By Cliff Rold
Joseph Parker could probably have taken the soft landing.
Just four months ago, the 26-year old New Zealander was the WBO heavyweight titlist, traveling to the UK for a chance to add Anthony Joshua’s WBA and IBF belts to his mantle.
Parker (24-1, 18 KO) fell short. The prize of saying he was the first man to take Joshua (21-0, 20 KO) the distance was surely small consolation. Two judges gave him a pair of rounds apiece, the other only a single frame.
Just like that he was a contender again. There are varying paths to getting back into the picture for another shot at glory. The easiest is to head home, wrack up some wins, play nice with the sanctioning bodies, and pick one’s spot to earn a mandatory.
The tougher path, the better one for the health of the sport, is to head right back at serious competition and demand to remain relevant. This Saturday, Parker takes the tougher path when he heads back to the UK for a showdown with the WBC’s leading contender Dillian Whyte (23-1, 17 KO). Whyte is also the WBO’s #2 contender, just behind Alexander Povetkin who will challenge Joshua in September.
Whyte could have picked easier as well. While he has to date been unable to parlay his WBC position into a crack at their titlist, Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KO), time was still on his side. While defeated, Whyte was the first man to show vulnerability in Joshua, rocking him badly in an early crossroads clash of up and comers before being stopped in seven.
As the waiting game plays out between Joshua and Wilder, Whyte could have played it safe in hopes of being a viable option for one or the other.
Safe is a shallow gamble, a hope for the eventual over the immediate. It comes with less solid footing. This is a case where risk could be quite rewarding.
And it results in a fight that looks good for fans without a title up for grabs.
This is what happens when divisions start to get some depth and titles start to get unified. It’s a good thing for fans. Fighters don’t just have to win. They have to fight for a place in line because opportunity isn’t about four belts up for grabs.
Right now, at heavyweight, there are only two roads to a title (excluding the silly extra WBA belt held by Manuel Charr). Guys either have to fight three-belted Joshua or one-belted Wilder. If the fight everyone wants eventually happens, Joshua-Wilder, and they elect to hold the division in full grip and defend all the hardware, there will be only one path.
That makes playing it safe not so safe after all as jockeying for mandatory positions becomes less about finding the right belt to go after and more about competing to fight for all of them at once. In a heavyweight field that now includes a returned Tyson Fury and could soon include a rising Oleksandr Usyk, places in line are going to have to be competed for more furiously.
That lends a fight like Parker-Whyte greater stakes. They’re not just fighting to get towards a title shot. They’re fighting to demand a place ahead of other competitors. Play it safe and a Fury or Usyk could fly by either with the right win or two.
Sanctioning body ratings don’t always appear to reward tough competition and sometimes can appear to lack coherent objectivity but the scrutiny picks up when there are less belts to go around. Movement by merit can become the easier path for them as well as the fighters.
While no one is calling this a golden era yet, the better eras at heavyweight have always been marked by quality action outside the title picture. Muhammad Ali fought anyone with a pulse trying to earn a second crack at Frazier and then later George Foreman while guys like Ernie Shavers and Ron Lyle locked horns just to get in line behind him. Evander Holyfield warred with Michael Dokes and Alex Stewart to snare all the mandatory positions in the division and then fighters like Tommy Morrison, Razor Ruddock, Ray Mercer, and Lennox Lewis all took risky fights to get in line for him.
In some of those later cases, there were mandatory shots on the line or the then-more fringe WBO belt, but the lesson was still the same. When the top of the class gets more defined, everyone else has to step up their game.
Whyte has done well for himself, unbeaten since the loss to Joshua. A war with Dereck Chisora earned him new respect and a highlight reel knockout of Lucas Browne turned eyes in March. In Parker, he has a chance to pick up the best win of his career to date.
In Whyte, Parker has a chance at quick redemption. Knocking off Whyte won’t make anyone forget about the Joshua loss, or create much demand for a rematch, but it will confirm he remains one of the top heavyweights in the world. In a game where comparison shopping is often the rule, Parker could become an attractive opponent for a Wilder looking to show Joshua he can top his rival’s performance.
At the least, the winner here would be an attractive foe for lineal claimant Tyson Fury as he works his way back towards real competition.
Whyte and Parker could have looked for avenues back into the title picture with less resistance. They didn’t. As the division gets more crowded, let’s hope this is a trend.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]