Combat Sports

Sparring with danger: the lowdown on Joseph Parker’s giant opponent

Sportsroom combat sports analyst Mike Angove knows what it’s like to be a sparring partner. The former world champion kickboxer has done the job plenty of times. Here, Angove assesses whether Joseph Parker’s two-time sparring partner Razvan Cojanu can stage a credible challenge for his WBO heavyweight title on Saturday night.

In the wake of the straw that broke Hughie Fury’s fragile back, boxing promoters Duco scrambled to find a credible opponent to challenge Joseph Parker on Saturday night.

They had just 12 days to do so, so it’s no wonder there was an element of compromise in the selection of WBO number 14 ranked Razvan Cojanu, whose status a sparring partner of Parker’s has raised eyebrows. The Romanian has been in at least two Parker camps, working in the vicinity of 80 rounds with the champion.

Though it’s not uncommon for champions to face off against fighters they’ve formerly had in camp, people will naturally question how this changes the dynamic of Saturday’s fight, and if the huge Romanian is genuinely capable of putting up serious challenge?

Answering those questions requires some insight into the psyche of being a sparring partner and, as importantly, what stage of the fighter’s life cycle they are at.

Sparring partners typically fall into two obvious categories. The first is the road warrior. These guys are career sparring partners. Generally solidly-skilled, durable, and defensively capable former contenders, they are past their prime in the professional punch-for-pay game but still capable training fodder for those that aren’t.

These guys, often in the twilight of their career, make a tough living doing the rounds in top camps as professional punching bags. They are skilled enough to survive and provide some of the right “stylistic looks” for their employers, but generally not capable enough to challenge and push him to the brink. These pugs often form good relationships with the camps and get a spot on undercards to boost their pay packet a little more.

Then you have the young hungry lions, red-hot contenders, early in their careers looking for experience and to catch the attention - and perhaps the chin - of the big names as they build their reputation and brand. These are the guys to be very wary of, as they are still very much on a journey up the ladder, one day looking to usurp the King.

A prime example is the great Larry Holmes, who spent four years in camp with Muhammad Ali, and was marked early as someone who gave a near prime Ali a hellish time in sparring. Later Holmes would infamously spank a faded Ali in The Greatest’s penultimate fight in 1980.

More recently, last weekend’s dramatic title stoush in the UK was a classic example of the young lion, Anthony Joshua, pouncing when the pride leader showed signs of weakness. Joshua, too, had been in at least two camps with Wladimir Klitschko in the past two years.

So where does the enigmatic Cojanu sit on this scale?

To me, he sits in a third, more difficult to define category: the rebuilding fringe contender; no longer an undefeated, raging hot prospect, but still hungry and full of unrealised potential.

His relatively young professional career in terms of bouts (18 fights for 16 wins, over 68 rounds) and ranking place him in the contender category. His 300-fight amateur pedigree makes him a highly skilled technician, but his two losses place a big question mark over his ability to go all the way.

A little digging reveals these losses are deceptive. He lost his debut, when he literally jumped straight off an overnight plane to the U.S. from Romania and fought a sluggish four rounder the same day. Similarly, his KO loss to Donovan Dennis was a short notice bout, where he hadn’t spared a single round with a southpaw, walked up expecting to roll the big punching lefthander and got caught. By all accounts, that huge wake up call has seen a significant boost in his attention to detail in his fight preparation. He’s reeled off three wins in a row in 2016, picking up the WBO China Zone title in December to place him inside the organisation’s top 15.

Cojanu is at a career tipping point. He has greater potential than he has shown, and was rebuilding nicely after the Dennis disaster. This opportunity should steel his resolve as he would have had to wait at least another 18 months and string together another four or five good wins to have built towards a mandatory shot. As the 6 foot 7 inch behemoth said himself, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The 30-year-old challenger’s mentality is crucial. A “ring worn sparring partner” might give it a nudge for a round or two until he gets tagged and then revert to survival mode, a-la Jason Bergman in Samoa. This would make for an ugly fight where the champion needs to break down what will be a decent defense.

But if Cojanu embraces his shot, bites down on his gum-shield and throws with bad intentions, we have a potentially exciting fight.

As a sparring partner, not only do you have the inside knowledge of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses (particularly the open way Kevin Barry runs his camps), you also don’t have the usual nervousness or fear that accompanies an unfamiliar opponent - and nerves are typically the factor which separate the good from the truly great.

Equally, the absence of nerves can impact the champion, dulling his usual sharp edge. This all creates an interesting scenario if Parker takes it lightly and Cojanu lifts his intensity. In this case, the underdog could easily lock on and create an upset. It's a legitimate concern as the big Romanian can certainly punch, particularly with his left hook. And he’s been mostly playing a role as sparring partner, mimicking other fighters. Allowed to express his own style, and do things Barry had instructed him not to do in sparring, he may well have a few surprises in store.

Parker is faster, more mobile and has more attacking options. He also has a great chin, which probably counts out the lucky one punch KO, unless Cojanu catches him cold. Cojanu’s going to have to use his immense bulk and array of tricks to maul Parker and deny his rhythm and impose his own will.

After some rugged early rounds, Parker’s hunger and conditioning will come through for a 5th or 6th round KO. But if Cojanu is as desperate to write a real life Rocky script as he says, it’ll be interesting while it lasts.

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