The man behind the man: Kevin Barry interview

Paul Zanon
29/03/2018 4:45pm

Kevin Barry had finished with training fighters - until Joseph Parker came along. Now, Barry tells Paul Zanon, he believes his New Zealand compatriot is poised to shock Anthony Joshua...

Joseph Parker is New Zealand’s first world heavyweight champion and the man who guided him to the title, trainer Kevin Barry, believes his fellow-countryman is ready to surprise the boxing world by defeating Anthony Joshua in their unification title fight in Cardiff on 31 March.

Barry saw immense potential in Parker from the start of their working relationship five years ago. He liked the fighter’s calm demeanour but felt that Parker needed to fight more like a professional and get more leverage on his punches. Parker has responded to Barry’s teachings. Now comes the biggest fight by far of Parker’s career. Barry says his man is ready. Now it’s all about getting the tactics right on the night.

“We know there’s a height and reach advantage [to Joshua],” Barry told Boxing Monthly over the phone from his home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nevada. “We know Joshua has a very long jab, and if we let him use that jab and keep Joe on the outside, it’s going to be a very difficult night for us. We know he’s got a good right uppercut.

“He’s a big, strong, powerful guy and I’d probably say he’s stronger than Joe. [But] Joe has one-punch knockout power. We know that Joshua doesn’t. Joshua needs to put a flurry of punches together, which is OK when you have slow guys in front of you. But when you’ve got a mobile target and someone with a pretty good defence, it becomes a little bit of a bigger challenge, and we saw that with the [Carlos] Takam fight.

“With their styles, this could be a sensational fight. A real beauty. My plan is that you see a busier Joseph Parker. And if we see Joe busier, we’ll probably see a busier Anthony Joshua. It’s gonna be an exciting fight.”

Barry is confident that Parker will not be affected by the size of the crowd or fighting Joshua on his home ground in the UK. “I really don’t believe the size of the event will affect him at all,” Barry said.

The trainer recalled Parker’s positive mindset before the second-round knockout victory over Francois Botha in June 2013. It was only Parker’s sixth bout, his second with Barry in the corner, and Botha was a huge step up from the opposition Parker had been meeting.

“Everyone said the best we can possibly do is win on points because of Botha’s size and experience,” Barry said.

“On the day of the fight, I’m in the dressing room, Joe’s there with his buddies and I’m warming him up while he’s singing and dancing. He’s got a big smile on his face, despite the huge expectation on him in his sixth fight.

“He smiled all the way to the ring and when the bell went, he KO’d him in two rounds.”

Barry remembers saying to Parker’s promoters, Dean Lonergan and David Higgins: “The way he controls his emotions, we’ll take him all the way to the world title.” The prediction has come true in that Parker won the WBO championship but now he faces the heavyweight division’s biggest name.

Joshua is the betting favourite and he will have a huge crowd on his side. Parker, though, will take it all in stride, Barry says. “Joseph Parker will not be fazed if it’s 8,000 or 80,000 people in attendance,” Barry said. “He’s there to fight. He’s not going to be walking out counting the people.”

Of course, an upset victory for Parker would be enormously satisfying for trainer as well as fighter. We think of Barry as having trained David Tua, the Auckland heavyweight who lost to Lennox Lewis in a world title attempt, as the amateur boxer who was declared winner by disqualification against Evander Holyfield in the 1984 Olympics and now as the man behind Anthony Joshua’s next big-fight opponent. However, Barry has quietly paid his dues over the years. There is more to him than many might realise.

Controversial ending or not, Barry became the first New Zealand amateur to win Olympic boxing honours in 56 years and only the second in history at that point when Holyfield was disqualified in their Los Angeles semi-final bout. Unable to box in the final after having been knocked out by a Holyfield left hook thrown after the referee’s “Stop” instruction, Barry was awarded the silver medal.

Although very proud of his Olympic medal, Barry reminded Boxing Monthly that his amateur success was no flash in the pan. Trained by his father Kevin Barry Sr., MBE, who had coached hundreds of boxers over four decades, the 58-year-old looked back with warmth in his voice.

“I also won the bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 1982 [held in Brisbane], but had to pull out undefeated because of an eye injury,” Barry said. “These things happen. Then the next year I went to Northern Ireland for the first Commonwealth championships and won the gold there [beating England’s Jim Moran].

“I boxed all round the world at a lot of tournaments, but coming from Irish heritage, that was one of the most favourite for me. Winning the Commonwealth gold at the Ulster Hall and having my dad there was pretty damn special. It was very rough and wild in Northern Ireland at the time, but I have a lot of very fond memories and good stories from that little chapter.”

Barry didn’t turn professional as a boxer but did so in the capacity of trainer in 1990.

“In my 12 years with Tua, I also brought Maselino Masoe to New Zealand [from Samoa],” Barry said. “I trained and managed him for four years and he was undefeated during that time. Masoe went on to become the WBA middleweight champion in 2004, [stopping Evans Ashira, then losing the title to Felix Sturm in 2006].

“I brought him and his wife and child over. I did all the immigration stuff, trained him, got him a job, a car, an apartment. In fact, at that particular time, I had a lot of very good Samoan fighters. For example Sam Leuii, who fought Clinton Woods for the Commonwealth title.

“But it wasn’t just fighters from Samoan descent. Robbie Peden. I had him for five years and he went on to win the world [IBF junior lightweight] title.

“[Beibut] Shumenov and I won the [WBA light-heavyweight] title together three times before parting ways. It [the parting] was mainly due to my health issues.

“At the time I had a 10,000-square-foot gym [but] unfortunately I ended up closing the gym as I had to get a total ankle replacement. Then I had reconstructive shoulder surgery.”

As Barry started to build a life outside of boxing, a wealthy New Zealand businessman, Bob Jones, contacted him with an idea in 2011.

Jones was interested in sponsoring Parker, then an international-level amateur seemingly on his way to the Olympics, and asked Barry to take a look at the boxer.

“I knew Bob was a very financially astute guy, but never put any money into boxing,” Barry said. So, Barry surmised, Parker had to be something special.

“Bob then said: “We’re going to send him over to you [in Las Vegas] and you’re going to train him and you and I will manage him.

“So I started looking at [Parker]. At the time, Joe was on such a good run that he was head and shoulders above everyone else in that part of the world. There was one [Olympic qualifying] tournament left in Australia, at the Oceania Games, and it was a foregone conclusion that Joe would win that.

“But Joe turned up a little heavy. He didn’t have the discipline that he now has and he lost on a points decision.

“That’s when [entrepreneurs] Dean Lonergan and David Higgins got on board. Dean and I had been friends for 25 years and at that stage he used to come to Vegas about three times a year. He said: ‘We’re going to put him on one of our cards in New Zealand.’ I said: ‘Wow! That’s huge for a young guy who’s come out of the amateurs to go straight onto live TV.’

“Dean said: ‘Dave and I are thinking of signing this guy professionally and we want you to train him.’ I said: ‘Wow. I need to talk it over with my wife Tanya.’ She was concerned after the way things ended with Tua, after a high-profile, six-year court battle, and was looking out for me, after she’d seen how hurt I was, after all the fruits of our 12 years together were just eaten up and destroyed by lawyers.

“Not only did I have to go through it, but my family had to go through it with me. Also, I’d lived in Vegas for the last 14 years and had it quite comfortable here.”

However, it seems that comfort zone is what spurred Barry to look further into the Parker opportunity. “I’d taken a position as a director of wellness in an international banking company called the Union Gaming Group and life was pretty safe,” he said. “But I needed another big challenge. Joe was that challenge.

“The signing wasn’t a straightforward thing. It took eight months to get my family and extended family on board and create the right feel for Joe. But by that stage, I was good to go.

“I came on board in March of 2013. I was given an eight-week assignment with this guy [Parker] who’d never fought past four rounds and we’re fighting Francois Botha over eight rounds. I said: ‘That’s a pretty damn challenging assignment!’ We sat down around a table, just the two of us, and kind of explained how it would work with me as his boxing coach.

“I explained that if we were taking on Francois Botha, we’d need to become very close, very quickly, and he’d need to trust me 100 per cent, and that I’d be an open book to him. And that’s how the relationship developed and hasn’t strayed since.

“Soon after, I jumped on a plane with Joe to see his mother and father, just to say: ‘Look, I’m going to take Joe into my family and will treat him the same way I treat my sons and my daughter. I kind of became like a surrogate father, and my wife is like another mother to him.

“At that point, though, I didn’t really know anything about Joe, but my younger brother, who had a gym in Christchurch, had met Joe a couple of times and said that we’d get on well and that Joe was a good young man. It was obvious, right from the beginning, that Joe had a lot of talent, and talent is the most important thing. He had hand speed that was very uncommon for a heavyweight, he loved to train, loved to challenge himself, but everyone said he couldn’t punch hard.

“My first job was to teach him the jab to full extension and fight like a big man, because he was fighting like a small man. Secondly, get him to sit down on his punches and generate more power from his legs, which he wouldn’t have done in the amateurs. Basic things, but things he’d never been taught.

“Almost immediately, he doubled his punching power and got excited by it. With Botha coming up, we knew it was a big step up. Albeit Botha was at the end of his career, he still had enormous experience, certainly enough to trouble a young guy like Joe, who had had four nondescript fights in New Zealand.

“So four weeks into our time together, I took him to California and I put him in a six-round contest against Brice Ritani Coe, because I wanted to see that, one, we’d made the right changes and improvements in the first four weeks, and two, I needed to see up close how Joe was going to react, the day before the fight, the day of the fight, how he could control his emotions, whether he would listen to me in the corner, whether he would follow the game plan. I had no idea how this young man would answer any of those questions.”

Parker didn’t disappoint. A wide points victory over six rounds against Coe and a second-round destruction of Botha within four weeks provided Barry with all the evidence he needed that Parker had the attributes to operate at world level.

“Back then, Joe had a big soft frame, but he had a frame we could develop,” Barry said. “Initially, he had very little knowledge of the world of professional boxing and how to live like a professional athlete. All those things had been a step-by-step approach. Because he’s been living here in my house for seven or eight months of the year for the past five years, it’s been like one-on-one boxing. He’s learnt how to fight, how to train, how to rest, how to recover, how to eat.

“In his ninth fight, he fought Brian Minto, who was ranked 12 in the world by the WBO at the time. Then in his 12th fight he was up against [Irineu Beato] Costa Junior, another fighter ranked 12. We’d given him these challenges very, very early and put together a very ambitious programme, fighting five times a year, which eventually led up to the [Andy] Ruiz Jr fight, when Joe won the WBO world title. It’s been a very full-on schedule.”

The planning, the educational bouts, the hours in the gym, have led Parker to the 31 March mega fight. “Everyone keeps asking us about Joshua as if the fight has come out of nowhere,” Barry said. “This fight hasn’t snuck up on us. We knew this fight was always going to happen, providing both fighters stayed undefeated.

“When we fought Carlos Takam, that was mandatory for the IBF. We were positioning ourselves to fight Joshua back then, at a time where there were no belts at stake. Both guys were pretty much on a parallel course. I think through 2014 to 2016, they were the only prospects in the heavyweight division who fought five times a year.”

Before Joshua, though, Parker had to come through his fight with WBO mandatory challenger Hughie Fury. Barry said he always had reservations about the Fury fight last September. “It’s a fight I would never, ever have taken,” he said. “The only reason we took that fight was because it was our mandatory.

“Fury has the worst style out of any heavyweight in the division and nobody wants to fight him. It wasn’t a spectacular performance but it was a defence of Joe’s title, which we knew would get us that all-important step towards Joshua.

“We haven’t had a career-defining fight — and that includes the Ruiz fight. I’m not asking Joe to give me anything he’s not capable of. All I want is what I’ve seen in the gym. And if the fans get to see the guy I see in the gym, it’s going to be a very, very special performance: the career-defining fight that we need.”