IN the build-up to tonight’s (March 25) dominant win against David Light, his WBO mandatory challenger, Lawrence Okolie, when asked to explain why he had decided to move from Matchroom and DAZN to Boxxer and Sky Sports, answered by saying this: “You have a choice as a fighter to go where you are celebrated, or go to where you are tolerated, and I felt like I was being tolerated at my last place. And I could be celebrated here depending on how I get on in terms of wins and then we go from there.”
One wonders now, having watched Okolie defeat Light over 12 dull rounds on Sky Sports, whether the issue with Okolie is that he is destined always to be a fighter tolerated rather than celebrated. Or maybe, like so many awkward and rangy big men before him, the Londoner is simply a fighter to be respected rather than enjoyed.
Either way, whether tolerated or celebrated, and whether respected or enjoyed, it was hard to find much entertainment in the 36 minutes Okolie spent in the company of David Light, a New Zealander whose toughness was impressive but whose number one ranking remains a mystery all of its own.
Together, these two cruiserweights tried over and again to figure each other out, but, ultimately, to no avail. Okolie, the puncher and the one always in front, tried to figure out how to put a dent in Light and secure the stoppage he needed in order to change the narrative of the performance (taking it from dull to methodical). Light, on the other hand, tried without success to get inside Okolie’s long arms and work when up close, hoping to win a clear round at the very least.
As it turned out, neither man accomplished their goal. Even with 36 minutes in which to do so, Okolie couldn’t drop Light, let alone stop him, and Light struggled to do enough to warrant him winning rounds on the scorecards, leading to a unanimous decision at the bout’s conclusion (119-108, 117-110, 116-112).
Interestingly, the scorecards delivered at the end of the bout included a point deduction for Okolie in the 11th round, which, given the pattern of the fight, says everything you need to know about both the fight and Okolie as a fighter. He was, after all, well ahead at the point of the deduction, with no fear whatsoever of coming unstuck, and yet, so ungainly is his style, still Okolie somehow conspired to get himself in enough tangles to have the referee, Bob Williams, tell him to stop and then dock a point.
Holding, typically, is a move associated with survival, but with Okolie it is a move he uses for safety from a dominant position. He is not the first fighter to operate this way, of course, yet it is a jarring sight nonetheless, particularly given the tools at Okolie’s disposal and the physical advantages he boasts over pretty much every opponent he faces.
With these tools, and with these advantages, the mere threat of him landing something clean was tonight enough to put Light in his shell early and keep him there for the duration of the fight. For though Okolie never really snaps his jab, or commits to more than one or two punches at a time, Light, just like everyone watching on the outside, could sense Okolie was lining up his devastating right hand and therefore had to be on guard at all times.
To his credit, he was as well. His defence was tight, even if his attack was extremely limited, and Light’s chin also held up when late on in the fight, in rounds 10 and 11, he started to take some heavier blows and found his legs begin to betray him. By then, Okolie had chipped away enough at his resistance to leave a mark on Light, but Light’s jaw stood firm, allowing him to claim a moral victory by lasting the full 12 rounds.
It was, on reflection, the only kind of victory available to a fighter like David Light, 20-1 (12), in a fight such as tonight’s. Forget the WBO ranking, this was a world title fight in name only and, moreover, was the sort of world title fight which serves only to continue to undermine what it means to be a world champion in 2023.
Indeed, throughout this world title fight I found myself wondering how both these men would have fared against other British cruiserweights in recent years, including those who fell short of world championship level. I also wondered if Okolie was not in some way hampered by the tag of being a world champion, aware, just as I’m sure he is, that it brings with it a certain pressure and expectancy he might not yet have the arsenal to overcome.
Because Okolie, regardless of the fact he has a belt and has won 19 straight fights (14 inside), remains very much a work in progress. He is a fighter tough to watch and tougher to fight. He is a man, for now, who has no right to ask to be celebrated, but instead must go out there and deliver a performance worthy of being celebrated. He did exactly that in 2021, don’t forget, when stopping Krzysztof Glowacki in six rounds to capture his current title, but since then, due in large part to inactivity and promotional wranglings, he has become very much a fighter whose fights can only be tolerated.
“I’d give it a five out of 10 because I felt rusty,” an honest Okolie told BBC Radio 5 Live afterwards. “I was trying to work the jab and I started to get a bit tired which isn’t like me. After 13 months out of the ring and everything I’ve been through it was hard to get going.”
The fans inside the Manchester Arena found it easier to get going, with many leaving before the final bell had sounded. That’s no slight on Okolie, for most know the reasons why he struggled tonight, but it is clearly a sign that, when it comes to entertainment, what has no bearing on entertainment is a so-called world title, a so-called number one contender, and the production of a specific television channel. In the end, in a tale as old as time, all that really matters is what two fighters are able to produce in the ring.