South Auckland is a proud place. Characterised by its large Polynesian and Maori communities, many have depicted it as a crime hotspot. But the area around the former Manukau City is on the rise and has a rich sporting lineage. The late great Kiwi rugby star Jonah Lomu, UFC and Kickboxing legend Mark Hunt, four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and three-time Olympic medallist Valerie Adams are amongst those who can call the region home. Likewise, the region can also boast mountaineer Edmund Hillary and former Prime Minister of New Zealand David Lange amongst its most famous sons. The next in that lineage? The current WBO Heavyweight Champion of the world, Joseph Parker.
In a little over three weeks Parker defends that WBO strap for the third time since winning it in December 2016. But the prospect that will stand across the ring from him in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium is no Razvan Cojanu or Hughie Fury. Parker will take British boxing’s biggest star, the currently reigning and defending WBA and IBF Heavyweight Champion of the world, Anthony Joshua. “AJ”, now 28, stands unbeaten through 20 contests, with all ending inside the distance.
Joshua is a different challenge for Parker for a variety of reasons. Despite having four less fights in his career, this will be AJ’s sixth bout for a world title, and for him Parker is perhaps the third most difficult opponent he’s faced to date, behind Wladimir Klitschko and Dillian Whyte. Yet for Parker, whose best win so far is his points victory over Carlos Takam in May 2016, AJ is on another level. The man from Watford is one of the division’s heaviest hitters and has developed a level of ring generalship that makes it difficult for anyone to push the pace. Add into that Parker’s ever-increasing weight and dismal performances against Cojanu and Fury, and it looks like it should be an easy night for AJ, allowing him to move onto bigger things later in the year. A fight with the hefty Jarrell Miller has been mooted for the summer, whilst a unification bout with Deontay Wilder is the one that all boxing fans want to see.
It doesn’t have to be a write-off for the man from New Zealand though. He looks as though he’s taking this fight very seriously and should be in considerably better shape than he has been for his three title bouts to date. Looking back on his more impressive performances against the likes of Alexander Dimitrenko and Takam, it was Parker’s footwork and ability to dictate the pace that secured him victories. He has all the basics in order; he wouldn’t be a world champion without them and he does pack a punch.
Indeed, Parker has a bit more than the proverbial puncher’s chance. AJ’s past few appearances have shown that he can get clipped and, perhaps more importantly, rocked, and that his rippling muscular physique leaves him prone to gassing if the fight goes long. If Parker is in shape and can hang with the 2012 Olympic champion, he could well makes things interesting in the final four stanzas. If Joshua is looking past the fight to the bigger fights and bigger paydays that await across the Atlantic, Parker is good enough to spring the sort of surprise this sport is full of. That’s a lot of ifs though. There is a gulf of skill between the two men and Joshua really should beat him inside the distance, just as he has all his previous opponents, but Parker is not as much of a no-hoper as many pundits and betting outlets are making him out to be. And if the proud sporting lineage of South Auckland is anything to go by, he certainly won’t go down without a fight come Saturday 31 March.
The star power of Joshua is such that any venue he fights in will sell out without any undercard announcements, a luxury I’m sure Eddie Hearn is very grateful for. An upside of that is allowing the Matchroom promoter to feature some of his other stars and build their brands up with the vastly increased exposure that an AJ fight brings. It’s promoting 101 and he does it well. Northern Irishman Ryan Burnett will defend his WBA Super World Bantamweight title against veteran Venezuelan Yonfrez Parejo in the evening’s other world title encounter. Burnett had an exemplary 2017, winning both the WBA and IBF straps with wins over Lee Haskins and Zhanat Zhakiyanov, and this really should be a formality of a defence. Parejo is tough, with his only losses both coming in world title encounters against Zhakiyanov and Hugo Ruiz, but Burnett is the faster, more accurate and younger fighter and should secure a relatively straightforward decision.
In the other standout undercard bout, 2008 Olympic bronze-medallist David Price has his last chance at securing that big world title shot. In a career blighted by drug cheats and underperformance, the Liverpudlian has consistently been seen as failing to realise his potential. In Cardiff he has the chance to right that against Russia’s Alexander Povetkin. The former WBA champion has consistently fallen foul of the sport’s doping authorities, leaving many questioning whether he should even be allowed to fight, but since returning last December he has beaten Christian Hammer and is technically the mandatory challenger for AJ should he overcome Parker. It’s a bold decision by Price to fight someone like Povetkin given his history, but it could be exactly the spotlight he needs to prove why he was awarded ESPN’s Prospect of the Year award in 2012. Also featured on the undercard are Photo: Jamie Minns Joe Cordina and Sean McGoldrick