Russian veteran Denis Lebedev and British prospect Lawrence Okolie could be headed for a showdown in July, with some version or another of the WBA cruiserweight title on the line.
The WBA’s “super world” cruiserweight title was held by Oleksandr Usyk, who recently vacated in order to officially move up to heavyweight for a fight with Carlos Takam.
That came after the sanctioning body again ordered Usyk to face champion-in-recess Lebedev (32-2, 23 KO), the 39-year-old southpaw who has been a noted contender or titleholder in the division for many years now.
Lebedev’s “champion-in-recess” status is odd, but it’s boxing. To run down the events that led to this:
- Lebedev won the interim WBA title in Nov. 2011 over James Toney, and was elevated to “world” titleholder before his Dec. 2012 fight with Santander Silgado
- Lebedev was elevated to “super world” titleholder before his fight with Victor Ramirez in May 2016, where Lebedev unified the WBA “super world” and IBF titles
- In Dec. 2016, Lebedev faced Murat Gassiev, but the WBA for some reason wouldn’t sanction the fight, so Lebedev defended just the IBF title, and he lost it, which still left him with the WBA “super world” title, which he would defend in July 2017 against Mark Flanagan
- In Feb. 2018, the WBA decided to make Lebedev “champion-in-recess” because they wanted to elevate “world” titleholder Yunier Dorticos for a unification fight with Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series; Gassiev beat Dorticos, Usyk beat Gassiev
Meanwhile, Lebedev did fight twice last year, knocking out Hizni Altunkaya in September and winning a decision over Mike Wilson in November. He’s maintained “champion-in-recess” despite being active, which also means he’s not actually ranked by the WBA.
If you’re wondering, Beibut Shumenov is the current WBA “world” titleholder, beating the aforementioned Altunkaya last July for that belt. Altunkaya ever fighting for a world title was pretty ridiculous, but it’s the WBA.
So now we have this situation, where the WBA has a “world” champion but no “super world” champion, and they ordered a “super world” title fight, but that champ vacated.
Enter Okolie (12-0, 9 KO), a 26-year-old and the reigning British and Commonwealth champion, having unified the belts by beating Wadi Camacho on March 23.
Promoter Eddie Hearn says he’s got an offer out to Lebedev’s team for a fight:
“I’ve got the green light from Lawrence who said he would be ready to fight Lebedev next. I’ve spoken to World of Boxing, we’ve made them an offer. Obviously, he’s got to accept that offer but from our side we are ready to go for that fight. ... I do think [Okolie] can win that fight and I think when you get an opportunity to fight for a world title in one that you may be a slight favorite, I think you should take it.”
I don’t know whether Okolie would really be a slight favorite or not; he had his troubles with Matty Askin last September, and he’s still a bit raw in the ring. But Lebedev is also old and hasn’t fought anyone particularly good since Gassiev beat him in 2016. It’s a risky fight for Okolie, but Hearn could well be right that it’s a calculated risk worth taking to go after a world title, and they could be catching Lebedev at the right time. Maybe not, though.