Parker and Ruiz prepare as New Zealand holds its breath

Luke G. Williams
07/12/2016 7:22pm

The ownership of the WBO portion of the world heavyweight championship will be determined on Saturday when New Zealander of Samoan descent Joseph Parker faces Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr. Luke G. Williams previews an intriguing event, both in and out of the ring ...

In the early hours of Saturday morning UK time, the currently blurred heavyweight boxing scene will come more sharply into focus when undefeated young guns Joseph Parker (21-0, 18 KOs) and Andy Ruiz Jr (29-0, 19 KOs) do battle at the Vector Arena in Auckland for the WBO portion of the world crown vacated by the currently indisposed Tyson Fury.

Amid the inevitable hoopla in the UK surrounding IBF titlist Anthony Joshua’s latest pay-per-view appearance in Manchester the same day, Parker vs Ruiz has passed largely unnoticed in the British press.

In New Zealand, however, it is a different story altogether.

A country whose sports pages are usually dominated by rugby has gone boxing crazy over the past few weeks, with exhaustive details of the fight and its build-up proliferating throughout the New Zealand media.

“It's big,” confirms New Zealand Herald journalist Patrick McKendry, when quizzed by Boxing Monthly. “Rugby dominates the national conversation - and headlines, even in the off season, but Joseph Parker is very well known here in New Zealand.

“He has been headlining pay-per-view fights here since he was 21, an extraordinary responsibility for someone so young. His promoters have done a good job taking him around New Zealand in a bid to sell his fights and he has fought in several cities here.

“In terms of the event itself, it must be considered one of the biggest single-day sporting events to [ever] be held here. History is on the line for both Parker and Ruiz Jr. Tickets are highly sought after and corporate sales have gone through the roof according to the promoters.”

Like New Zealand’s most recent great heavyweight hope David Tua, the 24-year-old Parker is of Samoan descent, and thus carries the considerable weight of expectations of two nations upon his admittedly broad shoulders.

The Samoan government has even contributed around $100,000 towards the approximate $4m staging and purse costs of the fight, which are being shouldered by Parker’s promoters Duco Events. As a reward for their investment, Samoa’s tourist destination qualities will be advertised during the pay-per-view broadcast in New Zealand, and the country will also feature on the event’s branding.

With such a huge investment riding on the fight, Duco are understandably nervous about maximising their revenue in order to ensure the event, at the very least, breaks even.

McKendry seems confident that Duco are on to a winner. “It will do well in New Zealand,” he argues. “The big question is, will it do better than the David Tua vs Shane Cameron fight in 2009? That was a domestic blockbuster due to the ill-feeling between two well-known New Zealand fighters which built up over a long time. This one should go close to that.”

Although it made little impact in the rest of the boxing world, McKendry is right – Tua vs Cameron was a phenomenon in New Zealand, securing 88,000 pay-per-view buys and income of around $8m, which some argue makes it the most successful PPV event of all time in terms of the proportion of buys per head of population. (By way of comparison, Mayweather-Pacquiao would have needed to surpass 6m buys in the United States to match the proportion of the New Zealand population who bought Tua vs Cameron - in the end MayPac sold 4.6m subscriptions).

“Parker's highest-rating fight so far was his IBF mandatory victory over the tough Carlos Takam in May,” McKendry points out. “Duco see every fight they put on as a risk - there is no guarantee punters will buy the PPV. The key for them is mitigating that risk by selling corporate packages and sponsorship. This is the richest fight ever put on in New Zealand - it's costing them in the region of NZ$4.2m - and they will be in a big hole even on the day of the fight.

“With a population of only 4m people, New Zealand is not a big market. Once viewers start buying the PPV on the day, though (and they tend to leave it very late), Duco should break even at least.”

There has certainly been no shortage of hype to accompany the fight and drive sales. Seemingly every move Parker has been making in recent days has been monitored by photographers and reporters, including a visit to his old school, Marcellin College, where he was mobbed by pupils.

Ruiz, meanwhile, arrived in Auckland on Sunday morning to a media blitz, as well as a traditional Maori welcoming ceremony. The 27-year-old Mexicali born pugilist, who was wearing an All Blacks 'away' rugby shirt given to him by a Kiwi he met in LA, expressed his delight with the reception he received.

However, eyebrows have been raised at the fact he has arrived in New Zealand just six days before he enters the ring. Even more unsettling for Ruiz may be the fact that his trainer Abel Sanchez did not arrive in the country until Wednesday, having been in Russia with cruiserweight Murat Gassiev.

Doubts also linger about the softly spoken Ruiz’s mental strength. In January of this year he withdrew at late notice from a contest against Dan Batchelder in Dallas with his team admitting “he wasn’t mentally where he needed to be” in order to fight. He also pulled out in September from a mooted October showdown with Hughie Fury.

Further tipping the psychological balance in Parker’s favour was Ruiz’s recent and somewhat defeatist assertion to ESPN that, despite the presence of three neutral judges in Auckland, “I know once I step into the ring in his place I'm already two points down on the cards”.

Such talk will not fill Ruiz’s backers with confidence and it is telling, perhaps, that his promoter Bob Arum has already secured a deal with Duco to co-promote Parker in future. The 84-year-old insists that his decision to join forces with Duco is not a reflection of a lack of belief in the Mexican-American whose career he guides, but it is hard to overlook the fact that he has, in the past, declared of Ruiz: “I love the kid, I really do but, sometimes, [he] can be his own worst enemy.”

Having established a range of psychological reasons why Ruiz may struggle to perform to his potential, conversely it should also be pointed out that he undoubtedly has talent. For a modern heavyweight 'The Destroyer' is relatively short at 6’2”, and he often looks badly out of shape, having never weighed less than 240lbs in his career and having scaled as high as 297lbs.

However, Ruiz has an impressive amateur pedigree, his boxing skills are sound and, although Arum’s assertion that he has the fastest hands in the heavyweight division since Muhammad Ali is hyperbolic, it is not as far from the truth as some would have you believe.

With unbeaten fighters it is never clear just how good they are until they face a significant challenge. it is possible that Ruiz will rise to the occasion and befuddle the slower New Zealander with his speed, en route to picking up a points win. Alternatively, as is always possible at heavyweight, perhaps Ruiz will be able to detonate a fight-ending punch on Parker's chin and secure a shock stoppage victory.

These two routes to victory for Ruiz remain relatively unlikely scenarios however. With home advantage and having mixed in a marginally higher class than Ruiz, Parker remains the clear favourite. He has fought regularly this year and has, thus far in his career, coped manfully with the the considerable pressure of being the big heavyweight hope of two nations where sporting and physical prowess are valued highly.

At 6'4" and possessing around 240lbs of solid musculature, Parker looks like pretty much the complete heavyweight package. Highly presentable, amenable in personality and with brooding good looks and a winning smile, he is also something of a throwback to some of the more dignified heavyweight champions of the past.

A regular churchgoer who rarely descends to the level of tiresome playground rhetoric and name-calling that often characterises the build-up to heavyweight title fights, 'Gentleman Joe' even has a nickname that tips the hat to great heavyweight champions of the past in Jim Corbett and Gene Tunney.

More importantly, Parker seems to possess the heart of a champion, having proved, most notably in a tough IBF eliminator against Carlos Takam earlier this year, that he has the determination and stamina to withstand rocky moments and come back swinging.

With a two-inch advantage in both height and reach, Parker will look to gradually bust Ruiz up with his excellent jab, which has been hailed by no less an authority than the great Larry Holmes as potentially the best in the division.  

My hunch is that Ruiz's nerves may betray him a little in front of a hostile and fired up Auckland crowd, allowing Parker to start strong with that jab and maybe even score an early knockdown en route to a wide points victory or late stoppage. 

If so, Parker will make history and become the first ever New Zealand born boxer to capture a portion of the world heavyweight title - albeit a minor portion, as his former manager Sir Bob Jones has insisted on pointing out, calling the fight "a joke".

That is a harsh assessment. While many boxing traditionalists still consider Tyson Fury the lineal world champion, his indisposition has created a power vacuum within the sport, and the winner of the Parker vs Ruiz contest will have as strong a claim as any other heavyweight, Anthony Joshua among them, to be be regarded as a world champion. Until Fury returns or retires for good or the titles are reunified, the truth is that none of the current heavyweight titlists can truly be seen as 'the man'.

Regardless of the status of the WBO championship, a victory for Parker is vital in New Zealand if boxing is to continue to thrive and grow. "Parker's professional career has lifted the profile of the sport here considerably," argues Patrick McKendry. "His headlining fights has given opportunities for local fighters to appear on his undercards, and there is a new appreciation of boxing in New Zealand.

"David Tua was popular, but didn't fight often in New Zealand and also suffered that tremendous disappointment of his defeat to Lennox Lewis in his chance for heavyweight glory in 2000. Most New Zealanders hope Parker can go one better and all the indications suggest that he can."

If Parker does win, then mega fights in the USA and UK against the likes of Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury may await, and it may be a while before he fights in front of his home crowd in New Zealand or Samoa again.

In which case, as the country hopes to hail its favourite boxing son as a new champion, they may also find that Saturday represents a farewell of sorts for Joseph Parker, as the local lad looms to ascend from the status of a local star to the wider stage of global stardom.

Only one thing seems certain, namely that many New Zealanders will be holding their breath and in a state of nervous anticipation until the outcome of Saturday's fight is finally known.