WHILE watching clips of British cruiserweights Lawrence Okolie and Richard Riakporhe clashing at the European premiere of Creed III, it was hard to determine which of the two things – Creed III or an altercation between British rivals – had the clunkiest choreography and corniest script.
Certainly, knowing what we know about the Creed franchise, one would naturally assume Michael B. Jordan’s boxing vanity project would take top honours. However, when taking into account the simmering animosity between Okolie and Riakporhe, as well as the money-making potential they have as rivals, there is every chance their little coming together was as orchestrated, or at least milked and exaggerated, as the film they both that evening watched.
In a sense it worked, too. Late on Thursday (February 15) videos started doing the rounds of them arguing and swinging for each other in what appeared to be a cinema foyer and suddenly we had a reminder that these two exist in the same weight class and that a potential fight between them could be somewhat appealing.
Without that moment, it might have been easy to forget. Okolie, after all, has fought just twice since stopping Krzysztof Glowacki in a breakout win in March 2021 and in neither of those fights – against Dilan Prasovic (TKO 3) and Michal Cieslak (UD 12) – did he build on his gathering momentum or demand to be watched. A rather strange case, on the one hand there are few bigger punchers on the British scene than Okolie, and few straight rights better, yet, on the other hand, much of what has stopped Okolie really coming to the fore and capturing the imagination of the British public are fights like the Cieslak one and, long before that, fights against Isaac Chamberlain and Matty Askin. On each of those nights, Okolie, rather than showcase his explosive punching, was content to pick and prod and hold and get to the end, winning in the safest way possible.
This, combined with a recent defection from Matchroom, has left Okolie, 18-0 (14), in a peculiar sort of middle ground; a man of extremes as likely to leave an arena to boos as he is to wow an audience with a chilling knockout; a man whose role as British cruiserweight destroyer has been taken by Riakporhe, 16-0 (12), a fellow Londoner whose last four fights have ended inside the distance.
Perhaps in the end that is why Eddie Hearn and Matchroom either didn’t or couldn’t give him what he wanted. Perhaps in the end their seeming indifference to Okolie going off on his own says more about his star-making potential, or lack thereof, than it does his undoubted ability as a dangerous WBO cruiserweight belt-holder.
Regardless, Okolie, at 30, is now entering his athletic prime and will be keen to capitalise on his talents and title sooner rather than later. He will know, too, that cruiserweight is rarely the answer to all a boxer’s dreams, particularly financially, and that to ultimately achieve his goal – getting rich – he must now either cast his net wider and look towards heavyweight or, and this is where Riakporhe comes in, embrace the pay-per-view potential of a good, old-fashioned, all-British grudge match.
That, as telegraphed as a tired right hand, would call for moments like Thursday night, and it would also need Okolie to get past the challenge of David Light – an unbeaten and untested New Zealander – on March 25. Do that and it’s likely waiting outside the ring for Okolie will be Riakporhe, who will then, as is custom these days, be invited into the ring to again stir up drama all in the name of a shared windfall later in the year.
Nobody can knock them for that. It’s these days simply how unknown fighters become known and it’s how decent fights become pay-per-view events. Here, it is probably needed as well, irrespective of how tantalising, on paper, a matchup between Okolie and Riakporhe appears. Unfortunately, that has become the way of things now: fights like this one, in order for it to happen, will presumably need to be pitched as a pay-per-view offering, which, as a result, requires a certain amount of needle, backstory and choreography. Gone are the days, sadly, when all you would need are some meaningful wins and a highlight reel to grab the attention of the British public. Gone are the days when a rivalry was something organic and protracted, as opposed to something concocted in a boardroom over a sushi lunch.
FINALLY, a quick word on the tragic passing of Ron Lewis, a journalist who would have loved to watch a fight like Okolie vs Riakporhe yet would have rolled his eyes at the sight of them scrapping in a cinema foyer ahead of it.
He, like so many of us, was someone both enraptured and repulsed by the sport in equal measure. However, unlike some of us, Ron was able to maintain a giddy enthusiasm for fights and for fighters, which ensured he was an ever-present on fight night and during fight week, and, moreover, the last time I saw him (at a media roundtable with promoter Eddie Hearn) a reassuring presence in an age of dishonesty, disposability, filmed content and little in the way of considered thought, patience and education.
A mainstay in the best way, Ron Lewis was a throwback. He listened, he learned, and he really cared, even at a time when it is both easier and perhaps healthier not to. Indeed, back in 2008 I can still remember distributing a press release on behalf of the now-defunct Hayemaker Boxing outlining details of a Derry Mathews fight, shortly after which I received a blunt response from Ron telling me it was “Mathews” and not “Matthews” as I had initially written.
Being so young I first dismissed this cranky old journalist’s correction as rude or, worse, an attempt to put me in my place having seen me in and around ringside a lot during my teenage years. Yet what I later realised was that Ron was simply doing me a favour; teaching me a lesson, at 21, I no doubt needed to learn. More than that, though, so deep was his love for the boxers he covered, Ron was that day doing Derry Mathews a favour, keen, as always, to fight for the fighters and make sure they received the credit and attention they deserve.