It is not the end of the year that Lawrence Okolie wanted, but if the former European cruiserweight champion is annoyed about things, he has done a superlative job of not letting it show.
Okolie had been expecting to box for a world title on Saturday night. He had been waiting 12 months for a fight with Krzysztof Glowacki for the long vacant WBO title. But when Glowacki failed a coronavirus test, the title fight was off. Okolie now faces another Polish opponent, Nikodem Jezewski.
“Rather than fighting for a world title, I have to win this fight to fight for a world title,” Okolie said. “So it’s kind of like a step back.
“It’s brilliant to win titles and that, but ultimately the most important thing is to get out and fight, work on stuff I have been working on in training. If there is any ring rust, hopefully, I will get rid of that and still get the win and keep the momentum going.”
The fight with Glowacki was originally talked about before the COVID lockdown. No wonder then, when the subject was broken to Okolie, it was done with a bit of trepidation.
“There is a certain way that my manager speaks that I knew something was up,” Okolie said. “He was saying ‘Lawrence, how are you? Did you sleep all right?’ I had done my COVID test, so I knew that was all right.
I said ‘what’s going on. I’ve done my COVID test, I’ve been good, I have not seen any girls’.
“It all dropped in bits and bobs. First it was, ‘he is out, but you have got somebody else to fight’, then ‘he didn’t want to fight’.
“I took it and asked ‘am I still fighting?’ and he said ‘yes’.”
“The change of opponent happened quite late, so there was no let up in the camp. I have dealt with these situations as a pro and and amateur. Of course, it is disappointing not to be boxing for a world title, but ultimately I still have a fight to win and I’m blessed to actually have a fight.”
He was quickly aware, though, that he could not take Jezewski lightly.
“With the change of opponent I started thinking about booking a holiday and I had to snap out of it because, in reality, nothing is a foregone conclusion,” Okolie said. “I have to pay him the utmost respect and then I should avoid a slip-up.
“The important thing is to win this fight and then the world title shot is there. I see this as more steps in the right direction,”
One of the plus points for Okolie has been to go through another full camp being trained by Shane McGuigan, whom he teamed up with last year, which he believes has made him a more dynamic boxer.
“He enjoys explosiveness and throwing shots with intent,” Okolie said. “I naturally punch quite hard. But he doesn’t like it when I tippy-tap and throw lots of punches.
“He would prefer me the throw fewer punches a lot harder. I have been focusing on that and confidence. I’m a naturally confident person but it is a different thing on fight night to stand there, throw your punches and then evade. It will be interesting to see how that goes.”
Despite going to an Olympic Games and winning a string of titles as a professional, it is easy to forget that Okolie is quite inexperienced. But he has made up for a lot of time by sparring, doing plenty of rounds with Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, Dillian Whyte and Joe Joyce among others. Those boxers have given him some rave reviews.
“It’s great for my confidence but it is up to me to do it on fight night,” he said. “In this camp, as I was training I was telling myself that when I was an amateur and I was sparring AJ and Dillian and all these guys, people would come up to me and say, ‘you will go all the way’. I don’t know if they say that to everyone, but I know if I can do that in sparring I can do that in a fight.
“There is nothing I hate more than watching my fights and not being impressed. Forget what anyone can say in Instagram, I don’t really take criticism from people. However, I can look at it myself and say ‘that was not good and the decisions I was making in there were doing that’.
“I can blame the other person all day long say the guy was scared of my power. Ultimately it is up to me to make the right decisions.”
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for Boxing Scene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.