Looking back at David Tua’s world title shot

Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker.

Sunday morning will be a historic moment in kiwi sport. But while the Joseph Parker v Anthony Joshua fight is going to be huge, for me it’s just missing the level of magnitude that came 18 years ago, when the country was gripped by heavyweight boxing fever.

Maybe it’s because there’s been plenty more happening this week: the biggest story in cricket this century, the Warriors announcing a women’s side, and Sky TV probably losing the rights to screen the Rugby World Cup next year.

There’s a bit of symmetry to the last bit that ties in with Joseph Parker’s quest for glory on Sunday morning. It goes back to the last massive boxing event that involved a New Zealander: the day when David Tua found himself up against Lennox Lewis.

November 12, 2000, was quite a while ago, and New Zealand was a pretty different place. The Tua v Lewis fight was a first in a few ways for sport here: it was the first heavyweight title fight involving a New Zealander in living memory, the first boxing match that the TAB would accept bets on, and was definitely the last sporting event of its kind to be shown on free to air TV.

At least one establishment close to where I lived saw that a bit of coin could be made off that situation. The Embassy Theatre in Wellington, which stands like a sentinel overseeing every Saturday night’s drunken chapter of Courtenay Place debauchery, opened its doors to fight fans that day and enjoyed a rare (this was the pre-Lord Of The Rings era) packed house.

The buildup to the Tua/Lewis ‘Royal Rampage’ fight, which was for the IBF, IBO and WBC titles, was a masterclass in trash talk by both men. The arrogant Lewis famously described Tua as being ‘nothing more than a left hook and a bad haircut’. The normally humble Tua shot back that Lewis was ‘a lazy fighter’, and boldly predicted that he’d knock him out. The crowning glory came at the pre fight press conference, when Lewis was given a ‘declaration of war’ document provided by the Tua camp outlining how the challenger would win. The Englishman theatrically tore it up, claiming that he ‘does not read…fiction.’

My old man managed to score tickets in the front row of the theatre and we joined around 800 or so others for a pretty unique viewing experience. It was certainly a very comfortable way to sit through a long, tedious undercard, plus you had the freedom to chat amongst yourselves – a rare treat when you’re in a movie theatre.

There were cheers for the Tuaman when he hit the ring, albeit with an entrance song that was sounded like it was being played on a ukulele. However the most volume came in the form of boos: when Lewis emerged from a ridiculous castle setup, then was accompanied by a guard of honour of medieval characters that looked like they’d just finished their shift downstairs on the casino floor posing for photos with tourists.

Ultimately though, all the comfort and conversation couldn’t make up for what was a really disappointing result. None of the pre-fight talk had really focused on the fact that Lewis was just way taller and had arms about twice the length of Tua’s. All we’d been told is that Tua would unleash a furious barrage, and either knock Lewis out or gas himself doing so. We weren’t expecting to basically watch the school bully hold the little kid by his head, out of punching range, for 12 rounds.

But that’s what we got, and we filed out of The Embassy feeling robbed and all asking aloud why Tua hadn’t just cracked him in the head. But given our collective boxing knowledge was pretty miniscule, it probably wouldn’t have registered anyway if someone who actually knew what they were talking about explained to us that was probably what Tua was trying to do all along.

Gone are the days (or just one day, to be more specific) of movie theatres screening heavyweight title bouts in New Zealand, you can either pay $50 to watch it on Sky or find a pub that somehow has managed to open on Easter Sunday morning. This time, though, the pre match talk has been boring and predictable, with Duco boss David Higgins continuing to embarrass himself and probably the rest of New Zealand with his poorly thought out press conference antics.

It seems, conversely, that a long, boring fight this time around would suit Parker – Joshua is the KO-merchant that will be being egged on by a rabid home crowd to get the job done in spectacular fashion.

There is one thing that could be taken from the Tua/Lewis fight for both Joseph Parker and Anthony Joshua, and that’s what happened to both of them after the 2000 bout. Tua never again reached the heights of that day in Las Vegas, fighting well past his prime and running into financial difficulties at the back end of his career. Lewis went on to suffer a humiliating defeat to Hasim Rahman only five months later, before returning to form and retiring as a heavyweight champion. He then enjoyed some success on The Celebrity Apprentice, coming fourth before being fired by now-President Donald Trump.

But, 18 years later, Joseph Parker now finds himself in the same corner as David Tua did. It’s unlikely he’s worried at all about what’s going to happen after the fight, just as long as it’s the ref holding up his arm in an unlikely upset.

That’ll be worth the wait.