“THERE’S a noise that people make when you knock somebody out.”
Lawrence Okolie is considering what he likes most about fighting. He reflected, “You know the job’s done. When you’re switched on, when you get a stoppage, when the referee jumps in or something like that, it’s not the same as when you get a clean knockout. It’s evokes two different emotions from the fans. So when you get a stoppage, it’s loud but not as loud as a clean knockout. So I think when you get a proper knockout, it’s a great feeling because it’s job done, the fight’s over, you won.”
He sits outside his gym, a sparse boxing club in an archway in Bethnal Green. He hasn’t linked up with a famous trainer but has turned professional under the guidance of Brian O’Shaughnessy, a gifted coach. “You have to trust their boxing judgement as well as their human judgement and I do with him,” Okolie said. In fact Lawrence is sure Brian will become one of the country’s more well known trainers as they advance together through the ranks.
Lawrence was the first of the 2016 Olympians to go professional, but joining him in the pro ranks are Joe Cordina, Josh Kelly, Antony Fowler, who makes his debut this month, with more waiting in the wings, all of whom could have an impact in the coming years.
The future for British boxing is bright. The rise of Anthony Joshua and his victory over Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium on Saturday was a showcase for the sport in this country. Now it falls to the latest generation of Olympians to follow in his footsteps. Okolie was the GB heavyweight at Rio 2016 and now a cruiserweight prospect he is represented by the Anthony Joshua Management Group. Years back before Lawrence even won a place on the GB team, he was sparring with Joshua. That in itself was a daunting experience.
Okolie recalled. “When I met him I was completely starstuck. Then I was extremely scared. But I wasn’t as experienced as I am now and all I’d ever seen was him knocking everyone out. Not just as a professional, I watched him in the ABAs stop people, the World championships, I was already a big fan of his. The time I sparred with him first was before Wembley [in 2014]. I think he was going to box Matt Legg. There were three cruiserweights that were sparring him that day, it was a week before he was fighting and I remember I started looking around to try and analyse the situation and there were three cruiserweights there and Joshua, big muscled, explosive, warming up and he does a proper warm up, he doesn’t just get in the ring. You see him flexing every muscle and I remember looking over at him just warming up. The fact that it was three cruiserweights, I thought they’d brought us here as sacrificial lambs for him to knock us out or whatever. It didn’t end up being like that, he’s very respectful when it comes to sparring, he’s about learning as opposed to blasting people out.
“I did alright so they kept asking me to come down. That’s how it started.”
Perhaps Okolie could move on to heavyweight division one day. “I think I have the frame to eventually step up to heavyweight but it’s not something that’s actively on my mind that I think about right now. I make the weight comfortably,” he said. “I just think about being the best at whatever the weight class I’m in and this is the weight class I’m in at the moment.”
He is now 2-0 as a professional and looking to progress quickly. “A lot of what helped me in the amateurs was having hard, not hard necessarily physically, but fights against good quality people. So a) it pushed me in training. If I know I’m boxing someone who’s not great I might do five laps just because I want to be fit. But when you know you’re boxing someone serious, you push on. I just wanted to have that kind of mentality. I know you should always push yourself,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to say yes to fighting me or what’s going to happen but my plan is definitely not [to move slowly]. I got to the Olympics for a reason. As much as I was inexperienced, I managed to go to the Olympics because I was good enough to be an Olympian. It’s not about the number of fights, it’s about what you do in your training, what kind of fights you’ve had. So I thought it would be a good step to be moved, not necessarily as fast as Lomachenko or anything like that, but not being babied basically.”
That lack of experience could have prompted him to stay amateur. But ultimately he ruled against it. “What I enjoy about the professionals it’s an opportunity for your character to come out – who I am. When you have three and five rounders you find out a little bit about yourself, about what level you fight at. But I think once you get to 12 rounders, once you get tired, how do you respond when you’re tired? How do respond when you get hurt early in a fight? Do you just throw the rest of the fight away, do you keep working?” he asked himself. “So obviously I haven’t answered those questions to myself yet. As much as I believe I’ve got the answer I still need to go through that to find out. So that’s the stuff that excited me about going professional, [to] show who you are as a fighter.”