Heavy favourite, where is the ceiling for Lawrence Okolie?

Lawrence Okolie. Grime artist, author, former burger flipper in McDonalds, soon to be cruiserweight World Champion?

Everyone has an opinion on the Hackney man and you are unlikely to find one that sits on the fence. The new generation of British fighter, brought up on the 2012 Olympic success of his now friend Anthony Joshua, critics bemoan a red-carpet treatment that has bypassed the traditional ranks and cite a style which can at times be difficult for the neutral.

Both are perhaps valid criticisms but have their limitations as well.

The hard-hitting east Londoner was nineteen when Joshua won Olympic Gold, a moment he has since said inspired him to take the sport more seriously, only two years on from having first picked up the gloves. Nineteen stone as a teenager, doctors labelled him clinically obese, boxing originally taken as a means of shifting some of it.

Four years later he was in Joshua’s shoes, competing in Rio and lining up against the Cuban, Erislandy Savón. 123 wins and twenty-nine losses for his opponent, Okolie was just ten when Savón made his amateur debut. Experience proved too much for the British boxer but Matchroom Boxing had seen enough. Just six months later Eddie Hearn’s promotion gave him his first professional deal, the Londoner certainly not lacking in ambition.

“I want to be the best Cruiserweight that Britain has seen… David Haye has done great things, so has Jonny Nelson and many others, but I want to cement my legacy, have my name go down in history and maybe follow Haye by winning the Heavyweight crown too.”

LAWRENCE OKOLIE, SPEAKING ON SIGNING HIS FIRST PROFESSIONAL CONTRACT IN JANUARY 2017

Bold claims from someone who had not only been beaten in the last 16 of the Olympics but just a few months prior stopped by the same opponent in the World Series of Boxing. In normal circumstances those comments may have faded out of the collective consciousness as he steadily built up his pro career in small hall shows, but Okolie was thrust into the limelight.

A knockout of a handpicked Geoffrey Cave within twenty seconds on the Crolla-Linares undercard, his debut was in the MEN. Then came the SSE Hydro, another world title card, another first round knockout. A Bramall Lane Spence-Brook show followed, the pattern continuing and another first round stoppage. Okolie had bypassed the path others had been forced to make, his conclusive finishes providing a highlight reel easy to sell and usually much longer to build.

But boxing in the big time from day one isn’t what boxers do, much like when he shared a twenty second clip of a sparring session where he was getting the better of Dillian Whyte. So when he made his first trip to York Hall as a pro his failure to stop Blaise Mendouo was always going to draw criticism, though I can’t concede it told us much about him as a boxer. When the Cameroonian got inside Okolie consistently went to clinch, a theme we’ve seen throughout his later fights.

It might not be pretty but when it negates his opponent’s ability to hurt him when his reach advantage is overcome it is the referee’s prerogative to not allow him to do that. It is one referee Victor Loughlin chose to take up by docking Okolie three points in his win over Matty Askin. A similar scenario in his world championship fight would inevitably lead to a different result and it will be interesting to see the referee’s early approach.

Criticism of the Olympian broadly follows this accusation that Okolie is boring and doesn’t merit the standing he has in the Matchroom stable, his win over Isaac Chamberlain on points dull because it didn’t have the concussive knockout the grudge match deserved. The fact he put his opponent down twice and was never in danger of losing the fight goes unnoticed. Again Okolie outmuscled the Brixton boxer but it was Chamberlain who was deemed to be the worse perpetrator, having a point deducted for holding.

He is where he is because the reality is that for every clinch, every bear hug wearing down his opponent there have been just as many stoppages and a right hand which has carried power at every level at which he’s been tested.

Those are the facts, fifteen fights, thirteen knockouts and now one world title fight. It is why Okolie goes into Saturday night a 1/3 odds on favourite, fighting against a man who has won and then relinquished this exact title.

Krzysztof Glowacki has been here himself. In August 2015, he was the challenger, a 25-0 wrecking ball who had knocked out 16 of his opponents. Marco Huck had been WBO World Cruiserweight Champion since 2009 and had never been knocked to the canvas. In the eleventh round Glowacki did it twice in succession.

And yet in knocking out Marco Huck boxing fans learnt their greatest lesson about the Pole. In the sixth he was within a judges call of the contest being over, an overhand left leaving Glowacki head on the ground facing the floodlights of the Prudential Center, New Jersey. Gloves to his face Glowacki attempted to revive himself, eventually gathering himself just before the count of ten. For the rest of the contest we saw a busy durable fighter, but one down on the cards, his combination that caught Huck clean his only route out of defeat. Huck was quicker, smarter, but in the end defeated.

Glowacki is durable but there are better boxers out there. That is the narrative.

The man from West Poland’s chin has had its limits but has got him far. Oleksandr Usyk outskilling him over twelve and Mairis Breidis most recently taking his title in a contest that was more of a streetfight. Stopped in the third, Glowacki was downed in the second, several seconds after the bell with the referee seemingly oblivious. Two defeats against the undisputed cruiserweight champion and the current Boxrec number 1 may have revealed he is a level short of the top tier but it is one that still makes him a good world champion.

Okolie stands across the ring five inches taller with a seven-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. He faces an opponent almost two years inactive in a fight that has already been rescheduled.

We know about Glowacki. We know the skills the southpaw brings and the supposed weaknesses that can be exposed. The same can’t be said for Okolie. Nowhere has he met an opponent good enough to reveal them. On no stage has he yet fought this level of opponent.

Will Okolie be allowed to keep him at bay and pick off his shots? The first few rounds will be instructive. If hit will Glowacki be able to take his power? What will happen if Okolie is taken deep, will he build able to weather his opponent’s relentless and predictable late onslaught?

Ultimately these are the questions that need answering and for all these we can build up an impression of how we believe it will play out. What level is Lawrence Okolie? Well that’s one question no one can say with confidence. We will find out on Saturday night.

Featured image “Week 2 Group B Match USA Knockouts vs British Lionhearts” by World Series Boxing is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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