The tough guy who's coming for Parker

By Steve Deane

Jason Who? That was the overwhelming reaction when American journeyman Jason Bergman was announced as Joseph Parker's first opponent for 2016, in Apia, Samoa on Saturday night.

Yeah, Bergman was a southpaw and Parker had never fought a lefty as a pro, but there is little in the 31-year-old's 25-11-2 record to suggest he'll be much more than road kill for an elite heavyweight who is tracking towards a world title shot sometime in the next 18 months; a young lion who has dispatched his last six foes by knockout within four rounds.

Or is there? Scratch below the surface a little and there is more to the Pittsburgh-area battler than meets the eye.

Bergman has gone 16-2 over the last five years, dispatching a number of fancied contenders along the way, including former U.S. Olympian Devin Vargas. He also posted a spectacular knock of John L. Smith - the nephew of James 'Buster' Douglas - to capture the North American Boxing Association heavyweight title.

Those achievements are easily obscured by the nine losses Bergman suffered over the first three years of his career; losses that came when he foolishly served himself up as a passenger on boxing's meat wagon, losses that would do as much damage to his standing as his chin.

But wipe away those first three years and Bergman looks very much like a contender lurking behind a journeyman's record.

"This is my chance to show the world," Bergman says of his tilt at Parker in Apia on Saturday night. "Nobody knows the real truth about me. My first three years of fighting I went 9-9. But I didn't work out, I didn't train. I did it for a second income while I worked [as a truck driver]. I had no manager. I was used and abused. I was in a bad side of the boxing world where they just run you around the country and put you in with people way over your head."

Things changed when he met Jack Conway, a veteran fight trainer who spotted genuine potential going to waste. Adopting a "ground zero" approach, Conway guided Bergman off the meat wagon and onto the path the would ultimately lead to Apia and a shot at Parker's precious world rankings.

Bergman's route to a tilt at heavyweight boxing relevance is in many ways a classic American tale. He grew up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a steel and coal-belt town of around 10,000 people located 74km from Pittsburgh. Incongruously best known as a key stop off on the 'underground railway' travelled by slaves escaping the south in the 1850s and the place where the Big Mac was invented just over a 100 years later, Uniontown is a production line for hard cases like Bergman. Football, fighting and pumping iron are among the more popular pursuits for young men.

For those keen to demonstrate their prowess, Tough Man shows provide the perfect platform. The rules are fairly simple - if you've no fighting record to speak of (no more than five amateur fights and no pro fights) and you fancy taking your chances in the ring against an array of 400lb (180kg) monsters, you're in. If at this stage you're picturing pick-up trucks, crushed beer cans and bearded men in overalls chewing on pieces of straw, you're not too far wrong, says Bergman.

"There are rules but they mainly just want tough guys who want to fight and put on a good show, who will get in there and just wail away. They were pretty much outright brawls. They are only one minute rounds but when you are swinging away like that 30 seconds can seem like an eternity. The biggest thing to doing well is honestly just having some balls and having a bit of stamina.

"It is very entertaining - put it that way. I still go back and watch them."

Bergman's first Tough Man went okay. His second went better. In his third contest, in Wheeling, West Virginia, he beat all comers, winning around $US1000 to go with a good dollop of hard man kudos. He was tough, all right, but totally unschooled.

"I was never taught anything. I never finished a football game without a fight but I was never taught anything."

And so it was through the first years of his pro career, when he pulled off some upsets but just as often was beaten down by vastly more skilled and better prepared fighters.

Things have changed. Bergman's most recent assignment was as a sparring partner for WBC champion Deontay Wilder for what proved a successful title defence against Artur Szpilka last weekend.

Other fighters came and went with rapidity but Bergman, who has also sparred with Russian contender Alexander Povetkin ("I blacked his eye in the second week I was there - I've still got a picture of that and I am going to hold onto it") and former world cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek, lasted three weeks in Wilder's camp.

"After the first couple of days most people get gun shy," says Bergman. "They get in there and just try to survive. I don't know how to do that."

So Bergman will do what he does against Parker, press forward and look to land some bombs. His strategy, he says, amounts to "taking it round by round".

"This will be the toughest fight that I have ever been in," he says. "But I am ready to go to war. I have no family, I have no kids, no wife. I have nothing to lose in there. When I get in the ring I am ready for it to be my last fight."

Having been judged for years primarily by the numbers next to his name he is also ready to set his record straight.

"The way I look at it I am 16-2. I Look at myself now as a prospect more than a journeyman. I can knock someone out with either hand. This is my shot to show everyone."

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