It would take a lot to shake the self-confidence of Lawrence Okolie. On Saturday night he attempts to join an impressive list of British boxers to have claimed the European cruiserweight title. By next summer, he expects to be a world champion.
The 26-year-old faces comfortably the toughest task of his fledgling professional career when he challenges Yves Ngabu for the European title at the O2 arena, London. Like Okolie, the 30-year-old Belgian is unbeaten and, although he is giving away 5in in height, Ngabu has his sights on bigger things too.
The European title at cruiserweight has often been a useful stepping stone for British boxers. Johnny Nelson, Carl Thompson, David Haye, Enzo Maccarinelli and Tony Bellew have all won the title before going on to claim world honours.
Okolie expects to follow them, with the former Olympian hopeful that he will get a shot at the WBA title – being contested next month by Arsen Goulamirian and Kane Watts – early next year.
“It’s just another fight,” Okolie said. “I don’t know if people have watched much of Ngabu, but people just keep going on about how good he is. We’ll see. I’ve prepared for a tough fight, but ultimately it might end up being an easy one. I don’t really stress about it.”
The back story of Okolie is pretty well known. When Anthony Joshua was competing at the London Olympics in 2012, Okolie, then an overweight teenager, was working at McDonald’s at Victoria Station in London. Having sneaked away from a shift to watch Joshua win gold, he was inspired enough to go to a boxing gym, lose the excess pounds and, four years later, it was Okolie boxing at the Olympics.
Okolie had originally dabbled with the idea of staying with the amateurs for another four years, but when he decided to make the switch – being handled by Joshua’s own management company – a new goal formed quickly in his mind.
“I said I wanted to be a world champion before the next Olympics and if I get a good win against Ngabu, I’ll still be on course to do that,” he said. “I’ve moved with purpose, taken the right fights at the right time. It’s all going to pay off very soon.
“It could be one fight after this, but they have told me the WBA champion, it’s on.
“For guys like (Mairis) Briedis, I might need a bit longer for, because he has lots of championship experience . But guys who haven’t had that experience, we are all in the same boat.”
Things haven’t always been smooth for Okolie. Twice on the big stage in 2018 – against Isaac Chamberlain when headlining at the O2 and against Matty Askin at Wembley Stadium – the fights descended into grim, mauling affairs. But a switch in trainers to Shane McGuigan (training alongside Josh Taylor), has seen a switch in emphasis to working on setting up attacks, rather than just relying on power.
“We are working on how to tee up the power and to layer it, so it is not always the hard punches going in, never allowing people to get comfortable,” Okolie said.
“I’ve always trained hard, but I’ve always thrown whatever punches I want, knowing that eventually one of them will do the damage. Now I don’t need to do big combinations, in sparring and in fights I have a particular punch style, one punch, two punches, make the two shots count and make the movement count.”
Against Ngabu, Okolie expects an explosive victory, exploiting his height and reach advantage to find the punches to finish it.
“When you are in the ring, 5in in height can make a huge difference, he’s always going to be punching up, he’s always going to be trying to slip the jab, so he can prepare for it,” Okolie said.
“Eventually I am going to land, I’m not even looking to land to knock him out, just so he knows who he is in there with.
“I don’t think he quite gets it. I think he just feels he is going to get inside and show how much heart he has. I’m going to do what I have to do.”