This weekend, undefeated heavyweight champion Joseph Parker seeks to unify his belts against British superstar Anthony Joshua. Today they finally squared off at a press conference. Don Rowe reports from London in the first in a diary series leading up to the fight.
It was grey and drizzly in Isleworth as the press hacks filed past a bomb dog outside Sky studios this morning. Inside the cavernous foyer, what felt like a thousand Sky employees hung from every banister, crowding the stairs and clamouring for a view of the stage. Legendary announcer Michael Buffer was there, Joseph Parker’s promoter David Higgins was there, but the question was – would Anthony Joshua be there?
“If Anthony Joshua is late Joseph Parker will leave the press conference,” Higgins said earlier this week. “The first challenge to Anthony Joshua is to be on time for the first time in your life.”
The fighting pride of the United Kingdom and the biggest name in boxing, 6’4″ Anthony Joshua cut an imposing figure as he took the stage to a roar of applause. Dressed all in black, his astonishing physique gave the impression of a stocking full of pool balls – a stark contrast to Parker, in a check suit with spectacles and a pocket square.
“I thank you for being on time,” Higgins jibed.
“I don’t know about all that,” interjected Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn, “But if your leg doesn’t stop shaking I’ll have to move.”
“Stop it Eddie, we can smell the silver spoon on your breath,” said Higgins.
“All I can smell on your breath is last nights activity,” said Hearn.
It would be the most lively exchange of the press conference. Served questions by Sky Sports head of boxing Adam Smith, the fighters stuck mostly to script, acknowledging the resumé of their opponent, hashing out a few platitudes about training hard and feeling great – none of the fireworks many in the boxing community had anticipated.
Parker was calm, even serene.
“I haven’t decided if I’ll win by knockout or points,” he said. “I’ll have to decide on the night.”
Joshua in contrast was surly, eyes locked almost constantly forward, only deviating to stare daggers at Higgins’ slight frame and to look up at the ceiling. “AJ is absolutely furious,” one of his squad in the press area said to another.
As the fighters stared down, AJ broke gaze first – something Team Parker clocked up as an early moral victory. But perhaps he was just pissed off.
Perhaps justifiably. The fight has been the result of three months of needling at the hands of Higgins, Parker and co. From leaking footage of Joshua being hurt in sparring, to unceasingly questioning the strength of his chin, to publicly doubting his professionalism and respect for the fans, nothing has been off the table. But do they believe it?
“Of course not,” Higgins said backstage. “He’s a great fighter and we know he does his neck exercises. But we had a plan three months ago to make this fight happen, and here we are. It’s very satisfying.”
“It’s good that he arrived on time, that’s submissive. He’s submissive to us. What we see is a man under stress.”
And what does AJ think of Higgins, the self-professed best promoter in the world?
“He actually said that didn’t he? Well David Higgins has done a great job in terms of talking himself up,” he told me. “But unfortunately in five days he won’t be relevant.”
In a media session after the conference Joshua had relaxed, perhaps relieved to be away from the incessant sledging from representatives of Team Parker. Calm now, he smiled more, and up close his eyes were surprisingly soft, with long doe lashes. UFC president Dana White is in town, he said with a grin, and there’s $500 million at stake.
“I’d take a quarter of that,” he said. “And a quarter of that quarter. You can help a lot of people with $500 million. But we’ll see – you have to read the fine print, and I’m not looking past Joseph Parker. He’s a live dog.”
But while Joshua says he isn’t looking past Saturday night local time, other people certainly are. WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder is ramping up the pressure from his home in the states, campaigning for a shot at what would be AJ’s four belts if he wins on Saturday night.
It’s the logical next step for AJ, who unlike Parker has no obligation to offer a rematch. Promoted correctly a fight with Wilder would open up the North American market to Joshua, hugely increasing his earning power. But boxing is a game of inches and Joshua has been knocked down in the past.
“I do worry about losing,” he said. “When you’re winning you’re the man, and if you lose, well then you’re not. But it does keep you motivated.”
Parker, munching on an apple, was cerebral.
“High five to him for making it on time. He was angry from being called out, angry from our teams verbal jabs, and just angry at I dunno what else, he’s angry at everything.”
“It was very intense you know, there was a forced handshake, I don’t really know how to take it. But for me I’m relaxed, I’m calm.”
“His style matches mine perfectly and with the game plan we’ve come up with, I’m ready for 12 rounds, but if I clip him he’ll go down. And if he doesn’t go down, I’ll chase him down and kill him.”
The fight is four days away.