The Big Read: Inside Joseph Parker v Carlos Takam - the ring masters

By Dylan Cleaver

Joseph Parker v Carlos Takam. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Joseph Parker v Carlos Takam. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Dateline, South Auckland, Saturday, sometime after 7pm.

A faint odour of hype and Heineken wafts through the halls of the arena.

The corporates are dining, the men togged up like Bond, the women like Bond-girls. The Mongrel Mob have even pulled out all stops for the occasion, with waistcoats, buttoned-up red shirts and black ties. Business is booming.

Everyone looks a million bucks, which is, as it happens, is about what these dining rooms are worth to Duco Events tonight.

There are All Blacks past and present, there are captains of industry, there are gangsters.

There is Clint Brown telling the audience a joke, the quality you can ascertain upon the strength of the punchline: "We could be sitting on $3 million but the reality is we're living with two whores and a homo."

There is some laughter; a small part of me dies.

The ubiquitous Colonel Bob Sheridan warms up the audience with boxing tales of yore.

There is snappy footage of him providing, as the blurb says, "A soundtrack under history."

It seems like a reach, but boxing really was less a sport and more a sociological phenomenon. Once upon a time.

Boxing provided hope of upward mobility for the poor and disenfranchised. It was inextricably linked to the American civil rights movement. Literary giants like Norman Mailer would piggyback on Muhammad Ali's charisma in The Fight; AJ Liebling would watch Archie Moore's fight with Rocky Marciano and see Ahab on the hunt for the white whale.

By comparison, modern boxing lacks context. It still has its belts, its championships and, at the elite level, its corpulent prize purses, but it lacks meaning.

To illustrate how far the heavyweight championship of the world has sagged, Tyson Fury, notorious for his misogynistic and anti-Semitic remarks, has been credited with breathing new life back into the division.

On stage, Sheridan shifts gear, reminding the audience of his unstinting admiration for boxers, who engage in the only sport in the world where the aim is to inflict a "concussive injury" on their opponent.

Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Photo / Photosport.co.nz

In this respect, modern boxing is no different to its past: grievious bodily harm is integral. Physical pain is endured and dispensed, and it can be grotesque.

In the last fight on the undercard, super middleweight Joe Blackbourn, a genial Wellingtonian, was knocked to the canvas three times by Jordan Tai (who provided the night's comedy moment when he misplayed a celebratory leap on to the ropes and went flopping out of the ring).

On the final occasion time stood still as Blackbourn was punched flush on the side of the head, his eyes rolling back in his head as his body paused upright for a second, before flopping piteously to the floor.

This is what people pay to see; that moment when the messages and impulses from the brain to the rest of the body that are the key to our being, are temporarily shut down.

Modern boxing is no different to its past: grievous bodily harm is integral. Physical pain is endured and dispensed, and it can be grotesque.

"You little beauty," yells someone in a dinner suit to my left as a ringside medic cradles Backbourn's head while encouraging him to stay awake.


Duco are good at what they do.

They've changed the perception of what and how we can host events in New Zealand.

Created by former Kiwis forward Dean Lonergan and David Higgins, they're slick, engaging, defiantly over-the-top and, as far as one can tell, thoroughly successful.

Dean Lonergan and David Higgins from Duco Events. Photo / Doug Sherring
Dean Lonergan and David Higgins from Duco Events. Photo / Doug Sherring

They're in the business of selling pay-per-view television packages - this fight was sold at an eye-watering $49.99, encouraging many to source it illegally to Lonergan's consternation - corporate packages and, to a lesser extent, tickets. They'll go the extra mile to do that.

You don't have to like what they do. Sometimes it even seems like they challenge you not to - type Duco together with Millie Holmes or dwarf fighting or, most cynically, Teina Pora in Google if you require proof - but they're working in an industry not renowned for restraint.

They know who butters their bread, or sauces their buns perhaps, so the choice of venue for the midweek press conference was a dreary fast food outlet along the Great South Rd's boulevard of burgers, a calorific stretch of blocked arteries from Rainbow's End to Papatoetoe.

It didn't scream out "future heavyweight champion of the world" quite as much as it did "obesity crisis".

"I've never been to a press conference in a Burger King before," Anson Wainwright of boxing bible Ring magazine deadpanned.

It was a strange morning.

Joseph Parker speaks alongside Carlos Takam during a press conference at Burger King. Photo / Getty Images
Joseph Parker speaks alongside Carlos Takam during a press conference at Burger King. Photo / Getty Images

Carlos Takam and his entourage arrived, looking nonplussed.

Duco CEO Martin Snedden took the mic. He's good company with a Kalahari-dry sense of humour, but he's no Don King. He is, however, a magician of sorts, making the word "excitement" sound like "funeral" when it left his mouth.

Joseph Parker appeared on the scene with trainer and confidante Kevin Barry. They both wore suits. It was a classy touch wasted on a place that sells frozen sour blueberry floats for $1.

Parker weaved his way around an attempted injection of humour from the floor and spoke of his "excitement" in a slightly more excited way.

Craig Stanaway, once a breathless television journalist and now director of talent relations at Duco, moves from compere to interviewer in an effort to keep everything on message but Takam is refusing to play his game.

There are a few more awkward moments, not least when there is a mini-conference to decide which Super Rugby team Takam supports. There will be no revelation this miserable morning, no insight - just the smell of cheap cooking oil, the sound of rain pelting on the roof and the uncomfortable sense that Parker has been turned into a product.

The weigh-in that follows two days later at the fight venue, the Vodafone Events Centre, is a step up in class. If you can excuse the contrived pageantry of the stare-down and the ring girls - yes, there's still such a thing - you can take a few gleanings.

Joseph Parker and Carlos Takam at the weigh in. Photo / Getty Images
Joseph Parker and Carlos Takam at the weigh in. Photo / Getty Images

Takam, the 35-year-old Cameroonian who will carry a 33 win, two loss, one draw record into the fight, weighs in at 109.4kg. He looks awesome, with two porterhouse steaks seemingly grafted on to his shoulders and neck.

He won't talk to us, though.

"Don't read too much into that," says Stanaway, "or read into that what you will."

Parker pushes the scales out to 106.4kg. From a distance, he doesn't look as physically imposing as Takam, but don't be fooled.

"It's an excellent weight," Barry says. "Best I've seen him in three years."

Video

What Barry says later, as Parker graciously moves around the room talking to friends and family, posing for photos and shaking hands, resonates more.

"This is a career-defining fight," he says.


Ah yes, the fight. What can I tell you without betraying my ignorance?

Well, the good guy won. Not only that, Parker was taken to places he'd never been before, namely an 11th and 12th round.

Joseph Parker and Carlos Takam. Cartoon by Rod Emmerson
Joseph Parker and Carlos Takam. Cartoon by Rod Emmerson

"He will learn more from this fight than from his previous 18 put together," Barry will say.

His jab was effective, keeping Takam quite literally at arm's length for the majority of the fight. He moved well and showed occasional bursts of power, though not overwhelmingly so.

Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Photo / Photosport.co.nz

If the guy behind me's constant refrain was to be believed, Parker needs to work on keeping his "f***ing hands up".

He also looks like he could do with a few more miles in his legs. He had Takam at his mercy after a withering burst in the eighth but punched himself out and ended the round on the defensive.

If bloodlust is your thing, you're unlikely to have had that thirst quenched but those who view boxing as a sweet science, would have been left with plenty to pore over.

And, you know what, Colonel Bob was right: no matter what you think of the fight game, or the promotion, when you see someone at the point of exhaustion push himself up from their stool, knowing that for the next three minutes they are going to feel the sort of pain that few of us will ever be subjected to, you can't help but admire them.

"It was 12 rounds of war, really," Parker says cheerfully while soaked in sweat and spittle, as a few welts start emerging on his face.


Video

Snedden is pacing the concourse of the Vodafone Events Centre as the tables and chairs are being cleared away and the plastic pints and other detritus swept up.

He readily concedes he has limited knowledge of boxing and in his mind had Takam ahead of Parker as the fight entered its final rounds. In reality, Parker controlled the fight from the beginning and aside from a few wobbly moments, most notably the fifth round when Takam finally allied aggression to urgency, never looked in danger of losing.
But you can see why Snedden was edgy.

Duco have a doomsday scenario in the event of a Parker loss, but they do not want to activate it because he's the golden goose.

He's good looking, smart and as marketers would say, has appeal across a wide range of demographics. With a steady, traditional buildup he'd lay a golden egg or two every year in a long and rewarding career.

But Duco have never had that in mind. They have been intent on pushing Parker faster and higher than previously thought possible. By way of comparison, David Tua was an Olympic medallist and had fought 38 professional fights before he lost a world title shot against Lennox Lewis.

It was 12 rounds of war, really, Parker says cheerfully while soaked in sweat and spittle, as a few welts start emerging on his face.

Parker was knocked out in the second round of the Delhi Commonwealth Games, never went to an Olympics, has fought just 18 pro fights and is now the mandatory challenger for the IBF heavyweight championship of the world.

His career to date has been the definition of high-risk, high-reward although Lonergan will convincingly argue that Parker's elevation isn't as rapid as it seems and that his immersion into Barry's "university of boxing" in Las Vegas has pushed his ahead of the normal career curve.

Lonergan is in Parker's changing rooms talking about how an IBF world championship fight in London with Anthony Joshua, the talented 26-year-old Brit whose career has ascended even faster than Parker's, might come about.

What a production that would be, I think.

"What's you've got to remember," says Snedden, "is that although some of the build-up might seem like an episode of reality TV, at it's essence is a fight between two people.

"The core of this business is genuine sport."

A wide-eyed, 24-year-old athlete from South Auckland, who just days ago was standing in a burger joint wearing a suit, might just have convinced me of that, too.

Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Photo / Photosport.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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