By Jake Donovan, photo by Tom Casino/Showtime
It’s literally been years since Ajose Olusegun has been promised a shot at the title. He has seen his ranking change back and forth. He has seen several fighters jump the line and get their crack before him. He has heard countless promises that would never come to fruition.
On Saturday night, his voice finally gets to be heard. Even that moment required some momentary heartache before breathing a sigh of relief.
An interim title fight with Lucas Matthysse was scheduled as the co-feature bout to a planned welterweight showdown between Randall Bailey and Devon Alexander. Up until a month ago, the show didn’t have a home before finally landing at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
A back injury suffered by Bailey last week put the show in jeopardy, but an immediate decision was made to upgrade Olusegun-Matthysse to the main event. Rather than a co-feature slot on Showtime Championship Boxing, the bout now headlines a special Saturday night edition of Shobox.
Olusegun is fine with the upgrade. But given that he hasn’t fought in nearly a year, all he really cares about in the end is that he’s finally fighting for something long ago promised to him.
“It doesn’t change anything to me. At the end of the day, I’m still fighting the same guy,” Olusegun (30-0, 14KO) says of his name now appearing at the top of the marquee. “It’s good in a way that we’re the main event. But it’s still the same fight.”
There was a moment or two last week when Olusegun was worried that there wouldn’t be any fight at all. The Nigeria-born contender – who fought out of London for a spell and is now based in the US - had reason for concern, given all of the aforementioned drama over the course of the past year.
A high-risk, low-reward talent, little to no effort has been made in marketing this show or even Olusegun himself. The moment Bailey was forced to postpone his bout with Alexander, it was thought that the rest of the show would move with it.
For once, Olusegun was given a choice of what he wanted to do. That’s when it became a no-brainer.
“I was nervous at first, but I told my people that I just want to fight,” the unbeaten contender reveals. “At the moment I’m happy that my fight will go on. The fight is going to be a very good fight. It’s going to be back and forth. It should issue fireworks.”
From the moment the fight with Matthysse was made, there was anticipation of it stealing the show. Both fighters are accomplished amateurs, with Olusegun having boxed for Team Nigeria in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Neither fighter has ever been confused as a safety-first fighter once hitting the pro-ranks, however. Olusegun’s network debut last year showed that much.
A free-swinging brawl with Ali Chebah last September came with instant praise on social networks from the moment the opening bell rang. The Showtime-aired bout opened with a bang and for a good six rounds made a run as a Fight of the Year candidate.
Olusegun made an immediate impact, scoring a pair of knockdowns in the third round and appeared well on his way to a stoppage. The fight ultimately went the distance, but a statement was made that a new top contender had arrived.
The only problem was that nobody was there to greet him at the door. Promised title fights never materialized, which has left Olusegun spending more time fighting at the negotiating table and through the media than actually in the ring. The bout with Chebah was his last ring appearance, which will have come 49 weeks ago by fight night.
It was bad enough that Olusegun had to enter the fight having already watched Erik Morales and Pablo Cano fight for a title for which he was long ago in the running. With each sanctioned fight came the promise that his turn would be next. Instead, it was Danny Garcia and Amir Khan who would also receive their shots well before him.
Olusegun spent the better part of the year calling out Danny Garcia, patiently awaiting the outcome of the first fight with Morales this past March before deciding his next move.
On paper, it shows that has been inactive and web searches for his name will reveal a long list of articles demanding his turn. What doesn’t show up is the countless hours spent all along in the gym, staying ready for any opportunity that eventually came his way.
The lone opportunity offered was the Matthysse fight, with the promise that an interim title would be at stake. It wasn’t the full title, but could very well become that if (when) the winner of next month’s rematch between Garcia and Morales refuses to fight the last man standing in this weekend’s bout.
Regardless, the decision to accept the fight was immediate, even though such a fight comes with more grit than shine. Olusegun knew the score from the moment they offered the bout, that he was being matched against an opponent nobody else was in a hurry to face.
It didn’t bother him at the time of the signing, and the trials and tribulations of the past year become more of a distant memory as fight night approaches.
“Right now, I don’t want to think about stuff like that,” Olusegun insists. “Matthysse is a much tougher opponent than Danny Garcia or Erik Morales. I have bigger fish to fry.”
For the past year, Olusegun has kept in shape in the gym rather than just stay at home and then complain about needing time to train once something was offered. However, the past two months have come with a far greater purpose.
“The only difference is that now you have somebody in mind when you’re in training. It’s better than training without an opponent or a fight coming up. I had some tough sparring. At the end of the day, you just need a guy in front of you. You can’t get a Lucas Matthysse in sparring, just like he can’t get (a fighter like) me in sparring.”
Olusegun now gets him on Saturday night. Even with the show competing against another major card on a rival network, the 31-year old is still excited for his chance to fight under the bright lights. An added bonus is that the opportunity to fight for a major title (of sorts) comes on the network that first gave him some shine.
“It means a lot to me that I’m coming back on Showtime. I have the opportunity to showcase my talent. It doesn’t matter to me who I fight. I want to get in the ring and show people who I am and what I got. If you want to fight, step to me and fight.”
For the past year, nobody was willing to take that step until Matthysse – fresh off of a knockout over Humberto Soto in June – proudly leaped forward. Olusegun is now days away from the biggest fight of his career, spotting his opponent a nine-month edge in terms of ring activity.
Don’t expect it to serve as a crutch. Not to a professional like Ajose Olusegun.
“Being out of the ring for a year is no excuse. I’m coming to win and doing my job.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox