The making of a champion

How Joseph Parker climbed from humble beginnings to the top of the boxing world

Logan Savory

It's the year 2000. An eight-year-old boy lines up his boxing-mad father's hands at their family home in Mangere, South Auckland.

A straight right punch to one hand is followed by a straight left to the other.

The sound of his dad's encouragement overlays the slap to the open palms, which simulate the pads they use in training down at the boxing gym.

It's the beginning, a love of boxing is ignited. A career is also ignited, a career which will eventually lead the South Auckland kid to the WBO world heavyweight title.

That eight-year-old kid is now 25, and his name is Joseph Parker.

Dempsey Parker is the proud dad who was the first to feel a Joseph Parker punch as he held up his hands to provide a target.

Dempsey is named after boxing royalty, Jack Dempsey - the US boxing star from 1914 to 1927 who to this day is still regarded as one of the greatest to grace the heavyweight division. Boxing is in the Parker family's blood. It's little surprise Joseph quickly takes a shine to it.

It is a humble beginning. Dempsey works two jobs to help make ends meet while Joseph's mother Sala also works fulltime to ensure their family has what they need.

Joseph has never forgotten this. Later in his boxing career it becomes his absolute focus. As soon as enough money is raised through his boxing earnings, he buys a house for his parents. That remains Parker's proudest moment.

Parker eventually gains a promotion from lining up his dad's hands at home in South Auckland. As a 10-year-old, he walks into the Papatoetoe Boxing Gym for the first time. He spends a couple of years hitting the pads before a shot in the ring finally comes - a moment Parker has been longing for.

His first fight isn't one for the ages. Parker says he was a chubby 12-year-old kid who simply beat another kid who was even chubbier.

His trainer, Grant Arkell, doesn't initially see anything startling in Parker - one of many young kids from South Auckland who have passed through his gym.

It's a start for Parker, though, a start to a much brighter future. He builds a reputation. Fight after fight, he slowly works his way through the amateur ranks.

Boxing numbers are limited in New Zealand so eventually it proves difficult to find fights. Parker ends up fighting older opponents to ensure he can get the ring time he is after.

It's as a 16-year-old in Rotorua that Parker first makes a real statement. Struggling to find Parker opponents, Arkell chucks the teenager into the ring against a much older and much bigger teen.

Arkell's move causes a stir. Others voice their dismay at his bold decision. Parker himself wasn't initially aware who he was fighting, as Arkell kept him in the dark.

"I remember at the time Joseph walking around the venue trying to find out who he was fighting, and he came back and he said to me, 'he's big'. I said, 'well, that gives you more to hit, doesn't it?"

Grant Arkell, Parker's first trainer

What follows is a unanimous points win to Parker. Plenty of eyebrows within the New Zealand amateur boxing community are raised. Veteran trainer Rex Jenkins later concedes he was ready to throw the towel in for his fighter during the bout - the 16-year-old Parker had been that dominant.

Parker in the boxing gym, aged 18. Picture: Simon Watts/Stuff

As a kid Parker generally impressed with whatever he did. One day it was on the rugby league field, the next it was showcasing his skills playing the piano.

But it's in 2009, while still at Marcellin College, when it really starts to dawn on Parker that he has some ability in the boxing ring. He's 17 and is lined up against three-time New Zealand amateur champion Yamiko Chinula - at 26, nine years older than Parker.

It's Parker's biggest test, and he passes with straight As. He knocks out Chinula and doors start to open.

In 2011, Parker's career takes another big step with another win against the odds. This time it is at the world championships in Azerbaijan, when he becomes the first New Zealand amateur to topple a Cuban boxer.

But life as New Zealand's best amateur isn't all that easy. The funding is limited. His parents try their best to scrape together the cash required. Arkell pours his own time and money into getting the young boxer to the international events he needs.

For that trip to Azerbaijan, they can only rustle up the funds to send Parker, and Parker alone. His trainer has to stay at home, asking Aussie coaches to keep an eye on the young boxer.

It makes for a lonely and daunting assignment for a kid from South Auckland, taking on a world championship event in a place like Azerbaijan.

"He rang me twice a day telling me no-one speaks English, the food is rubbish, what do I do?"

Grant Arkell, Parker's trainer

For Parker, the battle is all with the 2012 London Olympics in mind. In 2011, financial worries ease a little when businessman Sir Bob Jones agrees to back the young Kiwi in his quest.

But that Olympic dream never happens.

Despite impressing on the world stage, Oceania has just one spot available in each division. Parker's hopes are dashed when he is beaten by long-time rival Junior Fa, an Auckland-based Tongan.

Five years on Fa is also trying to carve out a heavyweight pro career, but without the same success as Parker.

Going Pro

Parker poses ahead of his fight with Hughie Fury in September 2017. Picture: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

As quickly as Parker's Olympic hopes vanish, so does his time in the amateur ranks.

Those involved in amateur boxing don't like it. His trainer, Arkell, wants another four years from Parker as an amateur, to target the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But Parker, and his then manager Jones, opt for the brighter lights of the professionals. On July 5, 2012, at Sky City in Auckland, Parker's professional career is born.

Aged 20, Parker began his professional career with a fight at Sky City.  Picture: Peter Meecham\/Stuff

Aged 20, Parker began his professional career with a fight at Sky City.  Picture: Peter Meecham/Stuff

The 20-year-old takes on a 38-year-old Hamilton-based PE teacher by the name of Dean Garmonsway. It's on the undercard of the Shane Cameron-Monte Barrett fight put on by Duco Events, the group which will go on to invest a lot of money in its prize fighter and get a world title in return.

By name, Parker has entered the professional ranks, but his actions don't yet match. Following the weigh-in before his pro debut he heads to McDonald's for a pre-fight feed - something Parker now cringes at.

The fight is a mess. It's a performance Parker is unlikely to have on his highlights reel when he now looks back on his 24 professional bouts.

But a flurry of Parker punches with a minute remaining in the second round finishes Garmonsway. It's Parker's starting point for a five-year journey en route to a world heavyweight title.

After four professional bouts against no-name fighters, promoter Duco Events ups the stakes. Duco's Dean Lonergan approaches Kevin Barry to take over training Parker, which is met with surprise.

Barry is a well known in New Zealand boxing circles but was best known for an ugly breakup with another world class Kiwi heavyweight, David Tua. The move fuels debate. It also means a shift for Parker to Barry's Las Vegas home to train with him fulltime.

Then comes another announcement. The 21-year-old Parker will fight 44-year-old South African Francois Botha - a boxer who has been in the ring with the likes Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Wladimir Klitschko.

Botha was a topical figure at the time following a controversial fight against rugby player-turned part-time boxer Sonny Bill Williams. The Botha-Parker prospect creates hype and lots of talk - just what Parker's promoter is in search of.

Many think Duco are mad, that the promoter is rushing the young Kiwi. That at least was a common theme attached to the buildup.

One of the lesser-known cogs in the Team Parker wheel is Stuart Duncan, Duco Events' matchmaker. Duncan is the man trusted with finding the opponents for Duco's fighters and mapping out a plan.

The Australian-based matchmaker has sorted every one of Parker's 24 professional opponents to date, helping mastermind his rise through the ranks. He recalls the Botha outrage well.

Jones, Parker's manager, went as far as quitting over Duco's decision to put the fight on, says Duncan.

"I've been ridiculed in the media on a number of occasions in the early days, saying I was putting too much pressure on him too early," Duncan says.

"Bob Jones was out there bagging me saying I was putting too much pressure on him too soon. There was all sorts of garbage. It was a measured approach every time I put Joseph in front of anyone."

Jones, however, says he quit because he believed Duco was lining Parker up against older fighters who shouldn't be still fighting.

Through a brutal round two knockout win over Botha - and a calculated promotional drive from Duco, which has Parker visit most parts of New Zealand - the young Kiwi becomes a hit almost overnight.

It creates a game of chess for Duco. Or more particularly, that man Duncan who is trusted with finding and assessing possible opponents.

The puzzle is to find an opponent which the promoter can hype, but also someone Parker is ready for. Parker has never turned down an opponent which Duncan has suggested. Barry, on the other hand, has at times taken some convincing.

"Joseph has backed everything I've done all the way. Me and Kevin have our arguments about who he should or shouldn't be fighting but apart from that we get on famously."

The climb is a quick one for Parker. By May 2016 he has fought and beaten Carlos Takam in a world title eliminator bout. This sets up a shot at the vacant WBO world heavyweight title in Auckland against Andy Ruiz Jr, a fight which Parker wins via a tight points decision.

Parker celebrates a win over Andy Ruiz Jr to claim the WBO World Heavyweight title in 2016. Picture: Andrew Cornaga\/Photosport

Parker celebrates a win over Andy Ruiz Jr to claim the WBO World Heavyweight title in 2016. Picture: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

Parker's now a world champion and still remains unbeaten. But the 25-year-old has his critics. Plenty of them in fact.

He's been unable to land a knockout blow in his last three fights. He's lacked that explosive flurry of punches which so many have been yearning for. Many feel he has stagnated - a notion which angers Duncan.

Parker talks about his training for a heavyweight fight, in 2016. Video: Jason Dorday/Stuff

Duncan says he was the first to highlight his disappointment to others within Team Parker following Parker's showing against Takam.

However, the enormity of what Parker has done has been lost on a lot of people, particularly his fellow Kiwis, he says.

"Christ, give the kid a break. He's a 24-year-old who has been in with some heavy hitters. It's not like he has been fighting dummies."

Stuart Duncan, fight matchmaker

"If you go and look at Muhammad Ali's first 20 fights, have a look at Mike Tyson's first 20 fights, Lennox Lewis, George Foreman, all the great heavyweights," Duncan says.

"Go and study their first 20 fights and compare them with the calibre of fighters which Joseph fought, Joseph comes up trumps on most occasions with his first 20 fights."

Where to now?

Parker takes the hand of his mum, Sala, from the ring. Picture: Robyn Edie/Stuff

It's an awkward time for Parker after winning his world title. By his own admittance, 2017 turns into an ugly year where he draws criticism rather than praise.

An injury to mandatory challenger Hughie Fury delays that fight, and Parker has to endure 12 frustrating rounds in Auckland against one of his sparring partners, Razvan Cojanu, brought in as a late replacement.

Parker and Fury eventually line out against each other in September 2017 in Manchester, with the Kiwi grinding his way to another points victory.

“The style of this fight was always going to be ugly but the important thing was that Joe won and, I believe, still won convincingly,” Duncan says, explaining the frustrating style of Fury whose negative tactics force the Kiwi into a chasing game.

The big damage of 2017 is the inability of Parker to make an impression on the crucial British market and force the hand of the Anthony Joshua camp into making a fight between the two young lions.

Parker with his proud dad, Dempsey, and mum, Sala. Picture: Robyn Edie\/Stuff

Parker with his proud dad, Dempsey, and mum, Sala. Picture: Robyn Edie/Stuff

In the end, it takes a promotional gamble by Duco Boxing to make that happen. Duco relentlessly pursues Joshua, highlighting his questionable chin and producing a controversial video clip that shows the big Brit being floored.

The tactics eventually work. Duco angers Joshua into taking up the challenge and Kiwi promoter David Higgins convinces his counterpart Eddie Hearn that the fight is worth way more than the London venue he was offering that held just 12,000.

With three belts on the line – Paker’s WBO version and Joshua’s IBF and WBA titles – the venue is set for Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. More than 70,000 of the 80,000 tickets sell within a couple of hours.

There is speculation that the fight could earn Parker around $13m. But far greater riches await if he can defy the odds and beat Joshua in his own backyard.

Higgins has negotiated a juicy rematch for Parker if he can win and the sequel would see the young man from South Auckland earn 55 per cent of what would be an enormous purse.

Team Parker has always been adamant that it has the measure of Joshua, despite the hype machine that has built steadily since the Brit won gold at the 2012 London Olympics.

This fight will be career-defining – the true test of Parker and skills that have been honed since he was an infant.

Words: Logan Savory, Duncan Johnstone.
Layout: Joanne Butcher