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Joseph Parker at a training session in 2017. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Joseph Parker at a training session in 2017. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

OPINIONSportsOctober 17, 2021

The journalist and the boxer

Joseph Parker at a training session in 2017. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Joseph Parker at a training session in 2017. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Patrick McKendry on boxing, writing, and an unlikely friendship with Joseph Parker.

This essay was first published in Dylan Cleaver’s newsletter The Bounce. Subscribe here.

One of the best books I’ve read was written by José Torres, a light heavyweight born in Puerto Rico who won silver at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and went on to become a world champion.

Torres knew boxing and he knew people – I’m talking both the movers and shakers in the game and the human condition, although the sport has traditionally been full of philosophers and deep thinkers. His trainer, for example, was the wise Cus D’Amato, the legendary coach who moulded and essentially brought up Mike Tyson.

Torres was close friends with Muhammad Ali and writer Norman Mailer, two giants of the sport in their own way, and his 1971 biography of Ali, Sting Like a Bee, which Mailer wrote a preface for, puts one about as close to Ali and the unique physical, mental and emotional challenges of the professional sport as one can get.

I read Sting Like a Bee years ago and, aside from Torres’ abundant gifts of insight and the clarity and urgency of his writing, one thing in particular has stayed with me: his recommendation that one should never get too close to a professional heavyweight boxer. Certainly, one should never become close friends with one because the collateral damage of the most brutal of sports will reach you, even if you are well beyond arm’s reach of the ring.

Torres knew too well the pain and anguish suffered by professional boxers. He knew, too, that the danger is magnified among the big men of the sport; the one-punch concussive power that those among the elite of the heavyweight division carry. That heightens the risk, the pain, the anguish.

It also combines to provide a special fascination for fans – casual and otherwise – and when the ingredients are right and the stakes are highest, it can combine to produce some of the greatest sporting drama ever seen.

And yet it can be difficult to follow Torres’ advice, as he himself would have admitted before his death more than a decade ago.

In Sting Like a Bee there is an epilogue written by Budd Schulberg, the late screenwriter, novelist and sports writer, which rightly states that while writers are drawn to prizefighters because of the many stories inherent within a night, a week, a career, the reverse is often also true. There is a pragmatism involved, of course, because it is incumbent upon the fighters to sell a part or at least a version of themselves in order to sell tickets or pay-per-views, but Schulberg believed there was something more besides.

“It is easy for writers and fighters to establish a common meeting ground,” he wrote, arguing that both careers required self-sufficiency and independence. “Both must draw on their innermost resources and create from their personal experiences something that is not only entertaining but meaningful and winning in the deepest sense.”

Most fighters understand the lot of the writer; that he or she must write fairly and occasionally portray the subject in a less than flattering light. It’s just part of the game. For whatever reason, it’s a reality that players from team sports are less likely to grasp. (Incidentally, it also appears difficult for a new wave of MMA fighters to understand, including those from these shores.)

Muhammad Ali lies on the massage table in his dressing room as Norman Mailer and Don King chat. (photo by nik wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images)

Moreover, while boxing can produce the most entertaining of spectacles and paint a picture of the human spirit elevated and magnified, so too can the best writing about boxing. In Mailer’s The Fight, an always hyperbolic and often self-indulgent but, above all, brilliantly inspired book published a year after the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Ali and George Foreman in the country then known as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the author put himself in the middle of the action because, well, he could.

The access granted him by both fighters allowed that, but it was normal. Both, especially Ali, seem grateful for the company. For instance, Mailer gives a memorable account of running with Ali early one morning after over-indulging the night before (he also decided not to go to bed) and walking back to his lodgings, having not been able to stay with Ali, within earshot of a lion’s fearsome roar. Later, Ali’s team made fun of his fear because said lion was safely locked in a zoo. George Plimpton was another high-profile literary figure on assignment for the fight, won by Ali against the odds, a contest that ranks among the best heavyweight bouts of all time.

The boxing bug bit me when I was a nine year old watching the broadcast of Ali retiring in his fight against Larry Holmes. Even as a kid I knew it was a fight Ali had no business being in – The Greatest was hanging on at the end of his career while the younger and faster Holmes had a 35-0 record and a reputation as having the best jab in the division.

So there Ali was, losing every round on the black-and-white TV before his corner mercifully called it off in the 10th. Many years later I met Holmes in his home town of Easton, Pennsylvania. We were at his bar and he had a strange edge to him, like he was owed something. “Who was the hardest puncher you faced in your career?” I asked. “Earnie Shavers,” he replied to a question he had probably answered a thousand times.

Covering New Zealander Joseph Parker’s career since he turned professional in 2012 at the age of 20 got me to Easton, just as it got me to Invercargill, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Hamilton, Apia (twice), London (twice), Cardiff, Manchester, Philadelphia, Big Bear Lake in California, Las Vegas (twice), Los Angeles and Dallas.

I was there in 2016 at what is now known as Spark Arena in Auckland when Parker won the WBO world heavyweight title when outpointing Andy Ruiz Jr due to his being busier and more accurate in the second half of their 12-rounder, and I was there at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium in 2018 when he lost it to Anthony Joshua in front of almost 80,000 people.

The roof was on a stadium better known for rugby but it was freezing cold and Parker was sprayed with beer as he made his long walk to the ring whereupon he was picked apart by the bigger Joshua for 12 rounds aided and abetted by a referee who refused to let the pair engage in anything resembling a proper scrap.

It meant Parker’s world title reign ended after two defences but my feeling afterwards was one of resignation and a relief that he had acquitted himself well on the biggest stage and wasn’t badly hurt. I guess you get that when you extensively travel to far-flung places with someone as open and obliging as Parker.

In the days before the fight, I had asked for an interview and Parker invited me to his hotel room overlooking both a sparkling Cardiff Bay and the fight venue. I noticed that he had arranged several pairs of his high-cut fight boots neatly outside on the little veranda and felt at that moment like he was a young man awaiting his first day of school, which, on reflection, he probably was.

Joshua taught him a lesson but it wasn’t until four months later that the harsh realities of the fight game revealed themselves to Parker when he lost to Dillian Whyte in London. English fight fans are different to Kiwis or even Americans, neither of whom seem to take themselves too seriously. In England there is an undercurrent of barely suppressed violence and it’s not uncommon for fights to break out among the crowd, as I witnessed in Manchester when covering Parker’s defence against Hughie Fury.

There was hostility outside the ring and pure violence within it that night. Parker had stepped between the ropes with a reputation of never having been hurt in a professional fight much less put on the canvas, and there he was dropped by Whyte in the second round due to an accidental but illegal headbutt not called as such by referee Ian John Lewis. His senses scrambled, it was a remarkable feat of courage and determination from Parker to recover and fight on after not just that setback but also the fully legal and devastating left hook from Whyte which put him down in the ninth. Somehow, Parker rallied again to drop Whyte in the final seconds of the 12th round, but the Londoner held on. Literally. He got the decision.

Parker, known for his hand speed, had been expected to be too quick and skilful for Whyte, a Jamaican-born brawler with a tough backstory from the streets of Brixton, South London. Stay in the sports writing business long enough and it’s not difficult to remain detached when you’re writing a live event to a tight deadline, but there was a personal feeling of dread when Parker was first felled by Whyte which grew in the ninth round and hadn’t dissipated even the next day. It felt like a hole in the pit of my stomach. I was starting to understand what Torres was talking about.

Memo to the haters and cc everyone else: sports writers are sports fans, too, and we occasionally have feelings. Before covering a big test involving the All Blacks, say a World Cup knockout game, I’ll feel nerves. I’d prefer a New Zealand win because I know the coaches and players – some of them quite well. Also, as the theory goes, a victory generally means more newspapers sold or, in today’s parlance, more stories clicked on. There is also an undercurrent of anxiety that one’s work needs to measure up to the occasion. Before the 2019 World Cup semifinal between the All Blacks and England at Yokohama Stadium I gained a relative sense of calm by listening to Rage Against the Machine – appropriate, probably, given the unblinking, robot-like efficiency of the men in white and the inability of the All Blacks to find any answers later that evening.

Still, you move on to the next one, as the All Blacks did, and it’s easier to do so as a team. Covering fights when you know one of the protagonists well is different because it could be his last. That bloke you’ve had coffees, lunch, dinner, drinks with, the guy whose family you’ve met and who has visited your home, the guy you’ve even trained with, well, his life could change in an instant and not for the better. The dread isn’t going to disappear.

I messaged Parker before last Sunday’s fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas. I knew he had left New Zealand on the Thursday to take in the third fight in the trilogy between the pair on his way to the UK to prepare for his rematch against Dereck Chisora in Manchester on December 18, and I wanted to know whether he had spoken to the “champ”.

He and Fury are close friends and have been for years, a bond that grew during and after Parker’s fight against Fury’s cousin Hughie in Manchester in 2017. This was during his drinking phase and, having turned up to inspect Parker’s pre-fight hand wrapping as a Fury representative, he set about entertaining all and sundry in the dressing room. He’d had a couple and the festivities with Team Parker went well into the next day, an arrangement that did not go down well with Hughie or indeed the entire family who felt he was being disloyal.

So, I asked Parker whether he thought Fury could beat Wilder again 20 months after relieving the American of his WBC world heavyweight title in the same city. “I always think he’ll do it, brother,” Parker, who was in the Gypsy King’s dressing room at the time, replied.

Later, Parker texted: “He’s ready.”

Most boxing fans will know what transpired after that in a sporting occasion that wasn’t meant to happen. Fury had wanted to fight Joshua instead to ostensibly unify the division, but that fell through due to Wilder’s insistence on a rematch. And as it turned out, Joshua had surrendered his three world title belts to Oleksandr Usyk a fortnight before Fury and Wilder met for the third time. But second-best was elevated beyond anyone’s expectations into one of the best heavyweight fights of all time.

It was one of those rare fights that turned into a battle of wills as much as skill or power. Fury had tamed the bully with the bazooka of a right hand last year by walking him backwards and thereby not giving him the leverage to use it properly. And there have always been questions about Wilder’s strength of character, not to mention his chin. Instead, the American enhanced his reputation in defeat by countering an onslaught in the third by dropping Fury twice in the fourth round (the first time off the back foot) and then getting off the canvas again in the 10th before he was finally knocked senseless in the 11th.

This fight was transcendent because of the sense that there was more at stake than mere winning and losing. It was about will, yes, but also honour and reputation. It was also a fight that could have ended in a second with either man victorious. It was utterly compelling.

Wilder wanted to prove that he had the heart of a warrior and, after his corner threw in the towel last time out, wanted to be “carried out on his shield” this time. That he grew in stature despite his defeat probably says it all about his performance and character as well as Fury’s.

The “Gypsy King” is a one of a kind in every way – there is nothing manufactured about him as opposed to, say, the more polished and corporate Joshua, and, while he is no angel, Fury’s messages of hope in the face of mental health challenges are truly inspirational. At 125kg and 2.06m, he is also a monster of a man presumably set to unify the division (he and Usyk are on a collision course) for the first time since Lennox Lewis in 2000.

After first becoming world champion when beating Wladimir Klitschko back in 2015, and then relinquishing all the belts due to a combination (and, probably, intersection) of mental health problems and recreational drug abuse, that would be quite the achievement, but he has already defied not just expectations but also, frankly, belief.

Fury, the walking and talking headline, a man with old-fashioned views but who is perfectly suited to the modern social media age, the unlikeliest looking elite athlete in the world and a man who sings in the ring after his most momentous victories, has become the greatest heavyweight of his generation.

Where does this all leave our Joe? Parker, who celebrated long into the Las Vegas night with Fury and was videoed with him, shirtless, behind a DJ’s deck at a well-known nightclub in the city, remains a genuine world top 10 heavyweight. He is behind only Englishman Joe Joyce as the mandatory challenger to Usyk’s WBO belt and in my view is better than the undefeated Brit who is powerful but fights at the speed of a sloth ascending the upper reaches of a tree.

Parker must again beat Chisora, who dropped him within 10 seconds of their fight in Manchester in May last year before he rallied for a split decision victory, in order to remain relevant. At the age of 29, Parker still has a couple of years left in his boxing career – he’s said he wants to fight until he’s 30 or 31. He’s also only on a one-fight contract with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom company, a sign perhaps that the garrulous promoter is unconvinced by Parker’s long-term viability as an elite heavyweight.

After a session with Joe and trainer Grant Hirzel. Should there be any confusion, the author is on the right. Photo: supplied

For another world title shot he’ll need a lot of luck for the pieces to fall into place – and Fury has stated several times that he won’t fight Parker due to their friendship. It may be that the Kiwi-Samoan becomes a “gatekeeper” of the division; a world-class stepping stone sorting the contenders from the pretenders.

(And just on that, we probably got a glimpse of the future on the undercard of the Fury-Wilder fight when 21-year-old American Jared “Big Baby” Anderson knocked out experienced southpaw Vladimir Tereshkin with the confidence that comes from youth and the expectation of far bigger and more dangerous fights ahead. Indeed, Fury, who has sparred with Anderson, thinks the younger man is the future of the division.)

Parker, who has been revitalised after linking with new trainer Andy Lee, an Irishman with close ties to Fury, told me recently that he might as well call it quits if he loses to Chisora in December.

So, who knows? Parker has responded well to Lee’s training which is designed to leave more in the tank for fight night. In hindsight, Parker believes he overdid it under previous long-time trainer Kevin Barry and he often emerged under the bright lights with his body just holding together. He reckons his camp for the Whyte fight was near perfect because it was so short. Given the rigors of that fight he was probably fortunate it was. After that defeat, with more preparation time, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in victories over Alexander Flores, Alex Leapai, Shawndell Winters and Junior Fa.

Lee is providing the change of voice and approach that Parker needs at this stage of his career, but with three young daughters at home (and with no idea about when he’ll return to New Zealand due to the MIQ situation, a state of affairs that may mean he’ll stay in the UK for the foreseeable future), Parker’s career is nearing the endgame.

As someone who has had the privilege of observing Parker’s highest highs and lowest lows in a brutal sport full of charming entertainers and conmen, a sport in which each combatant treads the tightrope of glory and potential tragedy, a sport which served up a modern classic just last weekend, I feel confident that he will know when to call it quits.

Schulberg was right: boxers and writers are naturally drawn to each other. We enjoy a symbiotic relationship due to the unique demands of our jobs. And fighters, he wrote, “tend not to be the most brutalised of our athletes, but the most sensitive and intelligent”.

Torres was probably right, too, in that we shouldn’t get too close to a professional heavyweight, but in my case the warning has come a bit too late.

This essay was first published in Dylan Cleaver’s newsletter The Bounce. Subscribe here.

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