by Bryce Wilson
It’s been a quiet six months for Joseph Parker, one of his longest stretches inactive since he became a professional fighter back in 2012. Still the time away from fighting hasn’t been wholly unproductive. In 2018 having enjoyed his most fruitful year financially as a professional, making life changing money, it was also becoming his toughest, having to endure back-to-back losses in the UK. First came defeat to Anthony Joshua where he relinquished not only his unbeaten record but also his WBO title, which was then then followed by another loss at the hands (and head) of British tough man Dillian Whyte in what was one of the most thrilling fights at heavyweight that year.
Parker ended 2018 with a regrouping, stay-busy fight against journeyman Alexander Flores back in Christchurch, New Zealand. A contest that finished via a Parker KO in the third round and a resumption to his winning ways.
And then things went a little dark in the Parker camp. While rumours and rumblings of a showdown with another Brit Derreck Chisora ultimately came to nothing, Parker, now a free agent after his contract with previous promoters Duco Events having run its course, entered into talks with a range of promoters. As expected, all the big names came with an offer, but it was ultimately Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing that won the right to promote Parker, having done profitable business with Team Parker in two previous fights with Joshua and Whyte.
As Kevin Barry, Parker’s long-term trainer explained, despite the variety of offers on the table, Hearn was the one they felt most comfortable with. ‘We’ve done business with Eddie Hearn before; we’ve dealt with his whole team and we’ve always found them very professional and fair to us. Eddie now has reach all around the world which was also important to us when assessing who was best placed to take Joseph’s career into the next phase.’
With that deal in place a comeback fight, a fight marking the second stage of Parker’s career, was set-up with perennial gatekeeper Eric Molina. On paper it made for a solid comeback with Molina having gone rounds with both Anthony Joshua and more significantly Deontay Wilder, the two consensuses hardest hitting heavyweights in the division.
Still it wouldn’t be boxing if there wasn’t a wrinkle or two and Team Parker was left to contend with a late withdrawal from Molina putting them in scrambling mode for an opponent.
Perhaps emboldened by the recent success of last-minute replacement Andy Ruiz Jr, up stepped Alex Leapai, perhaps best known for his knockout loss when challenging Wladimir Klitschko for his heavyweight straps back in 2014. When discussing his upcoming contest with Parker I postulate that it is a fight that must be hard for him to motivate himself for, but he sees it differently, ‘I’ve been out of the ring for six months so I’m motivated to put on a good performance regardless of who it is that I face. I’ve had time at home with my family which has been nice but now it’s time to get back to business. As a team we want to keep busy and in fact I wouldn’t mind fighting another two times this year after this fight.’
As it stands 2019 is shaping up as the year of spectacular knockouts, with Parker’s closest rivals Ruiz Jr, Wilder and Tyson Fury all notching big KO wins. I ask him whether it is merely enough to win, surely, he needs an exciting KO stoppage to really re-announce himself as a continued force at heavyweight? Parker, while not necessarily committing to guaranteeing a knockout, doesn’t disagree with this assessment either, ‘I know what I need to do, we have a game plan and my job is to execute that game plan as best I can. As long as I don’t put too much pressure on myself and as long as I go out there and enjoy the occasion then I’m sure the knockout will come.’
Despite Leapai not being their first-choice opponent, it will be interesting to see how Parker shapes up in this fight. Having worked together for six years, Parker’s trainer Kevin Barry recently made the somewhat surprising statement that during the course of their professional relationship this was the first time Parker has ever arrived into camp at his fighting weight. It’s something the trainer is elated with, ‘look it’s been great, this is a camp where we haven’t had to spend time training to lose weight. It’s been a camp where we have been able to almost solely focus on putting together a game plan and working on combinations, technique and moves. It’s made such a difference and I know Joseph has noticed this as well. In fact, he asked me recently why he hadn’t done this earlier in his career and I simply told him, he hadn’t been ready to make that commitment. But he is now. ‘
I ask Parker specifically what he has found different about the camp and his new lifestyle, ‘I have a new maturity and a better structure back home now when I’m out of camp. This has been probably my most enjoyable camp for that very reason. If I want to be heavyweight champion of the world again, this is how I have to prepare moving forward.’
Despite a second round, concussion-causing headbutt playing a critical role in his loss to Dillian Whyte, the overall criticism of Parker is that he lacks the necessary ‘mongrel’ to compete with physical streetfighter types like Whyte. In his comeback win over Alexander Flores, Parker clearly attempted to remedy this perceived knock on his temperament with a rough and dominant performance, hitting Flores hard on the hips and elbows while manhandling him in clinches. I ask him if he’s intent on continuing to develop that part of his game, ‘it’s something we worked on for that camp and something we’ve worked on a little bit in this camp too. We want to be prepared for all styles in the future.’
The reality is Parker should win and win well, because as the old saying goes, form is temporary bur class is permanent and Parker has a track record of success at a high-level of competition that Leapai doesn’t. And an impressive win right now couldn’t be timelier with Andy Ruiz Jr shaking up the division once more with his shock underdog win over Joshua. Suddenly the ‘Big Three’ of Joshua, Wilder and Tyson Fury has splintered out to include a half dozen fighters, with Whyte, Parker and Ortiz now back in the mix and with a slew of younger contenders sitting just a level below. Parker agrees with the assessment, especially as he owns a win over Ruiz Jr and a decision loss to Joshua.
‘I know I belong at the top; look we lost a couple of close fights but with Ruiz’s win the division opens up once against and we definitely have unfinished business together. He thinks he won, I KNOW I won, so whenever he wants to get in the ring and do it again, I’ll be ready.’
It was this time in the ring with Ruiz along with the countless hours spent studying tape on Ruiz that led to Barry and Parker to be among only a handful of voices prepared to publicly talk up Ruiz Jr predicting that he had more than just a slim chance against Joshua.
Barry in particular was adamant going into that fight that the bookmakers had Ruiz’s odds as far too long. ‘I’ve studied Andy Ruiz for a number of years, we almost ended up working together some time ago before I had Joe. I always viewed Andy as a very tough competitor with good skills, terrific power and fast hands. People got too hung up over Andy’s weight and body shape.”
Parker too made that mistake when first arriving in Vegas to train with Barry. One of the first sparring assignments Barry provided for Parker was one Andy Ruiz. Barry can’t help but chuckle as he recounts how a young and green Parker took one look at Ruiz and believed he was in for some easy work only for Ruiz to dish out a tough learning to the Kiwi. Parker himself also remembers their first spar well, ‘yeah he did give me the bash a bit,’ (laughs) ‘but it was a good lesson that Kev gave me, which is never judge a book by its cover. We went back and sparred him another couple of times and it went much much better, but I never forgot that first day.’
Lessons like this one would serve Parker well in his upcoming fight with Leapai. As comeback fights go Parker may well have wanted a more challenging outing, but as Andy Ruiz proved you can never take an opponent for granted. In a camp where Parker has been able to focus on game plan and technique, expect a revitalized Parker to come out and aggressively pepper Leapai with his trademark jab and body shots before taking him out in the early to mid-rounds. Although neither Parker nor Barry have talked about a knockout, in light of the recent performances from his fellow top ranked contemporaries they will be keen to announce Parker’s return to active duty and kick off their new DAZN deal in style. A couple of big wins and Joseph Parker will be right back in the mix, which in his own words is the only place he should be.