When Joseph Parker takes on Junior Fa this Saturday at the Spark Arena, Auckland, New Zealand, it will be the most important fight of his career to date. While it may seem peculiar to bestow such status on a bout where Parker is the 10-1 on favourite, particularly given that he has previously participated in unification bouts, but there is a lot more at stake than belts; Parker’s career is on the line.

The 29-year-old still harbours title aspirations and currently has offers of lucrative contests on the table, but those bouts and his championship dreams will evaporate if he is unsuccessful against his fellow New Zealander.

Parker’s trainer, Kevin Barry, made it abundantly clear when talking to Boxing Social that both he and his charge are acutely aware that even a lacklustre, albeit successful, performance will not be enough; Parker (27-2, 21 KOs) has to be victorious in devastating fashion.

“This is a big fight for Joseph Parker,” Barry said. “If he doesn’t get the right result here, he might be looking for another job. He has to look great. We have knock Junior Fa out, Joe has to look sensational.

“If we are going to put ourselves in a position for some of the big fights, that we know are on offer, we need to look great in this fight. If we don’t, it’s going to be very tough to get into a big fight and it will be a huge road back into title contention. There are some good young guys coming through at the moment. This is our time, now. Joe is 29 years old, he’s at his physical peak. We need to make every fight a winner now. We are coming off three knockout wins, we need to knock Junior Fa out, then move back to some big fights in the UK or US.”

If victory keeps Parker’s career alive, a win for Fa (19-0. 10 KOs) establishes him amongst the top contenders in the sport’s marquee division. To date, Fa has defeated the usual mix of journeymen, has-beens, never-weres and never-will-bes that heavyweight prospects face in their formative years as a professional.

Parker represents a significant step up in calibre of opposition for Fa and, at 31, a loss could dash his hopes of ever establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the land of giants.

This fact has not been lost on Barry, who is keen to observe how Fa handles the weight of expectation.

“This is a life-changing fight for Junior Fa,” he said. “For Joe and I, it is interesting to look at the other team here; this is totally new ground for Junior, a new experience, a new emotional, mental and physical challenge. He’s never been tested at this level. You find out a lot about a person’s boxing ability and their character when they walk out for the first time under the bright lights. He’s got two scenarios: does he embrace the attention, or does the pressure of being under the spotlight suffocate him?”

While this is uncharted territory for Fa, Parker is no stranger to the big occasions, having previously captured the WBO world title against Andy Ruiz and competed in a unification bout against Anthony Joshua at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Barry himself is accustomed to pressure associated with competing on the biggest stage, having won a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

While question marks remain regarding Fa’s temperament in such circumstances, Barry is extremely confident in Parker’s ability to handle such challenges.

“That is one of the strengths of Joe, and always has been, is the way he can handle pressure,” he said. “I tell people that Joseph Parker has the clutch gene; when the bright lights come on, he lifts his game, he really does. He has the strength and the ability to control his emotions and to perform under pressure. This for us, is a major strength. We’ve been on some very big world stages, both Joe and myself, and we’ve held out team together and we know the systems we have in place.”

Despite Parker’s track record, his 11-year rivalry with Fa will test his self-control. The pair met four times in the amateur ranks, winning two apiece. Crucially, one of the defeats Parker suffered was in the opening round of an Olympic qualifying event. The bout was fiercely contested and despite Parker’s belief that he had done enough, the judges sided with Fa, costing Parker the chance to fulfil his Olympic dream. Ultimately, Fa did not get the opportunity to compete at the London 2012 games, as he lost in the final of the tournament to Johan Lindle.

Defeat was a bitter pill for Parker to swallow. Barry believes that Parker still harbours resentment towards his opponent to this day and that he will use the chance to right the perceived wrong as an extra incentive on fight night.

“Our team has been respectful to Junior and Joe’s always respectful to every opponent, but I don’t think that the two of them like each other much,” Barry said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of love there. It’s not like Joe’s come out and said: ‘I hate this guy’s guts,’ but I don’t think Joe has ever really forgiven him for one of the amateur losses to him, when Junior beat him to get the trip to the Olympics. It took Joe a long time to get over that. 

“I think this [fight] just gives that an opportunity to resurface. There’s no trip to the Olympics [at stake], but the big thing is we have to win here, the pressure is on Joe. We have to perform, and we have to perform in an explosive fashion because we have a lot of options moving forward. We are in a very solid position and we’ve got things opening up right now, so it’s very important to us that we get the right result here. The pressure is on Joe, he knows it. He would really like to put a beating on Junior.”

Once more, that word, “pressure” surfaces. It is possible that the magnitude of the occasion got to team Fa early in the week, as they attempted to unsettle Parker and Barry during the final press conference.

Fa’s manager, Mark Keddell, raised concerns over two of the officials being from Christchurch, Barry’s home city. “The Barry Family is a very famous, successful Christchurch family,” Keddell said. “We thought as they were a couple of Auckland boys fighting, we should have Auckland judges.”

Fa’s assistant coach, Eugene Bareman, added: “We definitely didn’t want Kevin’s mate from the pub to be one of the judges,” but Barry took the accusations of his influence in his stride.

“That was very funny, wasn’t it,” Barry said with a laugh. “I’ve lived in [Las] Vegas for the last 17 years, prior to that, I lived in Auckland for 11, it’s nearly three decades since I lived in Christchurch. Mark Keddell really made a little bit of a fool of himself there. It was just water off a duck’s back for me.

“They were going to try and rattle us a little bit. Good on them for having a go. I’ve been very complimentary of Junior Fa all the way through the build-up to this fight and his team, if I wanted to, it would be very, very easy for me to pick them all apart, but I haven’t chosen to go on that round. I’ve tried to be respectful to them. I think they haven’t a lot of experience at this level. The assistant coach, Eugene Bareman, he’s got experience with UFC. This is a big fight for Mark Keddell, as it is a very big fight for Junior Fa.”

During their eight years working together, Parker and Barry have held each of their training camps in Las Vegas. However, due to the restrictions in place as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, they based themselves in New Zealand for this contest. Family is of the utmost importance to Parker and over the best part of a decade, he has made many sacrifices in order to provide a better life for his family. He shed tears as he watched his sister Elizabeth’s wedding via Skype and was 7,000 miles away when two of his three daughters were born.

While family life can act as a distraction during training camp, Barry feels that Parker reaped the rewards of having his loved ones near to him ahead of this contest. 

“For Joe personally, it has been hugely beneficial,” he said. “He’s loved the fact that he’s had his wife Laine and his three daughters with him. Laine has been so professional through all of this. She’s actually taken over the role as Joe’s personal manager, she booking all his appointments, booking his recovery time. Her and I are on the same wavelength, she’s very, very good to work with. Joe has loved the fact that he’s had his family around him, it’s been beneficial for him.”

Given that this camp has yielded such results for Parker, the natural question is whether Barry and his fighter will be relocating from their Las Vegas base ahead of future bouts? Barry anticipated this line of enquiry and asked, and answered, the query himself.

“In saying that, can we do training camps in New Zealand in the future,” he pondered aloud. “I don’t know. Obviously, one of the biggest setbacks for us here in New Zealand at the moment is the managed isolation coming into the country. Depending on the opponent, we’d really have to back in Vegas where we can bring fighters in from all around the world and have Joe with the best preparation for the fights that will be coming up.”

Home comforts are not the only factor to have contributed to a successful camp. The contest had originally been scheduled for December 11, but four weeks from the fight, Fa had to withdraw due to an unspecified health issue.

Parker opted to utilise this short delay to his advantage to operations on both his elbows. While undergoing surgery that close to bout was a gamble, Barry believes it has paid dividends.

“When Junior pulled out of the fight in mid-to-late November, we had had five weeks of training camp, we had sparred 45 rounds, but we were having a lot of problems with Joe’s elbows, which I couldn’t believe because he had surgery ahead of the Joshua fight,” Barry recalled. “It was really the same thing again; it was bone spurs; it was bone chips and there was a socket on one of his elbows where the elbow couldn’t straighten because the socket was calcified over. It was giving him a little pain in training; some days were pretty damn miserable for him [but] he said: ‘There’s no way I’ll ever pull out of this fight’. 

“When Junior pulled out for some personal surgery, we sat down as a team with the surgeon and we knew we were pushing it a little, but we looked at how Joe recovered from his first lot of surgeries. The surgeon will openly say he’s never had anyone recover as fast as Joe in his whole career as a surgeon. The fact that Joe never took pain medication, and the things Joe was doing after a couple of days, most people don’t do for three weeks. We were encouraged by that and thought: ‘Let’s get them cleaned out’. 

“There was a lot of junk in them. We started back at training camp on January 4, which was very aggressive. We had some times where he was in a bunch of pain, but we knew he would be, but he’s a tough, tough guy and he just worked through it. We had the surgery, which I believe is the best thing because right at the moment, his right hand in particular is very straight, very hard. He’s throwing his hands with a lot of power. The discomfort is gone. For a fight that is so significant on his boxing career, it would be a shame if we had the fight and he didn’t fight at his best because of the elbows.”

Barry believes that a fit, healthy and happy Joseph Parker is a dangerous fighter. He is certain his charge will prove his faith to be well-founded by despatching of Fa promptly, allowing Parker to move onto the contests that can help re-establish him as a force in the heavyweight division.

“As I mentioned, we have some options that have already been presented,” he said. “When Joe knocks Junior Fa out, I think we are going to be pretty quick in making a statement on our next plans.”