Lee anticipates that best days are still ahead for former heavyweight champion Parker

Ireland’s former world middleweight star Andy Lee has one of boxing’s most-respected voices, and he is carving out a stellar reputation as a trainer.

As a pro, he learned under Emanuel Steward and Adam Booth, and he appears on this year’s Boxing Writers’ Association of America ballot as a contender for Trainer of the Year.

It is, in part, for the work he has done with prospect Paddy Donovan, but more for the reinvention of heavyweight contender Joseph Parker, who is now sitting back at the top table of the division after a resounding upset win over Deontay Wilder last month.

For Parker and Lee, there were four fights last year and they represented a journey, a rebuild on the back of a savage Fight of the Year contender loss to Joe Joyce in 2022.

Joyce’s career was in the ascendency, Parker – a former champ – was seen to be on a downward trajectory.

But Lee and Parker have dramatically turned the nose up, and the Wilder win was hailed by Lee as the best of his fighter’s impressive career.

“In terms of when you think about me and Joe, our partnership, the first [Derek] Chisora fight we didn’t really have time [Parker won via split decision], then we had the second Chisora fight, much better performance [Parker won via unanimous decision] – a much better execution of what we were trying to do,” said Lee. “Going up against someone like Joyce at that stage in his progression wasn’t the right fight to take. When they were talking about making the fight, I was not advising him against it because I know Joe can beat anyone, but I would just say that there are other fights out there for us and you can fight Joyce another time. But, once it was made, we trained to win that and as I said, I believed we were going to win it, and the loss really hurt me, and it set us back but we got active, got busy… Joe stayed consistent with his training and life outside of the ring – he stayed very consistent with his living as well as his training – things just started to fall into place. We weren’t trying to get fit; we weren’t trying to relearn things we had started in the camp before. He would just go from strength to strength in terms of building on what we were working on, all the time.”

It is widely speculated that Parker will be one of the names called back to box in Saudi Arabia, possibly on the Anthony Joshua-Francis Ngannou bill. Other heavyweights who boxed and won on that Day of Reckoning show on December 23, when Parker stunned Wilder, were Daniel Dubios, Agit Kabayel, Frank Sanchez and Filip Hrgovic, but Parker has also been mentioned as a possible Zhilei Zhang opponent. Lee would not speculate.

Regardless of who Parker boxes, it is likely going to be a big fight on another big Saudi night.

“It’s incredible what’s happening, what they’re doing in Saudi Arabia, it’s just, it’s the only game in town now, isn’t it,” Lee added. “For heavyweights anyway, they’ve changed the game, literally, changed the game – they’ve changed the sport. I’m not sure how long it will last, long may it last, but while it’s happening, it’s been fantastic. Joe’s been very fortunate to have this relationship with Tyson [Fury] and Spencer Brown [Fury’s manager]. Back in 2020… Both of them have been very good to me and Joe. In terms of me and Joe getting together to be fighter and trainer together – Tyson set that up – he put Joe on the card, he fought Simon Kean [last October, and won via knockout in round three], next thing this opportunity. Joe gets a great knockout and then this opportunity comes to fight Wilder, and now Joe’s the man, so [look] how quickly it can turn, you know? Your chance comes, and you take it.” 

And now it is Parker, who is still only 32 and who has 34 wins against three losses, whose future is looking bright ahead of playing a significant part in the heavyweight landscape of 2024. Lee, for one, thinks the popular New Zealand heavyweight’s best days are still in front of him.

“Yeah, he’s just had his best day, you know?” said Lee. “So far, there’s still more to come. Had he been a bit more deliberate in round eight [against Wilder], which we work on all the time – being deliberate, being present – he might’ve got Wilder out of there. Just [to have] been a bit more careful with those shots he was landing or trying to land. So that’s an improvement we can make straight away.”

Plenty were disappointed with Wilder, his lack of urgency, his lack of apparent hunger or even desperation as the fight went on, but Lee said that was down to Parker keeping the heavy-hitting American in check. Parker had roughed Wilder up in the eighth and kept him honest with his power and sharp counters throughout the fight. Parker got neither sloppy nor carless and maintained his concentration, which against a puncher like Wilder was paramount.

“No, I don’t think he was allowed to,” Lee offered, when asked why Wilder never seemed more urgent to turn things around with the fight slipping away. “Any time he looked to launch an attack or a threat, Joe shaped to throw his right hand. I think he [Wilder] was only able to do what he was allowed to do. I felt like the first few rounds, he [Deontay Wilder] wanted us to try and ease into it, trying to warm into it, [he] hadn’t been in the ring in a long time so he wanted to get the feeling, a little bit, and then he [Wilder] might open up in the middle rounds. So, you’re always nervous when you’re in with somebody like Wilder anyway, it [the KO] can happen at any moment, but while he might have been trying to feel his way into it, he was getting beaten up, and he was getting tired. And Joe was physically getting physical with him, so maybe when there was time for him to do something, he was already so far behind and he actually couldn’t do anything. By the time it took him to do something, he couldn’t do anything. He turned away. But when you’re in with a puncher like Wilder, you’re always, always [aware] until the final bell. To be honest, I never thought that it would go the distance, I thought once of them would knock each other out one way or the other, but as the rounds were going on, it just became more of a realisation that that’s the way it was going to go.” 

The value of that win must have been magnified to Lee and Parker because of where Parker had been a year ago compared to now. They were written off, and then they rebuilt. Not only that, after two losses to Zhang, now former foe Joyce is being written off and Parker is on the uptick.

“I know, it’s crazy,” Lee continued. “I still think Joe Joyce is a force, if he’s confident. I think if he can get it together again – and probably take a leaf out of Joseph Parker’s book – and get fighting again. That’s the only way to get rid of those demons, to get back in the ring.” 

Because that’s what Lee and Parker did. First they stopped Jack Massey, then Faiga Opelu and then Kean. But they will insist Wilder was only part of the journey and not the destination. 

While Lee found it hard to compare the joy he experienced from steering Parker to victory against Wilder to winning his own fights as a ferocious punching middleweight champion, he knows how hard he takes defeat as a coach.

“I would imagine the depths of despair that I’d be in, so I could appreciate that,” he said, of his post-fight feelings as a coach. “I take a loss very hard, like compared to the [Joe] Joyce result [Parker lost via stoppage in round 11 back in 2022], it sent me in a spin really. It really did affect me. I mean, maybe I should appreciate the wins more, but I was just happy for Joe [Parker] and happy that my thoughts were confirmed – that the things I had anticipated how the [Wilder] fight would go – it went [that way].”