MANCHESTER, England >> Fresh from getting his chest waxed and boasting a slick new haircut, heavyweight champion Joseph Parker arrived in a tailored two-piece suit for a final news conference before the second defense of his WBO belt.
The New Zealander certainly looks the part outside the ring going into his fight against Hughie Fury in Manchester on Sept. 23.
What is still unknown is how he shapes up inside it.
In a bid to strengthen his “brand” and gain exposure in the boxing world, the 25-year-old Parker is hitting the road after fighting in his native country for 12 of his last 13 bouts.
Britain is his first stop. The plan is to beat Fury, the 23-year-old cousin of former world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, to improve his record to 24-0 and potentially set up a showdown with WBA and IBF champion Anthony Joshua.
“I feel like the UK is where the heavyweight scene is at, at the moment,” Parker said today at Old Trafford, home of storied soccer team Manchester United. “We want to be a part of it. We feel it’s important to come here and make a statement.”
Question marks remain over New Zealand’s first heavyweight champion, though. His trainer, Kevin Barry, acknowledged that Parker was not at his best in his last two fights — the victory on points over Andy Ruiz Jr. that earned him the WBO strap and then an underwhelming first successful defense of the belt against Razvan Cojanu, also on points, in May.
He dreams of becoming as well-known as the All Blacks rugby team but he still has a low profile outside New Zealand and the WBO belt is still regarded as the flimsiest of the heavyweight titles. The fight against Fury is even going under the radar in Britain, with only 5,000 tickets sold for the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena. YouTube — rather than a TV broadcaster — is showing it.
It’s time for Parker to send a message to the rest of the heavyweight division.
“We know the size of this challenge,” Barry said. “We have an opportunity, here in our first fight in the UK, to look spectacular.”
Given Fury has a reputation for being as unpredictable and awkward to fight as his more illustrious cousin, that won’t be easy.
Not only that, Fury hasn’t fought in around 18 months while he battled to overcome an energy-sapping skin condition that has affected him throughout his professional career. Fury, who is unbeaten in 20 fights, says he is feeling “100 percent” for the first time as a boxer, so neither fighter really knows what to expect.
The fight is also being staged in Fury’s home city, after the original fight — scheduled to take place in Auckland in May — was canceled owing to a back injury sustained by Fury.
“He is a very difficult opponent,” Barry said. “He is an opponent a lot of people don’t want to fight. We sat down as a team and said to Joe, ‘Do you want to fight Hughie Fury?’ And he said, ‘I want to fight the best fight there is for me in the UK at the moment.’
“We have planned on coming here for the past 12-to-18 months. We think Hughie brings the biggest challenge to us.”
The build-up has been light on trash talk, with Parker living up to his image of being clean-cut and courteous.
“I know it’s the wrong sport for a good guy, but everyone is his friend,” Parker’s mother, Sala, told The Associated Press. “Joe has no enemy in the entire world. His opponents are his best friends.”
Still, Parker said there were doubts over Fury’s power and his chin, and he felt he saw “fear in his eyes” as they went face to face for the cameras.
“He took a big gulp,” Parker said. “I thought, ‘He’s scared.’”