By Patrick McKendry*
In the aftermath of his fight against Junior Fa at Auckland's Spark Arena on Saturday, Joseph Parker, yet to put a shirt on a torso still slick with sweat, shook hands with this writer who was standing at the back of a press conference which wouldn't start for another 15 minutes and said something like: "Man, that was too close."
"Junior fought well," I replied. "He came prepared."
"Yes," Parker replied, almost apologetically. "He was better than I thought he'd be."
The first professional loss in Fa's now 20-fight career was also widely considered to be his best performance. The higher-ranked Parker, determined to stop Fa inside the 12 rounds, failed to do so but won on points via a unanimous decision by the three judges.
It was a close fight but Fa lost, deservedly he said, because he wasn't busy enough. Fa was right. He was also the happier of the two.
Fa was content because he not only proved a lot of people wrong (including me - I thought Parker would be on a different level and stop him in the middle rounds), he also showed an incredible rise in performance from his previous fights against heavyweight boxers who probably wouldn't be recognised on their own streets.
And this is a key point which the experienced Parker, who now has a 28-win, two-loss professional record, must consider over the next weeks and months.
Despite losing an enormous amount of blood in a health scare in late November, for which he received surgery, Fa has developed enormously as a fighter (insiders in his camp say his health issues limited his efforts in training to about 80 percent of what they could be).
Parker's main heavyweight rivals have all developed; Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, Dillian Whyte, Dereck Chisora, Andy Ruiz Jr and even 41-year-old Alexander Povetkin, who last year knocked Whyte cold with an uppercut the Englishman still hasn't seen coming. It was a huge upset and has earned Povetkin an even more lucrative rematch.
Parker has not developed and in sporting circles those that don't improve are generally seen to be going backwards.
The question for Parker now is whether he recognises that, and, if so, what he wants to do about it. He is 29 now, with, by his own admission about three more years of professional boxing ahead of him.
No athlete wants to get to the end of their careers and look back with regret, and Parker, an intelligent, charismatic individual, will be no different.
His talent is clear; he is a former world heavyweight champion who reached the summit in Auckland at the end of 2016 when he beat Ruiz Jr in what was probably the best performance of his career.
The battle of the men with the two fastest hands in the division was high on drama and action, but the hand speed appears to have dipped slightly, and while he may still have power in that right hand in particular, the overhand right is a blunt-force instrument that is relatively easy for his elite opponents to see. Another of his best attributes was the ability to punch in combinations; we didn't see that on Saturday night.
He needed to develop more attacking weapons because he couldn't hurt Fa with his right hand, nor even Hughie Fury in his second title defence. One fight later and it was the same story in a defeat to Joshua in Cardiff which wasn't without merit but unfortunately for him was extremely one-sided.
After too many flat recent performances, Parker must accept that he needs to make change in order to get back to near his potential, and now would appear the perfect time to make change.
With Covid-19 still rampant around the world, it would be natural for him to be reluctant to rejoin trainer Kevin Barry in Las Vegas, and after spending more time in Auckland with his family, including three young daughters, than he ever has before, that reluctance could be magnified.
Insiders say a move to a more science-based high-performance plan, which Fa has followed, is the minimum required. There have also been calls to replace Barry, who has been with him for most of his professional career, with a new voice.
Parker is known for his loyalty and such changes won't be easy, but he needs to do something different. The time for change is near or regrets, and more disappointment, will likely follow.
After being on the receiving end too often over the past three or four years, it's time for him to surprise a few people.
*Patrick McKendry is an Auckland-based sports writer who has covered all of Joseph Parker's major fights since he turned professional in 2012.