Boxing: Charismatic Parker right at home

By Patrick McKendry in Apia

Joseph Parker has finished a training session at the Tuigamalas' Plantation Boxing Gym set back from the road amid lush grass on the outskirts of Apia.

The temperature outside is approaching 30deg, but inside it's cool, the open-sided structure protected by wire allowing the breeze in. Despite that and the light session he has done with Kevin Barry in front of about 40 supporters, many of them children, Parker is sweating freely.

Standing inside the ring and looking at his fans, he is asked for a picture - a request which has become very common here this week. He replies, "I'm sweaty, should I have a shower?"

It was an unnecessary question. To many in Samoa, the birthplace of his parents Dempsey and Sala and his favourite holiday destination, he is just fine the way he is.

Parker, who will fight American Jason Bergman at the Faleata sports complex, the venue of the 2007 South Pacific Games, has handled the week of his first fight in Samoa with aplomb, not that that should come as a surprise to those who have followed his three-and-a-half year professional career.

When he announced his switch to the paid ranks after a successful amateur career it was in the Auckland offices of former manager Sir Bob Jones. The then 20-year-old Parker, who opted to turn professional after failing to qualify for the London Olympics, appeared shy. He was confident in his boxing ability but questions remained about his temperament outside the ring.

Now, a mandatory challenge at the heavyweight championship of the world could conceivably happen in 12 months and the 24-year-old has become one of New Zealand's most charismatic sportspeople.

He has been pulled in many directions since arriving here on Saturday, but the demands on his time could stand him in good stead if he does get a title shot. Then the media scrutiny will be immense - many fighters freeze once they get on the big stage, and it's understood that Parker's handlers Duco are aware of that and want to avoid it all costs once he eventually gets to London or New York or Las Vegas.

Duco saw at first-hand how Samoan-born Australian Alex Leapai struggled to cope with the spotlight when preparing for his title fight against Wladimir Klitschko in Germany two years ago, a bout following Parker's victory over Brazilian Marcelo Luiz Nascimento on the undercard.

"We had a big day yesterday," trainer Kevin Barry said. "The whole team was physically drained by the end of the day and we finished about 9 o'clock last night and the only person who was still really upbeat and full of energy was Joe. He seems to be really thriving on the support of the Samoan people, it's like a homecoming for him.

"We've had a lot of high-profile fights in which the media and sponsors have asked a lot of him, but ... to his credit he handles this with a lot of maturity - far more maturity than many seasoned boxers and that is a major plus for us," Barry said. "Mentally, Joe is very, very tough and he also has a great personality where he doesn't let things get to him."

Parker said of the demanding schedule this week: "I've been able to manage it. We're out doing signing sessions, meetings and functions but the most important thing is rest and I told Kev you can count on me to get the proper rest that I need.

"Last night I went to sleep early so I'm feeling fresh and sharp."

He certainly looks sharp. His punches are powerful and crisp and his open training sessions - the other was at the fight venue - drew applause from the crowds.

Bergman, a 31-year-old southpaw, has been talking increasingly tough this week, but the Parker camp will be expecting their man to stop the American well within the 12 rounds. If so, many in New Zealand and further abroad might wonder at the point of the exercise, but Duco are looking at the bigger picture, and not only in terms of Parker's development.

They feel bringing Parker here is the right thing to do. A Samoan Observer story today reported that Parker could return here but it won't be in the short term because of the profile he is building and the money he can make fighting elsewhere. It's probably more a case of now or never.

"He's their son and the fact that three years into his professional boxing career he's bringing a fight to Samoa, that means so much to the Samoan people," said trainer Barry, the former coach of heavyweight David Tua. "In the 12 years I was with Tua we never did a fight in Samoa and the years that he had after that he never took a fight here when he could have. It means a lot to do this.

"All our fights that we have in New Zealand get sent to Samoa and from what I'm told there's nothing on the roads, everything stops. When Joe fights, everything comes to a standstill."

Tickets for the fight cost between $30-$60, and with the venue able to hold only 2000 people, many will be watching the broadcasts on both local stations TV1 and TV3. Expect the roads here to be quiet tomorrow, but not the venue itself.

"I'm expecting it to sound like there are more than 10,000 there," Barry said.

- NZ Herald

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