In the course of writing (for young readers) a biography of Joseph Parker, David Riley met his parents, Dempsey and Sala Parker, to discuss the book. They shouted him a Wendy’s chicken burger combo and talked about their family’s history with the sport of boxing.
Dempsey was named after the great American heavyweight, Jack Dempsey, the world champion from 1919–1926. He was known as The Manassa Mauler. Ruthless in the ring but, outside of it, so the story goes, generous, kind and humble.
Joseph’s grandmother chose the name Dempsey for her son but, when he was young, he had a leg injury and wasn’t able to box. He’s always had a passion for the sport, though — and, as soon as his two boys, Joseph and John, were old enough, he bought gloves and pads and began training them.
He worked on their fitness by taking them for runs up Mangere Mountain. He taught them punching combinations and even set up a gym for them in their South Auckland home. More teaching came by way of his collection of boxing DVDs.
“See that,” Dempsey would say as they watched Mike Tyson’s Greatest Knockouts. “He’s got power, focus, aggression. And he’s fit so he can do anything he wants in there.”
Joseph recalls that his dad didn’t have all the knowledge in those early days. “But he gave us the right start in boxing,” he says. “He was right in lots of things.”
Then one day Joseph got a lesson he wasn’t planning for. A boy from a rival school accused Joseph of saying something disrespectful about him. It wasn’t true, but he wanted a fight anyway. So the boy and his mates waited for Joseph to get off his bus then followed him home, talking smack all the way.
When Joseph got home, he breathed a sigh of relief — Dad was sitting outside. But that wasn’t the end of the incident. Dempsey looked at the boys’ angry faces and decided to use the moment for a training session. This, he thought, could be a good time to check out Joseph’s skills.
“Which one of you wants to fight my son?” he asked.
That wasn’t the kind of response Joseph was counting on from his dad. “Oh man,” he thought. “This is real. I’m actually going to have a fight on the street.”
So who was volunteering to take on Joseph? A hand went up. A hand belonging to a hefty boy who stepped forward to be the official challenger. And, before long, he got the better of Joseph.
Dempsey stopped the fight before his son was too badly hurt. And the winner and his mates went on their way as Dempsey wiped the blood from his boy’s nose.
Later, he explained to Joseph that he wanted to see how he’d do and whether he really liked boxing.
“Did I do good, Dad?”
“You did good, son. I’m proud of you. But I never want to see you fighting outside a ring again. If you want to fight, you have to do it properly.”
That sounded okay to Joseph — he didn’t want to be a street fighter.
Dempsey had something more to say: “Oh yeah, son. Don’t tell your mum about this. She’ll kill me.”
Joseph had told me this story some time earlier, and when I relayed it to his mum and dad, Dempsey and I began laughing as we munched on our chicken burgers. Then we noticed that Sala wasn’t laughing. She was eyeing Dempsey out. “I didn’t know about that,” she said.
“Oh-oh,” I thought. ”I’ve just got Joseph Parker’s dad in trouble.”
That chat showed how Joseph’s parents felt about boxing when he was young. Dempsey was all in, but Sala was worried about the violence of the sport — and she was hoping that Joseph might give it away one day and focus on the building trade.
Sala sat at the ringside during one of Joseph’s early fights and didn’t enjoy it at all. She felt like crying every time he got hit. “His nose was bleeding,” she says. “And I never wanted to see my son look like that.” She enrolled him in basketball, tennis and volleyball. She even bought a set of second-hand golf clubs for him. Anything to distract him from boxing!
“If only you weren’t boxing, you could study and do really well at school,” she hinted after one especially bloody and brutal loss. “Are you sure you want to continue boxing? You can stop if you want to.”
“I want to keep boxing, Mum,” Joseph said.
Sala exhaled. She could see that he was serious about this sport — and supporting her son in the things he loved was more important to her than anything.
“Okay, son. What do you think you should do to get better?”
“I have to train harder.”
“Well then, all I ask from you is to do that,” Sala said. “Give it everything you have.”
From that time, Sala noticed a change in Joseph’s attitude. He ate fewer bacon and egg pies from the bakery for breakfast. He was more enthusiastic about going for a run after school. And he became more attentive to his dad’s instructions.
Joseph has come a long way from that street fight in Mangere. He’s already being spoken of as a serious contender for the world heavyweight boxing title that Jack Dempsey won nearly 100 years ago.
And both parents are right with him.
Joseph was born in South Auckland in January 1992. He’s the oldest of Dempsey and Salavao Parker’s three children. They have Samoan whakapapa. Dempsey’s links are with the villages of Moto’otua and Tapatapaō. Salavao’s are with Faleula, Lotopā and Puipa’a.
Joseph went to Papatoetoe North Primary School and Marcellin College and, in 2009, he left high school with NCEA Level 3 — and a scholarship to do a building course at tertiary level. He did just one semester on that course before deciding to box full-time.
He’d begun boxing in 2003 at the Papatoetoe Boxing Gym with Grant Arkell as his trainer. He fought 28 times as an amateur between 2003 and 2011, with a record of 20 wins and 8 losses.
He turned professional in 2012 and won his first fight with a first-round TKO. With his victory last night, he has now won all 21 of his professional fights.
He is trained by a US-based, former Kiwi boxer, Kevin Barry.
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