “I always wanted to try acting, but I never knew how to get there. This is a little taste.”

It is the start of what might be a potential new career once Parker hangs up the gloves. He has been a professional boxer since 2012 and has earned millions after winning the WBO world championship when edging Andy Ruiz Jr on points in Auckland in late 2016. He lost his belt two years later against Anthony Joshua in Cardiff.

Parker reckons he has another three or four years in him before he tries something else and the celluloid success of professional wrestlers Dwayne Johnson, John Cena and Roman Reigns has not gone unnoticed. Could Parker be New Zealand’s next heavyweight actor? He certainly appears to have an ally in Kiwi director Taika Waititi, who posted recently after watching Parker and others enter the time warp: “OMG Joey you legend. I keep missing out LOL.”

There may be fewer videos now that Parker can train fully again in preparation for his next fight which might happen in Auckland as soon as August. Manager David Higgins has publicly floated the names of Australians Lucas Browne and Demsey McKean as possibilities as New Zealand edges towards expanding into a trans-Tasman bubble.

Every boxing career is undertaken in a rapidly closing window due to the risks involved. Does Parker feel as if his has been put on hold over the last couple of months?

“Not really because everyone else is on hold too. The videos have been great in terms of distractions but I’ve also been training every day. Even though I haven’t been punching a bag, I’ve been running, doing weights, shadow boxing. I’ve only put on about 3kg. If a fight comes up I know I’ll be ready, I’ll be in shape.

“If they make the Browne fight happen… I think they’re looking for the best opponent on this side of the world. If they could find someone like Dillian Whyte in the UK or someone from America who is highly ranked I’d love it. But I don’t think we can. If that’s the only option then I’ll have to settle for that, but I still want to fight the best in the world. It’s better to have a fight than just sit still and do nothing. If David and my promoters Matchroom can make the fight I’ll take it. I’ll knock out Lucas Browne and move on to the next one.”

As ever, Parker is preparing for opportunities. And the lockdown may have prepared him for another one.

Either way, dad Dempsey’s line in Parker’s latest creation may apply. “Never doubt that you’re the one and you can have your dream.”

Keep going!