Newly crowned New Zealand Professional Boxing Association heavyweight champion Junior Fa took a calculated risk on Saturday night.
Battling a back injury and without coach Henry Schuster (who had traveled to Samoa following the death of his father) to oversee his preparation, Fa faced a tough call. He was confident he had more than enough ability to take care of the nuggety journeyman Daniel Tai, but he wasn’t physically or mentally committed to the task. In boxing, that’s asking for trouble.
On the other hand, opportunity is knocking for the 27-year-old 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medalist. Recently signed to former HBO Boxing senior executive Lou Dibella’s stable (which includes WBC champion Deontay Wilder), the 11-0 Fa is poised to make an assault on the heavyweight rankings. Soon enough, the South Aucklander will follow in the footsteps of David Tua and Joseph Parker and base himself in the United States.
But the pathway to global boxing recognition typically starts at home. Capturing a national title sets up a shot at one of the major sanctioning bodies’ regional belts. A regional belt provides a foothold on the rankings. And from there it’s dog-eats-increasingly-formidable-dog in a scrap to the top.
So Saturday’s Big Bash 7 main event at the ABA was a great chance for Fa to take an important step forward. But if his back seized up, he knew he would be in for a long, painful night.
Tai’s 22-10 record is unremarkable, but the Aucklander has only ever been stopped once – by Danny Green in 2001 fighting at light heavyweight.
Ultimately, Fa decided the potential reward outweighed the risk.
“I knew that I could win – but at what cost?” Fa said. “I weighed it up. And no matter what sort of preparation I had, I knew that I was going to win.”
He was right, too, although his performance in his first professional title fight and first 10-round bout was mixed.
“I was quite underwhelmed with my performance. I thought that [Tai] fought a great fight with a great gameplan. I could have done things a whole lot better. At the end of the day I knew I won, but I could have done a lot more. He didn’t hurt me at all throughout the fight. He’s a tough guy but I didn’t feel much power at all in his punches. My punches were quite hard on his guard but I didn’t look for more openings. That’s why I was underwhelmed.”
While Fa felt his win was clear-cut, the three judges weren’t exactly closely aligned in their views of the contest. One judge gave Fa every round, another scored it even. Veteran judge and referee John Conway gave Fa the nod 98-94 to seal a majority decision.
Fa felt Conway’s assessment was the most accurate reflection of the contest.
“I didn’t win every round but it wasn’t a draw. I gave him three, maybe four rounds.”
The victory saw Fa claim a belt last held by Sonny Bill Williams during his brief dalliance with boxing. He’ll likely defend it in May on a Shane Cameron promotion in Auckland, before heading to the U.S. for two more fights in the second half of the year.
That schedule would mean Fa would not appear on the undercard of the Joseph Parker versus Hughie Fury blockbuster world title defence at Vector Arena on May 6.
A meeting between Fa and Parker – who split their four amateur contests 2-2 – is almost certain to happen at some point. But for now, at least, their paths are set to diverge. Not that they have been walking similar roads of late.
While Parker will get a 60 per cent share of the $US3,011,000.00 purse for taking on Fury (around $NZ 2.56 million), Fa likely received around $3000 for his efforts on Saturday night.
But the payscale in boxing increases exponentially at the top end – and it is not lost on Fa that it is thanks to his Kiwi rival’s effort in capturing a world title that he himself could well get a shot at the big bucks.
It was Fa’s display on the undercard of Parker’s successful WBO title fight against Andy Ruiz Jr at Vector Arena in December that caught the eye of the Dibella camp. Tall (1.96m), powerful and classically skilled, Fa picked apart Argentine Pablo Magrini in three clinical rounds. As an audition, that fight could hardly have gone any better. Magrini was the perfect victim, tiny (1.77m) but tough. At 1.8m, American journeyman Keith Barr, whom Fa stopped in three rounds on his U.S. debut just four weeks ago on the undercard of Wilder’s WBO title defence, was cut from the same cloth. At just 1.7m (5ft 7in), Tai was the shortest – and by far the toughest – of the diminutive trio that Fa has seen off in his most recent bouts.
If Fa is certain of one thing, it’s that he’s had his fill of short fighters.
“I’ve told my team that I want big guys. I’ve had my time with the short guys. I’m over the guys under six foot.”
If Fa’s camp is in the market for a big unit for his Kiwi swansong, New Zealand-based American Julius Long would fit the bill. The tallest fighter in boxing at 2.16m, Long captured the WBA Oceania heavyweight belt by defeating Bowie Tupou on the Gold Coast in December.
Kiwi fight fans might remember Tupou for his brief appearance in Invercargill in 2015, when he lasted just 63 seconds against Parker.
A cagey veteran, the 39-year-old Long would be an intriguing opponent for Fa – although he may view the contest as a step down.
Whatever happens, Fa will likely be in the U.S. by July.
The father of a two-year-old boy and one-year-old girl, Fa’s transition to the U.S. will be eased by the presence of extended family in Utah and San Diego – locations within a reasonable distance of the boxing mecca of Las Vegas.
For now, though, Fa is content to soak up his latest achievement.
“It’s a pretty cool thing [winning a title]. I feel like I have more leverage now, I feel more confident, especially looking for sponsorship. It’s another tool for me to use, another step as I look to progress.”
After initially walking away from the sport following the end of his amateur days, Fa is enjoying his second coming as pro.
“I’m loving it. It’s a lot different to the amateur side. It’s about selling yourself and promoting yourself. I’m really enjoying that side of it. I’m having fun.”
As for his relationship with Parker – the man he would one day usurp – things remain cordial.
“If we ever cross paths we always stop and talk to each other. We had a pretty good catch up at the Deontay Wilder fight in Alabama. Things between us are pretty good.”