Joshua and Parker will see plenty of thinking - and bruising
Joshua: ‘Boxing is not just about knocking people out. It’s healthy living, discipline’
Anthony Joshua (left) and Joseph Parker at the weigh-in at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
When Anthony Joshua said he wanted to clean up the heavyweight division he surely did not intend to be mistaken for the Dalai Lama. Yet, in the months, weeks and days leading up to Friday’s weigh-in at Cardiff, prayer meetings have generated more friction than that between the world champion and his well-mannered New Zealand guest Joseph Parker, who stands between the Watford man and the ultimate cleansing of the business, against the American Deontay Wilder and then, perhaps, Tyson Fury.
That is some way off. For now we have an argument over three of the four recognised world title belts between two polite gentleman pugilists whose respect for each other borders on friendship, and it moves smoothly towards resolution in front of 80,000 fans at the Principality Stadium on Saturday night.
Although Joshua says “boxing is not just about knocking people out” there had been flickering signs of animal tension before Friday’s weigh-in, where he scaled 17st 4lb – 12lb lighter than his last fight – to Parker’s 16st 12lb.
They intruded most obviously on Sky’s Gloves Off preview, as the whispering adversaries tried to stare each other down across a table in a darkened studio, and the jovial Johnny Nelson did his best to crank up the aggravation.
On screen, Parker tried to backtrack on earlier observations that Joshua had a fragile chin, although he added he would be counting on exploiting exactly that as the quickest route to what would be a genuine upset.
Joshua glowered – and went all philosophical. “Everything that you are is everything that I am,” he told him, sounding more like Jean-Paul Sartre than Fury, “and everything that you are is what you’re going to face on March 31st”.
Take a punch
The Briton – who recovered from a mid-fight crisis to dethrone Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley last year – reminded the rock-chinned Parker: “I may not be as durable but I can definitely take a punch.”
That betrayed alarming vulnerability until he added “and get up and keep going – and I’ll get the win”. Sartre – who boxed – would have loved that. His Parisian salon sparring partner, Albert Camus, probably would not.
Joshua and Parker are proud representatives of Nigerian and Polynesian fighting heritage respectively, and that will underpin their commitment. There will be plenty of thinking going on, but, as with every collision in boxing’s most hazardous workplace, the matter will be settled in bruises and split-second regrets.
Anyone who saw the Australian Lucas Browne fall like an axe-battered oak in the sixth round against Dillian Whyte at the O2 in London last weekend – failing to stir until the smelling salts and oxygen kicked in – was reminded of heavyweight boxing’s core truth: stand in front of a heavy puncher for too long and a night in hospital beckons.
This fight has all the makings of an equally uncomfortable evening – and, when it gets seriously demanding, Joshua and Parker will draw on the invisible attributes of determination, self-belief and honesty. The boxing ring is no place for liars.
Parker earlier in the week spoke of the inner strength he has constructed from the inspiration of a God-fearing upbringing and the comfort of a close Samoan family. His parents will be ringside; his brother in his corner.
Joshua, who had his well-publicised brushes with authority on the streets of Watford but learned from his mistakes, responded eloquently to questions about the changes in his teenage attitude and behaviour.
When his promoter, Eddie Hearn, described him as “a bad guy trying to be good”, the champion smiled and said: “I get his point but I think what he is saying is that I can be completely different, I can act different. I choose not to. I choose to be respectful. It’s good to look back at the struggle. It shows where you’ve come from, the journey you are on.”
Pausing, he asserted: “The world is built on opposites, isn’t it? It’s either success or failure, good or bad. It’s good to show the comparisons.”
Asked what the Joshua of 2018 would say to the young “bad” Joshua who was busted for marijuana possession, he said: “That was 2011, a year or so before the Olympics. Watford was everything to me back then. What would I say to that kid? ‘What you see is what you can achieve. If you don’t know there’s a Range Rover out there, you won’t aspire to get one.’
“I would tell that kid to have a broader mindset, not focus on the estate or the community that you know. There’s a whole world out there. There are people with a lot of knowledge. It’s about broadening your horizons.
‘Life is tough’
“Kids can feel like there’s nothing out there for them. Life is tough. I won’t tell people it’s easy. And the way the world is set up makes it difficult, doesn’t it? I support a lot of kids, a lot of people, but you can only take them so far. It’s up to them to do the rest.”
To that end, Joshua wants to invest some of his considerable fortune in the north London gym Finchley ABC, where he learned his craft as an amateur, stretching its remit to benefit young boxers away from the ring.
“Floyd Mayweather’s gym is an iconic spot in Vegas, and people travel from around the world to go there. Finchley has a lot of history, and Sean [Murphy, the head coach] is the character of the gym. I just thought, how could you commercialise this space, make it bigger? They should have a foundation where we raise money, have some kind of legacy there, education for kids, tutorship and discipline.
“Boxing is not just about knocking people out. It’s healthy living, discipline. You mix with different races, culture, religions. Let’s say this religion doesn’t like that religion. In boxing you shake hands and respect each other. It teaches kids all these benefits. But boxing is also quite backward, old and rugged. I thought they could advance the gym a bit if they wanted to,” said Joshua.
“It’s good to challenge kids’ minds. Reading and knowledge used to be forbidden. A lot of secrets, knowledge and wisdom were kept [away from them]. But now you have access to all this knowledge. We shouldn’t take that for granted. It’s all out there. Even though it’s tough, there is a way.”
And that is what he has to do on Saturday night, find a way as he reaches for his 21st early finish in 21 professional fights, to keep his WBA and IBF belts and take Parker’s WBO title as well.
All the talking will be irrelevant the moment the bell goes. For whom it tolls at the end is up to the fighters. This is no existential game. This is as real as it gets.
And it is heartening to realise the fighters are going to battle with clean hearts. They already speak the same language.
Like Sartre and Camus, they are ready to put their similar but competing philosophies to the test. I expect Joshua to win the argument in a bloody battle full of drama that ends before the 10th round.