After impressing in Poland, Okolie now rules no man’s land

FOR any other fighter coming off a first professional loss, any win would have sufficed. However, for Lawrence Okolie, a man who has made a habit of winning fights but losing fans, there was never any question as to what he needed from tonight’s (May 24) WBC bridgerweight title challenge in Poland. The truth is, he needed to do more than just beat Lucasz Rozanski, the champion, in order to breathe life into his career again. He needed to beat him in a manner that stood out and caught the eye. He needed to make a statement.

This was all part of the plan going in, something to which Okolie alluded when speaking to Boxing News on Tuesday evening. He then confirmed the details of the plan just hours before the fight when claiming his target – that is, his ideal result – would be a first-round stoppage, ensuring both a quick night and a return to the power-punching exploits of old.

That he was able to go on and secure this ideal result, halting Rozanski at the 2:55 mark of round one after dropping him three times, speaks volumes. It is a testament not only to Okolie’s self-belief – something that no doubt needed repairing after losing his WBO cruiserweight title last year – but also his punch power, which, in truth, has never really been in doubt. Certainly, on the evidence tonight, Rozanski had never been hit quite as hard or as accurately; the look on his face following the first Okolie right hand a dead giveaway. He complained along the way that some right hands were landing around the back of the head, yet the reality is that Okolie was just too big, too long, too sharp and too precise with that particular shot: the right. When letting it go, he would invariably unsettle Rozanski, even in the first minute, and it wasn’t long in fact before the Pole was dropped to the canvas as a result of the sheer force of it. The first knockdown was clear, the second a little messier, while the third, undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, saw Okolie turn his straight right hand into an uppercut, piercing Rozanski’s guard and causing him to pretzel up along the bottom rope, his senses well and truly scrambled.

He did, to his credit, manage to make it to his feet, Rozanski, but the referee, Daniel Van de Wiele, took one look into the champion’s eyes and realised the sensible decision now was to avoid the inevitable. Which is precisely what he did, waving the fight off inside three minutes.

Thirteen months ago, of course, the shoe was on the other foot, with Rozanski catching Allen Babic cold and forcing a first-round stoppage to win this very belt, the WBC bridgerweight crown. Tonight, however, he really had no answer for Okolie and it became clear rather quickly that Okolie is very much a level above the likes of Rozanski and Babic and that only the introduction of the bridgerweight weight class, sandwiched as it is between cruiserweight and heavyweight, would manage to produce a fight like this; a mismatch masquerading as a world title fight.

It remains to be seen where Okolie, 20-1 (15), now goes from here. On the one hand, tonight’s performance was a reminder of the 31-year-old’s punch power and his impressive athletic ability, yet, on the other hand, it also served as a stark reminder of just what bridgerweight currently represents on the world stage. That is to say, it is still very much a division in its infancy, with its talent pool short on talent, and therefore it would almost be a shame if Okolie, someone who claims his cruiserweight days are behind him, sticks around there too long. His hope, he told me earlier this week, is that some of the British cruiserweights might soon join him at bridgerweight, but that could just be a case of wishful thinking.

“I do think with the bridgerweight belt, if any of them felt like they wanted to come up and have a little bit of a go there, they could,” he said on Tuesday. “I know (Richard) Riakporhe is probably going to struggle for weight, and I know Chris (Billam-Smith) is as well. If they wanted to dance at bridgerweight, we could do that. But we’ll see.”

Either way, Okolie should tonight be praised for winning a fight he needed to win and also winning it in the manner in which it needed to be won. That, for any fighter, is something always easier said than done, yet for someone like Lawrence Okolie, a man of whom so much is expected and a man whose wins have in the past sometimes been unsatisfactory, this was arguably the most crucial victory of his career to date.

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