June 6, earlier this summer. The sweat dripped off the walls in a sweltering York Hall as Lawrence Okolie (9-0, 7KOs) made the short walk to the ring inside East London’s most famous boxing venue. Luke Watkins, then undefeated, was his opponent, in another step up in attempting to win the Commonwealth cruiserweight strap.
Buoyed by a passionate, overheated, intense, and... ok, drunk crowd, Okolie got the victory in devastating style. Flooring Watkins twice in the third round, vicious right hands left his opponent helpless on the canvas as the referee confirmed the result.
As convincing as this victory seemed on the night, there were concerns coming into the fight of the step-up in quality in only his ninth paid fight. Okolie told Sky Sports:
”When I first turned pro, I gave interviews saying I want to progress quickly. Not because I have an extensive amateur career, just I don’t like the idea of boxing loads of journeyman. It doesn’t stimulate me or motivate me.”
He went on to clarify his history as an amateur as well as his fighting mindset:
”As an amateur I had fifteen fights and got into the GB team and took on some of the best fighters in the world, who had had ten or twenty more times the number of fights, so that allowed me to become better in a very, very short space of time. I wanted to take that approach with me when I turned pro. When you are training, grafting, doing your morning runs, doing your strength and conditioning, your boxing sessions, grinding out your rounds, you want something at the end of it that is a real fight”.
This wasn’t unchartered territory for the 25-year-old. Just four months previous, Okolie had headlined a night of boxing at the O2 Arena against bitter rival Isaac Chamberlain, winning the bout by unanimous decision in a comfortable fashion against the then, also undefeated, Brixton cruiserweight.
A trend is appearing. Let’s be honest, when a promotional outfit gets hold of a young talent who is expected to achieve success in the sport, padding their record in the early stages of their professional careers is seen as the norm. Matchroom Boxing - with pressure to fill their PPV model and NXT GEN shows - are no stranger to this tactical approach, however, Okolie seems to be breaking the mould.
This week saw the announcement that Okolie will now be fighting for the British cruiserweight title in just his tenth fight. On the undercard to Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title defence against Alexander Povetkin on 22 Sept., Okolie will have the chance to showcase his talents in front of close to 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. With undercard run outs at the likes of Bramall Lane Stadium as well as the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, this won’t be a daunting prospect for Okolie; however, in a fight that is expected to be chief support it is clear he will have his biggest crowd watching to date - by some distance.
This is another huge step up. Matty Askin (23-3-1) is no pushover in the 200-pound domestic division. A hot streak of form has seen the 29-year-old get wins over Simon Barclay, Tommy McCarthy, Craig Kennedy and Stephen Simmons in the last two years, with only Simmons having suffered defeat prior to their contest.
So let’s put this into context. A win for Okolie will see him claim a version of the British title quicker than any of Britain’s current world champions (Anthony Joshua, George Groves, Billy Joe Saunders, Josh Warrington, Ryan Burnett, Rocky Fielding and Kal Yafai), with ‘The Sauce’ looking to progress quickly beyond this possible feat.
”I’ve won the commonwealth, I’m going to win the British, then the European, and then we go world”, Okolie told Sky Sports. The blueprint is there for the 25-year-old, however, this isn’t to say that challenger is overlooking his opponent on 22 Sept.
In a dangerous fight involving two cruisers who can bang, the risk is plain to see for both fighters regarding their respective careers. Neither needed to take this fight and in an age where prospects are protected at any and every stage of their young careers, credit has to be given to Lawrence as well as, begrudgingly, Eddie Hearn for not stepping in the way of this meeting.
Under the tutelage of Anthony Joshua, Okolie is making all the right noises in his pursuit of titles. Targeting a world crown by 2020 may have seemed a little rash this time last year, however, it’s clear that Lawrence wants to test himself against the best, and reap the rewards in quick fashion. Oleksandr Usyk will find it impossible to keep hold of all four of his world titles for the remainder of 2018; fragmented world titles often throw up some unlikely contests for vacant straps...
There is much to be admired of a fighter who is quick to step through the ranks. The overprotected ‘0s’ of fighters can stagnate the sport; after all, records are for DJs.