I’M looking forward to Lawrence Okolie vs Isaac Chamberlain at the 02 on February 3 as much as I’ve ever looked forward to a fight I’ve been working on.
For the first time two fighters I’ve been following since the start of their pro careers, since before that in Okolie’s case, are topping the bill and inevitably that makes it more personal.
January’s a quiet month. It’s a good time to get out to gyms, the lack of fight nights leaves me suffering withdrawal otherwise, and I’ve been down to the Cool Box in Bethnal Green and Miguel’s in Brixton to visit both men.
In many ways, just the gyms Okolie and Chamberlain work out of tell you why this is such a good fight. Both are underneath railway arches and both in the inner city, right in the thick of urban, capital life. They reek of the fight game the minute you walk into either of them; one is East, the other is South, both are London.
I’ve been watching Okolie since his days on the GB squad and thoroughly enjoyed calling him to ring as MC for his WSB bouts at York Hall. There’s always been something about him. He’s a good raconteur and his story of going from being a bullied, overweight kid to an Olympian is a tremendous one but it’s his mentality not his backstory that’s always interested me most. Okolie is not a man who lives in mortal fear of losing a fight, and he’s happy to admit it. It’s quite unusual to hear a fighter talk in terms of not wanting to lose but being accepting of the fact that at some point it’s going to happen, and insisting that when it does it won’t be the end of the world. Usually when I encounter that kind of attitude in a professional athlete, and it doesn’t happen often, I assess it as their way of trying to take the pressure off, of attempting to convince themselves that failure is an option, and I never find it convincing, I find it worrying in fact. But I don’t when I hear it from Okolie. With him it translates differently. He doesn’t want to lose, obviously, and he’ll do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t, but he isn’t afraid of losing so fear of it happening is not going to restrict his performance on the night. He will be in the moment on February 3rd and he will enjoy it, fight his fight with freedom and see what happens. It’s a mindset that makes him a very dangerous opponent.
I first went down to Miguel’s gym in Brixton to see Isaac Chamberlain when he was 2-0 and what I found was a very engaging and dedicated young man. But I must admit, I did leave the gym wondering if he wasn’t perhaps a bit too nice for the rough world of professional boxing. I don’t wonder about that any more. The intervening years and the fights and camps he’s been part of have changed him. That’s to be expected but when I sat down with him last week the difference seemed more pronounced than it’s ever been. He’d just got back from sparring Oleksandr Usyk in Ukraine and there was a ruthless focus about him that I’d not seen before. The training centre he’d been at with Usyk is notorious amongst international amateurs, pretty much all of whom seem to have been there, as being a hideously tough place. Paddy Barnes described it on twitter as “hell on earth”, a description Chamberlain verified. But he did so with relish. Working in that kind of environment had, he said, led him to embrace hardship, to revel in discomfort and to view every day as a challenge that can never be backed down from, no matter how your body is feeling. The first thing he did when he got back was hand over control of all his social media to his cousin until the fight is over. There was an intensity about him that left me pondering the exact opposite of what I pondered after I visited him when he was 2-0, which was whether he somehow now wanted it too much, whether he was taking himself to “that place” a bit too soon. On reflection I decided that wasn’t the case; this is the biggest fight of his life so of course he wants it more, but he’s grown mentally and can handle that intense desire to succeed that can for some people become too all-consuming.
As boxers Okolie and Chamberlain have a lot of similarities; same weight division, same promoter, same broadcaster, same city; and those are the ingredients that have combined to make the kind of natural rivalry that boxing craves. But as people they’re different and that for me is what makes theirs such an interesting match. In one you have an Olympian, full of sauce and swagger who might not appear to care quite as much as he should, whereas in the other you have someone who appears to live at the other end of that spectrum, whose focus is maybe too unrelenting.
Preparing to fight another man in the ring, under the lights, in front of a crowd and TV audience is something that only people who have actually done it can relate to. It’s a very personal thing and each individual has to do what works best for them. Okolie and Chamberlain, relatively early in their careers though they might be, know what works for them individually, they know who they are. And their personalities are reflected by the men that train them. Both trainers are the boss in the gym, it can’t be any other way, but Brian O’Shaughnessy is happy to grant Lawrence the freedom he needs whereas Ted Bami is never out of Isaac’s peripheral vision. They know their fighters, they know how to get the best out of them and it’s no coincidence that the pairings are as they are.
The timing is perfect. Some have questioned whether it’s too soon for these two to be meeting but it isn’t. They’re ready for each other.
As for what’s going to happen, I really don’t know.