This weekend, undefeated heavyweight champion Joseph Parker seeks to unify his belts against British superstar Anthony Joshua. Three days out from the fight, the pressure is mounting on both combatants. Don Rowe reports from London in the second of a diary series leading up to the fight.
If David Higgins and Team Parker are betting big on Anthony Joshua’s lack of mental fortitude come Saturday night, they’re wagering equally as much on Parker keeping his head straight when the first bell rings.
With just three days to go before the fight, we’re a long, long way from Mangere Bridge. There are 65 million people in the United Kingdom and just 80,000 seats at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. Little wonder then that the majority of the arena, easily far and away Parker’s biggest stage yet, sold out in just a few hours.
“We think 30 percent of the crowd will be supporting Parker,” Higgins said, “The fight is in Cardiff and not everyone in Wales loves the English. Then there are the expats.”
But even if that should prove true, which I doubt, there remains upwards of 55,000 baying fans, all of whom want nothing more than to see Parker separated from consciousness.
“I am not worried,” Higgins told me yesterday. “He’s the most unflappable man I’ve ever met.”
Coach Kevin Barry has a similar point of view. “You will see Joseph Parker walk out of that changing room and he’ll be grinning like a Cheshire cat.”
I was with Parker in his changing room before he fought France’s Carlos Takam – the toughest bout of his career thus far. Despite the harsh fluorescent light, the room had the feeling of a house party. Above the banter of Parker’s crew, a hiphop soundtrack pounded from a portable stereo: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, OT Genasis and The Game.
Parker’s myriad belts lined the wall. 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, perhaps more indicative of the alphabet soup of professional boxing than any worldwide legitimacy. Parker himself was relaxed, dancing, throwing combinations at the air and vlogging the moment for his fans around the world.
By 9pm Parker’s hands were wrapped. The mood had shifted, not towards melancholy, apprehension or dread, but a sense of the gravity of the impending bout. All professionalism aside, Parker was heading for a fistfight with a killer, 110kg of trained beef, there to win and absolutely capable of derailing Parker’s title hopes. But by all appearances Parker was well and truly in the flow state.
After a group prayer we were off, headed out through a linoleum corridor into the Vodafone Events Centre, small globally but locally significant. There was smoke, there were lasers, there was everything one might expect from a high profile prizefight in New Zealand.
When Anthony Joshua made the walk against Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium in April last year, in front of a riotous audience of 90,000 faithful punters, it was the equivalent of an Olympic opening ceremony. Framed by flaming initials and robed in white, Joshua was scissor-lifted high above the crowd, raising his fist to The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’. During the seemingly endless fighter introductions he was the picture of poise.
“I cannot believe how calm Anthony Joshua looks right now,” said commentator Carl Froch, himself a multiple time world champion.
Facing down Klitschko, a 6’6” master boxer and Don of the heavyweight division for upwards of a decade, Joshua was disturbingly calm. Entering the professional ranks at 18, he has grown under the spotlight as perhaps no other fighter has even approximated. Like Parker, Anthony Joshua is the figurehead and champion of boxing in his country. But the commercial demands of superstardom in the United Kingdom far surpass anything Parker has ever faced down under.
Holding press conferences in a Burger King, hawking fast food and tourism packages, Parker has by necessity dragged himself through all manner of commercial minefields in the hopes of securing enough cash to campaign for a world title. Guided by Matchroom Boxing and Eddie Hearn, Anthony Joshua has been a class above, a bonafide superstar and ad executives dream from day one.
This week the nation of Samoa held a national day of prayer for Parker. Bars in New Zealand will lobby for dispensations and special licensing around Easter liquor laws. Fans will crowd around their Sky box, shelling out the extortionate fee to watch Parker compete. But the question remains, how will the boy from South Auckland handle the pressure?
“We’ve done ten thousand, twenty thousand, this is no different,” Parker told me.
But it is different, and the fight is three days away.