A master at work: what it’s like to watch Joseph Parker up close

In May this year, The Spinoff was granted unprecedented access into the inner ranks of Team Parker. Fight sports fanatic Don Rowe followed Joseph Parker during his time in New Zealand as part of a content partnership with Barkers, and recounts some of that experience here.

Kevin Barry stands close and maintains eye contact. His breath smells like gum, and both himself and son Taylor 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.” – Everyone Wants a Piece.

We were ten minutes into a suit fitting at Barkers’ High Street store and things were perhaps a little more adversarial than I had anticipated. While Joseph Parker was measured, fitted, suited and booted, I attempted to portray some semblance of proficiency to Barry, to convince him I knew what I was talking about and could be at least tolerated in camp. There was clearly a gap between what agents had promised and what trainers thought prudent. Slowly the conversation moved towards easier subject matter – the socioeconomic implications of warlord-sponsored martial arts in Chechnya. Real lighthearted banter.

Barry’s concern was understandable. Over the next two weeks I would watch Parker assailed on all sides by hungry PR professionals desperate to connect their brands to a future world champion. Everyone from Rachel Glucina to a float plane operator in the Viaduct jockeyed for his time, taking away precious moments of recovery in the dying moments of a brutal, borderline-excessive 12 week training camp. Parker spent significant parts of every day shooting across Auckland in a loaned Chrysler, appearing in basically every form of media for two straight weeks, answering the same questions from the same talking heads in a hideously repetitive pantomime.

Meanwhile his opponent Carlos Takam ventured out only occasionally, preferring to spend his time sparring with Parker’s former amateur rival Junior Fa’a. In fact, with no obligation to build a profile in New Zealand, Takam was almost obnoxious in public, dodging questions, refusing to front to the media and generally focusing on doing what he could to put Parker on his ass when the two inevitably duked it out. And to be fair to Takam, there were maybe five people in the country who took him seriously, as made evident by the ignorant critical response to Parker’s ballsy victory.

The Spinoff was granted unprecedented access into Team Parker as part of a deal Barkers made to sponsor the guy – an incredibly exciting opportunity both personally as a boxing fan and professionally as a feature writer. In a hidden gym in South Auckland I watched Parker drill the combinations and movements that would prove crucial to dispatching Takam. I saw both good days and bad, and noted the reactions to both. We travelled to Mangere East Primary School where Parker was welcomed as a living god by the children, and to Burger King Papatoetoe where he was treated similarly by staff.

I spoke regularly with his brother John, a boxer in his own right and crucial member of the team, and interviewed Sala Parker, mother to them both and head of Joseph’s management. I don’t speak French, so I didn’t talk to Takam, but I watched him in public and behind the scenes. I saw how he reacted to the media, how he refused to talk at the weigh in despite what his mafioso manager might ask.

Backstage, I watched the politics of boxing threaten to disrupt the preparation of both fighters just hours before the bout.

While I can’t share everything I saw and heard during my time with Joseph Parker, some of what I’ve produced so far is available here, with regular updates to come, followed by a major feature come September.

The Spinoff also produced three short videos highlighting some of the key elements which have helped shape Joseph Parker, show what makes him tick, and reveal why he’s on track to become the greatest and most loved boxer in New Zealand sporting history.

Joseph Parker’s success is a direct result of the support and commitment of his family. From funding his travel to buying his gear through to just giving their blessing on his journey to Vegas, the Parker family have been there every step of the way, and Joseph isn’t afraid to say it. We spoke with Sala Parker in the lounge of her Mangere home, pictures of her children interspersed with Jesus Christ and several lifesize cutouts of Joe.

Boxing is a game of inches, and every reflex must be perfected to a point where execution is more a matter of instinct and less of conscious thought. Here Parker describes some of the technical adjustments that are made and ingrained in the gym, far from the bright lights and long before the bell rings.

From a quiet, awkward boy to an assertive and confident man, Joseph Parker has had to learn to cope with the trappings of success. But when everybody wants a piece, what’s left for yourself?

Archival footage provided by Tom Augustine and Vivian Ngwerume.

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