It is rare, even unheard of, for the vision of the boxing world to be filled so completely by Great Britain.
The second visit of Muhammad Ali to these shores, it is true, drew the sport’s eye to the country that gave the world the Marquis of Queensbury rules, but after Brian London capitulated in three miserable rounds, that eye followed Ali onto the plane that would fly him to Germany and then home.
Lennox Lewis, as content in his marriage of convenience with us as we were with him, was a great champion but one that did most of his important fighting on American shores. Ditto Bob Fitzsimmons. Tyson Fury performed a near work of art in bringing the title back to Britain, but he performed it in Germany.
Frank Bruno, Henry Cooper, Herbie Hide, Tommy Farr, honest fighters all and many of them enjoyed great or near-great nights – but none of them have done what Anthony Joshua is doing: putting the home of boxing back on boxing’s biggest stage.
More than that it has put boxing back on the back pages of the British newspapers in a real way for the first time in years. The “painful decline in heavyweight boxing” as it was described by The Guardian in the wake of David Haye’s embarrassing one-sided loss against Wladimir Klitschko in 2012 is long forgotten. Contrast it now with the same newspaper’s three stories in two days about the sport centered upon the big Londoner and his plans for this Saturday’s “showdown” (as it is inevitably described) with Joseph Parker.
“I think people just see it as a unification fight,” The Guardian quoted Joshua as saying in their latest rapt report of his every word. “But in terms of stats and facts, it’s massive. Are you guys going to tell the world how great it is?”
The Guardian stands left of center on the political spectrum and it is easy to find a call for the sport to be banned in its archives. “No liberal calls for a ban on any activity lightly,” ran one impassioned plea: “But we repeat our long-held belief that boxing has no place in a civilized society.”
Now the paper cannot help but tell the world “how great” this is. “[B]y his fortieth fight [Joshua] will probably have made more history than he ever could have imagined” was their final word on the Englishman’s future this past weekend; the admiration for this practitioner of a sport which has “no place in a civilized society” is lucid (it should be noted in fairness that The Guardian’s coverage of the tragic death Scott Westgarth last month was very even-handed).
The Sunday Telegraph mined some fascinating material in an interview with Parker’s trainer, Kevin Barry. Barry, who trained New Zealand sporting royalty David Tua for his enormous confrontation with the great Lennox Lewis, dismissed that huge event as nothing more than “a dress rehearsal” for this, his defining moment.
“There was no plan B,” Barry told Gareth Davies of the Lewis-Tua fight. “When he was unable to land his KO left hook, he was lost…the difference here in this fight is that Joshua is no Lennox Lewis.”
This fascinating aside was in a short article below the line; above the line, The Sunday Telegraph returns to the obsession of the British press where this fight is concerned: size and territory:
“Anthony Joshua has warned his opponent Joseph Parker that the noise levels at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium will affect his psyche and emotions on Saturday night, when 80,000 fans roar as the two huge fighters meet in the first heavyweight unification contest to be held on British soil.”
Joshua has played this strange card often.
“A certain amount of noise can smash glass based on frequency,” he volunteered in perhaps his strangest ruminations on the subject. “You can become desperate…[Y]ou have to ride the energy…embrace it.”
To be fair, Joshua has done so and Parker hasn’t. It is not impossible that Parker will take a round to adjust; but Kevin Barry does not think so.
“Joe has always been ice cool,” he offered in response. “With preparation comes confidence and if you prepare properly there’s no reason to doubt yourself. We have never prepared better than for this fight.”
One aspect of that preparation that has not received wide reportage in the British press is the correction of a problem Parker has been having with his elbows. Late last year he underwent surgery and promises, as a consequence, to be in the best form of his life. I have noticed on several occasions Joshua being referred to as the man “who is only two fights away from potentially holding all four belts.” We would do well to remember that Parker, of course, is in exactly the same position.
Not that the British newspapers are predicting a walkover. The Sunday Times coughed up a half-page under the headline “Parker’s Warrior Spirit.” Neither The Times nor The Sunday Times is blessed with quality boxing coverage, but in this well-written article Nick Pitt speculated as to the “trouble” Joshua would find himself in if he didn’t take Parker out early. This is a bold prediction given the likelihood that the fight will, indeed, go late. Joshua didn’t knock out either Wladimir Klitschko or Carlos Takam early and all the signs are that Parker is more durable than these men.
The Sunday Times profile then digs deeper into Parker’s origins than has generally been the case here; the wild, desperate beginnings of his father and the terrible poverty he endured – his redemption and determination to see his stocky little son box from as early as his fourth birthday. His mother’s gentle but unbending character and her admiration for her son’s honesty and responsibility and her insistence that he always, always remain humble.
Any in-depth examination of Parker’s character, or history, makes it very difficult to dislike him.
“Tough, with good stamina,” writes Pitt when he finally gets around to the boxing, “Parker has a useful jab which he frequently doubles up, and a fast, surprise right hand. He boxes well on the retreat and under pressure.”
The famous English tabloids have been doing their bit when it comes to promoting what is now a matter of national pride. In a quite astonishing mock up of Joshua wielding a sniper rifle The Sun “reported” that “After a battering from Doctor Steelhammer and a busted hooter off an unsung understudy, Anthony Joshua the bloodied warrior appears to be no more. In his place will be a dead-eyed sniper, part of the assassin’s creed.”
The Daily Mirror meanwhile has run stories on everything from Anthony Joshua eating dinner in camp while “not wearing a shirt at all!” to his winning a bet he had placed on Dillian Whyte and in an article longer than the one reporting Whyte’s victory.
Predictions are everywhere. Tyson Fury is picking Parker, “tough as a brick and game as a pebble.” Kell Brook thinks Parker “looks sharp, like a middleweight, but I do see AJ knocking him out.” Former cruiserweight strapholder and Sky pundit Johnny Nelson strung a memorable list of clichés together in sharing his opinion that “styles make fights, both fighters need to be on top form, both fighters will be hurt, I don’t see it going the distance.”
I was most struck by the opinion of Dillian Whyte, desperate for a rematch with Joshua, who believes not only that “Parker doesn’t have enough” to beat Joshua but that he didn’t have enough to beat Andy Ruiz.
I think it’s true to say that in a desperate rush to anoint “the opponent” for this event, the struggles that Parker endured with Hughie Fury and Andy Ruiz have been forgotten. Neither of these fighters is on Joshua’s level but both stretched him to majority decisions and in the case of Ruiz were a single swing round away from rescuing a draw on the official scorecards. These are not the results of a world beater.
Parker’s camp has, like Nelson, suggested that styles make fights. They have a point. More than that, Joshua is starting to look to me like a fighter who just isn’t in easy fights, not against quality opposition. The enormous demands for oxygen his muscles place upon his body – he does not have a fighter’s physique, let’s get that right – ensures that a cardiovascular wobble seems likely and Parker will have an eye on that. In fact, Parker’s whole strategy might be to bank on his superior reserves of stamina to work Joshua hard early while ceding rounds then look to jump on him late when that wobble occurs.
For what it’s worth, my money would be on Joshua. As we’ve seen though, we British might be a little overwhelmed by the occasion – whether or not Parker is.
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