According to Gregg Anderson, general manager of Western long haul markets for Tourism New Zealand, there was an incredible 50 percent spike in visitors from distant countries after the Lord of the Rings trilogy served as a celluloid travelogue. With their dizzying array of scenic panoramas, the films packed movie theaters in the early 2000s and brought the magical world of elves, dwarves, trolls, orcs and, of course, hobbits to a global audience, or at least the millions of grown-ups who perhaps hadn’t read the J.R.R. Tolkien books but were as transfixed by the landscapes they saw on the big screen as their children were by the fantastical story lines.
But despite vast differences in time and distance — Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is 8,814 miles and 20 time zones from New York, and 11,398 miles and 13 time zones from London – a ticket to their local multiplex somehow made the Kiwi nation seem more accessible to anyone with a vivid imagination and the sudden urge to take an exotic vacation. Now, in another instance of life imitating art, a non-fictional boxing hero from the country that stood in for the Middle Earth realms created by Tolkien aspires to fill the role of Aragorn II, Ranger of the North, who overcomes long odds in his quest to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron.
Can 26-year-old Joseph Parker (24-0, 18 KO) – born in Auckland, but the fiercely proud son of Samoan immigrants, hence his honorary Samoan matai name of Lupesoliai La’auli – channel his inner Aragorn II and take down the heavily favored (an opening-line 12-to-1) and larger Dark Lord of the United Kingdom, Londoner Anthony Joshua (20-0, 20 KOs), in their heavyweight unification showdown? Almost everyone who isn’t a Kiwi would say no, but on Saturday, March 31, in 78,000-seat Principality Stadium, the Cardiff, Wales, venue which sold out weeks ago, and with countless more fight fans around the world watching on television (via Showtime in the United States, with a start time of 5 p.m. EDT), there will be no actors in the ring and no script to follow. Parker and Kevin Barry, his trainer, like their chances as feisty underdogs taking on a hugely popular champion on more or less his home turf.
“He has strengths and weaknesses like every other fighter,” Parker, the WBO titlist who almost always refers to himself with the collective “we” instead of the singular “I,” in tribute to Barry and other members of his support crew, said when asked about Joshua, who holds the WBA, IBF and IBO belts. “We’ll come up with a good game plan which we believe in and which, if we execute, will get the victory.”
Added Barry: “Speed is the key. We’ve always believed Joe is the fastest heavyweight in the world. But I also believe that, of all the heavyweight champions (Deontay Wilder rules the WBC), Joe has the better skills. I think he does things better than Joshua does. I think he’s a more complete fighter than Joshua. Is he as big as Joshua? No. (The 6-4 Parker was 245 pounds in his last bout to AJ’s 6-6 and 254.) Is his reach as long as Joshua’s? No. (76 inches to Joshua’s 82.) Granted, Joshua has a 100 percent knockout record. But I truly believe Joseph Parker is a better-skilled fighter than Anthony Joshua.”
As a world champion – OK, so the pugilistic kingdom of big men is too subdivided to belong to any single claimant at this juncture — Parker already has enjoyed the view from a summit that only one previous New Zealand heavyweight has scaled. But Bob Fitzsimmons, who was born in England and moved with his family to Kiwi country when he was 10, dethroned James J. Corbett on a 14th-round knockout on March 17, 1897, in Carson City, Nev., and the 33-year-old “Ruby Red” was just 167 pounds then, a heavyweight in name only. Not only that, but the title-changing fight took place 121 years ago.
The list of New Zealand heavies to have even gotten a sniff at boxing’s most prestigious prize after Fitzsimmons but prior to Parker is short; Tom Heeney unsuccessfully challenged champion Gene Tunney on July 26, 1928, in New York City, losing on an 11th-round TKO, and Samoan-born David Tua, who relocated to New Zealand and whose birth name is Mafaufau Tavita Lio Mafaufau Sanerivi Talimatas, dropped a unanimous decision to WBC/IBF/IBO and lineal champ Lennox Lewis on Nov. 11, 2000, in Las Vegas. The loss to Lewis served to at least somewhat diminish Tua’s non-title victories over four men (John Ruiz, Michael Moorer, Oleg Maskaev and Hasim Rahman) who at one time were heavyweight champions, the romps against Ruiz and Moorer each ending less than 30 seconds into the first round.
Parker is not as devastating a puncher as Tua, who also was trained throughout much of his career by Barry, but if he can get the job done against Joshua that Tua couldn’t against Lewis, it would likely certify him as the best and most beloved boxer of all time from a country where rugby was, is, and likely always shall be the most popular sport. Until Parker came along, it could be argued that the most accomplished athletes ever to come out of New Zealand, if you include mountaineering in the equation, would be Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first person (along with his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay), to reach the summit of Mount Everest, on May 28, 1953; middle distance runner Peter Snell, who won gold medals at the 1960, ‘64 and ‘68 Olympics, and the most celebrated of all, rugby superstar Richie McCaw, who captained the legendary national team, the All Blacks, to successive World Cup titles in 2011 and 2015 and was named World Rugby Player of the Year a record three times.
“Rugby is the No. 1 sport in New Zealand,” Parker conceded. “The younger generation, growing up, all want to be rugby players and part of the All Blacks.”
Well, not every New Zealand kid dreamed of making it big on the rugby pitch. Joseph Parker, the middle of three children, was destined, almost from birth, to become a fighter. His father’s name is Dempsey Parker and, yes, he was so christened with a nod toward the 1920s heavyweight champion from America with the withering scowl and ferocious, attacking style. Little Joe began training in earnest as a boxer when he was 10, accumulating all manner of local, regional and national amateur titles. But despite his immense appeal on the home front, his fame has yet to extend that much beyond New Zealand and Samoa, for reasons of exposure and geography. For one thing, he failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, at which Joshua took the super heavyweight gold medal and announced himself as maybe the next major star in a division that had been starving for new stars. For another, Parker is still largely a mystery man to American fight fans, having fought 16 times in New Zealand, once in Samoa, once in Germany and once in England, mostly off U.S. TV, his only ring appearance in the land of his current residence (he lives with his trainer in Henderson, Nevada) a six-round unanimous decision over someone named Brice Ritani Coe on May 16, 2013, in Irvine, Calif., in Parker’s fifth pro bout.
Mostly, though, Parker’s failure to keep pace with the other two reigning heavyweight titlists, Joshua and Wilder, owes to his inability to match them in the “Wow” department. Less than three years ago there were more than a few knowledgeable boxing analysts who viewed Joshua and Parker almost as equals, new blood to reinvigorate a heavyweight scene that had become stale. But Joshua snagged a long-term TV deal with Showtime and has that image-buffing, come-off-the-deck victory over longtime king Wladimir Klitschko, while Wilder has won 39 of his 40 fights inside the distance, albeit against something less than top-tier competition. Parker, meanwhile, slogged through an uneventful 2017 in which he raised no one’s pulse with winning defenses on points against Razvan Cojanu and Hughie Fury.
But boxing offers a blank canvas in which a lot of ugly splotches can be painted over with one bravura performance, or even one well-placed punch. Parker’s primary promoter is still David Higgins, but Bob Arum now holds some paper on him and he will get his chance to shine on the biggest of big stages next weekend. If all goes as he and Barry anticipate, or at least hope, the balance of power in the heavyweight division could take a dramatic shift toward the fight game’s Kiwi secret weapon.
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