By Duncan Johnstone
Alabama firefighter Keith Thompson is out to dampen down the hype around rising New Zealand heavyweight boxer Joseph Parker.
The pair square off in Pennsylvania next Saturday, on a card that also features New Zealand light-heavyweight Robbie Berridge against Russian champion Vasily Lepikhim.
No-one is giving Thompson much of a chance. But then, no-one knows much about him. That includes the Parker camp, who are short on information for an opponent they have taken on at short notice.
The Sunday Star-Times/Sunday News tracked down Thompson at his Tuscaloosa home and discovered a 33-year-old quietly confident about his chances.
He has an interesting tale. He started boxing at 16, and had "a couple" of amateur fights before embarking on a career in the United States Navy, where he was on active duty for eight years.
He served on board giant aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as the dangers of terrorism were rammed home to America by the Twin Towers tragedy in 2001.
He's still in the navy reserve, with one more enlistment to carry out, but these days, he's more intent on fighting fires and fellow boxers.
It's a mix he say works well as he belatedly tries to establish himself in the pro game.
Thompson has a modest seven-win, two-loss record, and his biggest claim to fame is being a long-term training and sparring partner of Deontay Wilder, an unbeaten heavyweight over 31 fights who is seen as America's next big thing.
Thompson says there are benefits to his long, slow progress inside the ring.
"Boxing has kept me on the straight and narrow since I was 18, kept me in condition, and helped me to defend myself if I've had to.
"When I joined the military, I still trained heavily. Boxing was important to me but I just never fought, because I was getting deployed.
"And when I turned pro in 2005, I'd gotten married and had kids. I wasn't able to train and fight as much as I wanted to.
"But I think the good side to that now is that I don't have all the miles on me.
"Firefighting keeps me naturally fit, and I have time to train."
He acknowledges the talent of unbeaten 22-year-old Parker but certainly isn't overawed by it.
"I've been able to watch him a good bit. He's impressive. He's young, he's strong and fast and has pretty good skills," Thompson said.
"But he's still young and still makes mistakes, so now is a good time to try and capitalise on some of the mistakes he makes . . . take advantage of that."
Thompson is wary of giving away too much detail about his own fighting style but backs his experiences inside and outside the ring.
"I would say I've been around a while. I've been in the ring with a lot of good talent, Deontay Wilder being one.
"I know what it's like to be in there with a real guy, I will find out if Joseph is a real guy."
Thompson is clearly proud of his relationship with Wilder. He helped to prime him for his latest win, over Malik Scott in Puerto Rico, a victory that brought Wilder his 31st consecutive knockout.
"I remember when Deontay first walked into the gym. I've seen his progression more than anyone.
"We both live in Tuscaloosa. I've been a co-main event on five of his fights in Alabama. He is doing well for himself."
But it's all about Thompson now, and he has no doubt he's entering the biggest fight of his career.
"This is a real big opportunity for me here . . . a TV fight against a bright young prospect.
"Hopefully it can win me a trip to New Zealand - that's what I'm hoping for. Maybe we can do a rematch. That would be good for me."
Thompson's last fight was a unanimous points decision over four rounds against perennial loser Derek Walker (1-12).
Despite the step up in class with Parker, he jumped at the challenge, despite only signing on a few weeks ago.
"The training camp has been really good. I fought in April and I stayed in the gym, so a month was good enough for me to get into good shape.
"I feel good. I'm ready to get this fight on."
Tags: Joseph Parker