Saturday night in London saw a man on the far brink of exhaustion toppled but not felled by a man freed suddenly from the grip of torpor, alas, too late. Had Joseph Parker not spent multiple rounds fighting in a condition of wry detachment then he might have exited the O2 Arena with a victory. He was left instead with a litany of what-ifs after Dillian Whyte clung on for dear life and the win.
This fight was not a classic but it had the finish of one. Whyte had dominated the first eight rounds more or less when he put the New Zealander Parker on his trunks in the ninth. Parker rose to his feet with the look of a man who’d rather have been anywhere else but London at that moment. What two or three rounds of shadowboxing in a mood of ennui revealed to Parker, however, was that Whyte had grown tired beyond the point of return. After felling his man in the twelfth, just a few more blows stood between Parker and victory. Then the clock intervened.
How Parker must have regretted his display when the bout ended. What distinguishes the best fighters from their competition is the ability to read a fight’s pace, to enter into its rhythm and control it from the slipstream. What distinguishes Parker from that category is his curious tendency to withdraw, which manifests itself in the bizarre way he becomes strangely abstracted from the fight in which he is taking part. Here again Parker fought like a man for whom everything is ironic—until all of a sudden he did not, and only then when it was finally too late.
If it was incumbent on the man opposite him to attest to the untruth of this state of affairs then Whyte did not disappoint. The Jamaican-born Londoner Whyte had given interviews aplenty in the days leading up in which he’d talked knowingly about his standing in relation to the “golden goose,” heavyweight celeb-champion Anthony Joshua. Everywhere you go these days there are people who know nothing about boxing and a lot about “A.J.” Whyte lost to Joshua in an unexpected cracker in December 2015 yet his response to that defeat has been to commit with a newfound seriousness to his trade. Now he fights ten pounds heavier than he did against Joshua but with more muscle and know-how. Defeats of Dereck Chisora, Robert Helenius, and Lucas Browne have all proved his unwillingness to remain a forgotten name on A.J.’s victory pyre.
Against Parker, Whyte, 24-1 (17), took the upper hand after four then clung grimly to his well-earned ascendancy. Whyte is the sort of fighter about whom one says, “he’s got something about him,” without ever quite knowing what it is. His work is carried out with an attitude of steely determination that threatens always to lapse into a sort of clumsy earnestness. There is a gaucheness about a lot of whatever it is that Whyte does. Even while Whyte became moodier and moodier, Parker was able still to make him miss widely and badly. What may have discouraged Parker, however, is how little missing seems to discourage Whyte. No matter how many times the Londoner swung the full weight of his massive body behind a misdirected hook or a telegraphed uppercut he would simply jiggle a reset and get back to the task at hand. Whyte responds to his own success or failure with the same phlegmatic deadpan.
In this regard, Whyte’s motivation is always clear. After hurting Joshua before being dismantled by him Whyte determined to become better, not worse, to test his talent to the upper limit of its capacity. What motivates Parker, now 24-2 (18), is more difficult to divine. His readiness to travel suggests more of a mix of ambition and realpolitik than his fights often show. Whereas Whyte desires clearly and unambiguously to put himself back on the same road as his erstwhile opponent three years after their paths diverged, Parker’s hopes are either less developed or more successfully concealed. For much of the bout he fought in a mood approaching existentialist angst.
Victory now makes Whyte the mandatory challenger for Deontay Wilder’s W.B.C. belt. Talk of an imminent meeting cooled in the aftermath of his win, however, when Eddie Hearn suggested that a rematch with Chisora or a fight with new-signing Jarrell Miller could be in the mix for November. Chisora rumbled back into contention with a stunning eighth-round stoppage of Carlos Takam on Whyte-Parker undercard. Jarrell Miller was last seen channeling the spirit of professional wrestling in Anthony Joshua’s company at the launch of Hearn’s new platform the streaming service DAZN. A fight with Wilder may still be too much to resist, however, especially given that Whyte’s diminished pulling power by comparison with “A.J.” paradoxically may help to secure an easier negotiation. It is harder to overestimate your worth when there is far less money on the table. A rematch with Joshua sooner or later now seems inevitable.
The future looks a little different for Parker after Saturday night. The New Zealander appears to have found that being a gatekeeper fits his ambition more than being a champion. It was hard, indeed, not to feel like Parker was totally content to lose over twelve for a good long while on Saturday night, until suddenly it became apparent that he wasn’t. But victory had by then already passed him by.