MILLIONS of eyeballs will focus on a small rectangle in Cardiff on Saturday night, their owners anticipating a level of drama virtually never found away from live sport.
Three of the four major world heavyweight titles are on the line, both fighters are undefeated, both are heroes in their own countries.
A genuine sense of occasion and a hair-raising atmosphere will fill the Cardiff arena as the first bell rings and the leather begins to fly. While few here know it, a man with very strong ties to this county is among those who has done most to make the fight happen.
Parker’s promoter, the 38-year old Auckland-based David Higgins, spent some of his teenage years in Clare and his mother hails from Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Parker has been with Higgins’ company Duco Events since turning professional and one could almost say Higgins is the WBO champion’s creator, having sat down at a whiteboard some years ago and plotted how he might take a talented but raw fighter from obscurity to the world’s greatest stages.
In December 2016, his investment in Parker was vindicated when he took the WBO Heavyweight Championship but this Saturday has the look of career-defining fight, before a massive live and TV audience, against the golden boy of British boxing, Anthony Joshua.
A self-made man, Higgins says much of the motivation behind his success in business comes from a relatively deprived youth, his father, a Dutch man, having left at an early stage.
His mother, Bridget Higgins, brought her young family back from New Zealand to Clare for a couple of years in the 1990s.
“My mother was born in Newmarket-on-Fergus and her brothers and sisters all grew up in Clare. In the early ’90s we moved back, so I lived in Ireland from 1993 to 1995. We went to St Caimin’s.”
Settling into life in rural Ireland wasn’t very easy for a youngster from a major city at the far side of the world, but he has a lot of affection for his mother’s home place. “Yeah, it was a culture shock. You come from Auckland, New Zealand, a city of 1.5 million, you’re used to playing cricket and rugby and so on. Then to go to a small town and Ireland was in recession at the time…But I tell you what, Ireland and Clare are great; I love returning. It’s a great place to go on a road trip, I’d recommend anyone visit Ireland at least once in their lifetime.”
There wasn’t much to spare as Bridget raised her two sons, but he praises her for passing on values that have served him well. “She certainly didn’t have it easy- but she emphasised hard work and education and such like. She was always there. Even though things were tough, you knew that someone had your back and, as a kid, that’s what you need, you need to know there’s an adult that really has your back and puts you first, so she got that part right. She certainly contributed to any success that’s come my way.”
Because of the background he grew up in, he says he was a focused character by his late teens, and opted to study commerce, feeling it would give him a practical qualification. “I might have wanted to go and do Arts or something but I was quite driven due to the circumstances.”
At the tender age of 24, he founded Duco Events. While this year has been spent promoting a multi-million dollar heavyweight clash with three world titles on the line, the early days were much more modest.
“No one ever loaned me money. We never had a bank loan, we did it with a spanner and an oily rag. Basically just trying to run a little event and make a bit of money. Thankfully, the first one did make a bit of money, then you try to do another one. We nearly went bankrupt a few times along the way, but sort of kept alive. You get a thicker skin, more confidence. Things now that are happening could have kept me awake at night in my early 20s but you just get used to it. You sleep like a baby, even when you are risking a lot.”
Duco took a leap forward in 2009, when it promoted David Tua against Shane Cameron. While those names might not mean much here, the interest in New Zealand was enormous, the fighters having traded jibes for several years at that stage.
Ultimately, the company made significant profits, with the fight selling 88,000 pay-per-views, thought to be a per capita record. It was a bumpy ride, however and on the morning of the fight, Higgins was looking at having to wind up Duco.
“To put things in perspective, the majority of pay-per-view buyers buy on the day of the fight. The morning of that fight, I was losing a million dollars and going bankrupt. By 4pm I had broken even and by 8pm, it’s been a big success. Imagine that for a rollercoaster of a day,” he recalls.
It’s the type of stress that could put a man off doing the same thing again but he has doubled down, been behind numerous other major events and is on the brink of his biggest commercial success yet.
Few roles require as much self-belief, chutzpah and sheer neck as being a boxing promoter and Higgins had to shoot his mouth off a bit to make Joshua-Parker happen.
“They [Joshua’s camp] wanted to give us a smaller share, their view was that Parker didn’t have a big enough name in the UK. That’s why we went a bit feral, started talking about Joshua’s chin and criticising Joshua’s weaknesses.
“That sort of killed two birds with one stone. One, it put Parker on the map in the UK media and educated fans that there’s another world champion, not just Joshua. He’s a guy from New Zealand named Joseph Parker, he’s got a belt and he’s never been dropped. He’s unbeaten. Secondly, a lot of fans were outraged by our approach, so they started demanding the fight. It worked well to build Joseph’s profile in the UK.”
It’s less than six years since Parker turned professional with Duco and Higgins had plans for him from the get-go.
“After doing one-off boxing events, we thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a young guy who will co-operate, stick to a plan, fight often, like four or five times a year, put the foot on the accelerator, invest heavily, roll the dice and take a risk. Serendipitously, we found Joseph and Joseph found us.”
Parker has told him he would likely be a builder nowadays if their paths hadn’t crossed and Higgins is full of praise for the big 6’4 Auckland fighter.
“The timing was good and he’s been wonderful to work with, he’s done everything asked of him. We also invested heavily in him to build him up very quickly. I think he’s the fourth youngest heavyweight world champion in history. To get there that quickly, and then to try and unify against Joshua is a remarkable achievement in New Zealand and Samoan (Parker’s parents are both from Samoa) history.”
Even though he threw a few digs at Joshua before the fight was made, in most of his interviews, Parker comes across as gentlemanly and likeable, a world away from more natural trash-talkers like Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
Higgins says the public persona is the real thing and that Parker is one of the most decent sportsmen he has dealt with. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, very mature and intelligent. He’s a nice guy. A lot of professional athletes, they pretend to be humble but there’s a very big difference between pretending to be humble and actually being humble. A lot of guys who pretend to be humble in public and think they are humble, are very vain and egotistical. With Joseph, what you see is what you get. He treats everyone the same.”
On Saturday he will face another nice guy but a nice guy with ferocious power, who has never even had to go the distance in any of his 20 fights.
Realistically, it will be a major upset if Parker can come to the UK and dethrone Joshua but Higgins, as befits his role, insists it can be done.
“There has been a massive hype job, fuelled by the money and power of Sky Sports in the UK. A lot of English fans think Joshua is unbeatable. But what I said in the build up (is true), he has genuinely been dropped half a dozen times, we’ve got video of it. When a guy has been dropped half a dozen times, it doesn’t mean he has a glass jaw but there is a question mark over his chin. We also said that Parker has never been dropped, ever in his life. That’s fact. So Parker definitely has a better chin, no one can deny that. Second, Parker has got quicker hands, definitely quicker, better footwork and also he’s mentally tougher.”
It seems strange to question Joshua’s mental toughness, given that he got up off the canvas to knock out Vladimir Klitschko last year, yet Higgins insists he is frail in that department.
“Joshua has never been criticised. He has had a soft ride from the British media and isn’t used to criticism. You can see that when Parker made those criticisms, Joshua got rattled. Joseph is well used to criticism, has done a million interviews. We sort of put Joseph in the spotlight, we said you do every interview, you answer every question, you learn to think on your feet.
“Joshua would have PR people around him, they probably restrict media access. They’ll give an interview but get a soft one where he won’t be challenged on things. Parker has definite advantages,” he says.
Taking out Klitschko at Wembley in a see-saw fight, in which he was almost knocked out himself, is the signature achievement of Joshua’s professional career to date, but Higgins claims the Ukrainian was not the fighter of old on the night.
“He got Klitschko at just the right time. He fought an ageing, over 40 Klitschko, who hadn’t fought in a year or a year and a half, was coming off a loss to Tyson Fury and he only just beat that Klitschko, who was at the tail end of his career. Only just. Dillian Whyte shook him up also.”
Down to business
Inevitably, there has been a little bit of noise and slapstick ribaldry between Higgins and Eddie Hearn [Joshua’s promoter] over the past couple of months but Higgins certainly doesn’t take it too seriously.
Indeed, he openly says he has enjoyed working with Hearn and respects him. “He cops a lot of criticism but I’ve dealt with a lot of people in boxing now and he’s an honest guy. He’s not out to rip anyone off. He’s made a lot of money I’m sure but he probably deserves to have made a lot of money. In some ways, he’s cleaning up the sport, putting it on the map. I think he’s quite fair with the people he works with. His team and our team are working well together.”
The final weeks before a fight of this scale must be somewhat nerve-wracking, given the sheer size of the audience and the eyewatering money that is set to come in. While there were a lot of balls in the air at the time he spoke to The Clare Champion, Higgins said he wasn’t worrying.
“It’s a bit surreal. I’m not stressed, everything is going to plan. The commercial deals are going good. I have trust and faith in our co-promoter Matchroom and Eddie Hearn. Joseph is having the best camp of his life. He’s firing on all cylinders. He’s very confident and in good spirits. We’ve had a great camp and so if Joseph loses the fight, it’s purely because Joshua was the better boxer on the day. We’ve left no stone unturned. We go into this fight with real confidence.”
The President’s kin
Higgins isn’t that common a surname around Newmarket and David has been told he is a distant relative of President Michael D Higgins, who came out of Ballycar. He has never met the President but jokes that he could fit him in on Saturday. “He’d be welcome to come to the fight though. He needs to get his people to contact my people!”