Anatomy of a comeback: How Joseph Parker rose from the canvas

Liam Napier
Liam Napier

Chief Sports Writer

September, 2022. Joseph Parker crashes to the canvas in Manchester after one too many Joe Joyce left hooks land flush. Parker’s third pro loss – his first by knockout – sparks fears he should hang up the gloves. To this day Parker can’t watch that brutal defeat.

Beaten and bloodied, with a nasty cut above his left eye, Parker’s long road from that deflating defeat to redemption seems paved with further punishment. Dreams of another title shot appeared dashed.

“A lot of people were saying I should retire, that was the end of me, and I looked horrible, which I did,” Parker recalls.

Six years prior to that loss Parker reached the pinnacle in capturing the WBO world heavyweight title with a knife-edge win over Andy Ruiz in Auckland. Now with a family of four – soon to be five – to consider, what more did he have to prove?

Plenty, it turns out. Parker returned home and then holidayed with his family in Samoa. He spoke to his parents, Dempsey and Sala, who offered support blended with concern. He consulted wife Laine, and they both felt he couldn’t walk away with unfinished business.

“There are always the doubters,” Parker says. “I spoke to Laine and there was no talk about a normal job. We were on the same page that I had to keep going. I knew what I could do but I hadn’t shown it yet.

“You don’t want to lose but that loss put me where I am today, with the team I have, and the steps I’ve taken to get here.”

Parker came out of his bout with Joe Joyce with many calling for his retirement. Photo / Photosport
Parker came out of his bout with Joe Joyce with many calling for his retirement. Photo / Photosport

Widely written off after the Joyce defeat, no one predicted Parker could achieve such a captivating comeback.

Today Parker stands within touching distance of another world title shot after successive victories over Deontay Wilder and Zhilei Zhang – two of the most feared heavyweight punches.

Having regained his place among the elite in the division of giants, Parker cements his presence as one of the greatest fighters to emerge from Australasia.

In this candid interview Parker traverses the pivotal changes, the ongoing physical transformation, that instigated his revival - and his timeline to attain his dream of becoming a two-time world champion.

“I’ve made a goal that I want to be champion of the world and I’ve given myself a maximum of three years from now to do it,” the 32-year-old says. “Things are working perfectly now. I’ve found what I’ve been looking for.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Joyce defeat, Parker made no excuses. He did enter that fight severely fatigued, though – and at his heaviest – after falling ill the week before confronting Joyce.

After one round, Parker was physically spent. In the corner he told Irish trainer Andy Lee all was not well but they both knew there was no going back. An old-fashioned slugfest ensued, with Parker and Joyce trading damaging blows until the 11th-round stoppage.

At that stage, three fights into his partnership with former middleweight world champion Lee after eight years under Kevin Barry’s guidance, Parker didn’t have all the pieces in place.

He knew something else was off, quite apart from the sickness.

Andy Lee has had a huge impact on Joseph Parker. Photo / Photosport
Andy Lee has had a huge impact on Joseph Parker. Photo / Photosport

There was no lack of effort or sacrifice as Parker trained through Christmas – on the other side of the globe from his family – for his comeback against relative unknown cruiserweight Jack Massey.

Parker won every round that night – in the same arena he lost to Joyce – but after another sluggish, underwhelming performance, he altered his team again for the first step in his career turning point.

“My body looked in shape but it was not in good condition. After the win over Jack Massey, I thought ‘this is not going right, I’m not feeling the best, I need to make some changes’. That’s when I employed George Lockhart.”

For nine years of his pro career, Parker had little to no knowledge of nutrition and the science behind strength and conditioning. Before hiring Lockhart, the former US marine who worked with heavyweight kingpin Tyson Fury and former UFC champions Conor McGregor and Holly Holm, Parker consistently overtrained and, essentially, ate whatever he wanted.

Lockhart was initially hired as Parker’s nutritionist. While the results were immediate with a first-round knockout of Faiga Opelu in Melbourne, expanding Lockhart’s role to strength and conditioning – and allowing Lee focus solely on boxing – added another dimension to Parker’s transformation, with his food intake and training now interlinked.

“It was a plan I’d never had before.”

After the Opelu win, Lockhart joined Parker in New Zealand for 10 weeks to continue his physical evolution.

“That’s the first time I’ve never boxed back home. All we did was eat and train. He cooked for me and we trained to build anaerobic threshold, strength and power. There’s different phases that you have to go through which I had no knowledge about.”

Learning to minimise hitting the heavy bag, to prioritise rest and what and when to eat is a significant shift in Parker’s second wind. Previously his approach of boxing to stay fit took its toll, resulting in multiple elbow surgeries and the risk of a fast track to early retirement.

“I always said to myself when I come home I want to keep in shape – and that always involved boxing and punching every day. That was causing a lot of wear and tear. When you go into camp your body is already smashed so you’re overtraining, using the same muscles and inflammation builds up.

“They’ve come up with a plan that I only box when I need to. Leading into the fight for the championship of the world with Andy Ruiz and fights before that, I was always having issues with my elbows and getting shots to calm it down. I was in a lot of pain. I thought it was normal and everyone goes through that. There was only one way we knew – to push hard and train hard. At the time it worked but now I’m a bit older and wiser I have a more structured plan and programme and everything makes way more sense.

“Now I go into camp primed and ready to learn rather than trying to get in shape and work on things and overloading my body.”

Joseph Parker notched an emphatic win over Faiga Opelu by first-round knockout. Photo / Photosport
Joseph Parker notched an emphatic win over Faiga Opelu by first-round knockout. Photo / Photosport

With nutrition and conditioning on point, Parker and Lee’s technical boxing relationship clicked. Where Parker frustrated with lacking concentration and consistent workrate within rounds, he is now sticking to a strategy, remaining composed through adversity, utilising his speed, footwork, combinations and movement.

While Parker rebuilt confidence, momentum and most notably muscle-mass body composition after the Joyce defeat with three wins in nine months over Massey, Opelu and Simon Kean, the latter finished off with a devastating uppercut, doubts remained given the low-level opposition.

Parker’s next opponent flipped that script.

December, 2023, and a date with Wilder would definitively determine Parker’s boxing future. With Parker – a rank outsider – pocketing $10 million for his second fight in Saudi Arabia, assumptions were widely drawn.

“A lot of people said that was a retirement fight for me. I’m going to get well paid, I’ve had a great career, now it’s time to get knocked out, cash out, and that’s it.”

Joseph Parker dominated Derek Chisora during a unanimous points victory in the fight before Joe Joyce. Photo / Getty
Joseph Parker dominated Derek Chisora during a unanimous points victory in the fight before Joe Joyce. Photo / Getty

With Lockhart improving Parker’s fitness, which in turn enhanced his ability to follow Lee’s tutelage and remain sharper for longer, Parker stunned Wilder to turn global heads.

One such subtle shift in the Wilder camp improved Parker’s sleep by two hours each night. Lockhart discovered additional calcium wasn’t allowing Parker’s muscles to relax overnight – and by switching a 9.30pm bowl of fruit, yoghurt and nuts to banana, dark chocolate, honey, peanut butter and magnesium, Parker woke a new refreshed man.

On the back of those tweaks and by following Lee’s fight plan, Parker clinically neutralised Wilder to claim the best scalp of his 38-fight pro career.

“Getting a win over Wilder, someone who has the biggest reputation for knocking everyone out, being able to put on that performance, the confidence and belief grew. That sealed the trust in everything we were doing.

“I didn’t want time off. I came home for two weeks with the family but I kept calling to ask what the next fight was – then we locked in Zhang.”

Parker's boxing IQ was on full display against Zhilei Zhang. Photo / Getty Images
Parker's boxing IQ was on full display against Zhilei Zhang. Photo / Getty Images

Evidence of Parker’s conditioning overhaul was clear against Zhang. Despite suffering a broken nose and two knockdowns in the third and eighth rounds, Parker regained poise and increasingly picked off Zhang at relative ease to leave the 40-year-old out on his feet.

Parker’s majority-decision victory, while far from perfect, displayed his heart, superior fitness and boxing IQ.

Three weeks before the Zhang fight Parker and his team arrived in Saudi to acclimatise. Knowing he wouldn’t enter the ring until 2am local time, Parker slept from 5.30am to 1.30pm each day.

“When everyone else was asleep I was awake. We shifted our whole day to match the time we fought. We did everything right to leave no chance to get it wrong.

“With the Zhang fight I did 12 rounds and my pace was okay but I could have done another 12 rounds. I had to be careful and cautious but my conditioning is the best it’s ever been ... when you compare it to the Junior Fa fight where I tired and plateaued, I overtrained. When all you know is to train hard you go balls to the wall. Now I train hard when I need to. I rest when I need to rest. I’m eating to refuel.”

At this point, having captured the WBO interim title and mandatory challenger status, Parker accepting a dangerous rematch with Zhang appears to hold little upside. But with continued improvement, he is confident of again outboxing the 131kg Chinese veteran should the cards progress that way.

“We’re contracted to fight Zhang again probably in September/October. I feel in the rematch I will be a lot better. He will be better, too, but now I’ve experienced fighting him I know what to do – and I can do a lot more in the next fight. If it does go ahead I can put on a much better performance. I still must be wary, cautious, sharp and avoid being hit because he is a powerhouse – even just a normal punch is a power shot with his weight behind him.”

Parker will never be the biggest athlete or heaviest power puncher in the division - but having ignited his passion for boxing like never before, and believing his remoulded, aligned team will create further shifts, he is better placed than ever to challenge for a world title.

Realistically, with Fury and Oleksandr Usyk booked to twice contest the unified world titles this year, Parker must get through Zhang and wait for the chance to fulfil his dream.

“All of those things can change. The Saudis are putting a lot of money into boxing and what they say goes. I could be fighting September/October and so long as I keep winning, I believe a title shot is very close. I reckon under a year. It’s so close.”

Eight years ago Parker defeated Ruiz to claim the WBO crown. Two years ago he was down and out after the brutal Joyce loss. Now he’s back. No longer relying on grit and talent, Parker is fitter, stronger, smarter. This new and vastly improved 2.0 version could well be warming into his prime.

“I’m grateful I’m still involved in boxing and I’ve finally found what works for me. It’s taken me 11 years and I’ve achieved a lot – had the best time with Kevin Barry, won the world championship, moved over to Andy. My passion and love for this sport is through the roof. I love what I do and I want to give it everything I have.”

Liam Napier has been a sports journalist since 2010, and his work has taken him to World Cups in rugby, netball and cricket, boxing world title fights and Commonwealth Games.