THERE’S something unusually gentlemanly about the way Luke Watkins and Lawrence Okolie are banging the drum ahead of a potential cruiserweight clash this summer. It’s a courting process void of the ‘beef’ that fuelled Okolie’s fight with Isaac Chamberlain in February, and it’s painting both men in a good, positive, noble light.
Best of all, what started on social media last week – in the form of some pleasant back-and-forth tweeting and a mock-up poster – could end up being the most sensible way of getting the fight made. Watkins, by all accounts, wants the fight; Okolie, by all accounts, wants the fight. Even Eddie Hearn, the promoter ultimately responsible for turning foreplay into fights, seems receptive to the idea.
In many ways, it seems too good to be true.
“He’s willing to fight and I’m willing to fight,” Watkins tells Boxing News. “Paddy’s (Fitzpatrick, coach) happy and Eddie’s happy to put the fight on. Now it’s just a case of crossing the Ts and dotting the Is.
“Already there has been a lot of interest in the fight on social media and it hasn’t even been properly promoted yet. It’s just been a little bit from me and a little bit from him. This fight will take off once it gets made.
“But, as of today, there have been no conversations behind the scenes. The only response we’ve had from Eddie so far is that he’s happy for the fight to go ahead. He’s been hounded a bit on social media but he has been away in Dubai and you have to respect that. He’s got other business to attend to. I’m sure he’ll be in touch this week.”
Watkins sounds hopeful. He also sounds convinced this fight with Okolie is one he needs and one he will get.
Unbeaten in 13 pro fights, with nine stoppages, ‘The Duke’ is the reigning Commonwealth cruiserweight champion and knows the next step is a crucial one. He needs the right fight and the right kind of opponent in order to emerge from the shadows and become known for more than a Commonwealth title, knockout power and an impressive beard. In Lawrence Okolie, he may have found exactly what he’s looking for.
“We’re all in this boxing business for a couple of reasons,” Watkins says. “One, it’s a business and you want to make money. Two, you want to claim your spot and make your mark in the sport.
“Lawrence is a high-profile fighter. His profile is much bigger than mine right now. I feel that me fighting him will elevate my profile once I beat him. People will then say, ‘Okay, now we can recognise Luke Watkins as well.'”
“I don’t want to lose. I don’t ever get in the ring thinking about losing. But, at the same time, a loss doesn’t define you as a fighter. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, if he loses, what will he do?’
“What do you mean? This is a career; it’s not a one-fight career. You just pick yourself up, realise what you did wrong and go a different route. You just fight again.
“Isaac (Chamberlain) lost to Lawrence, but does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. It was early in their careers and it didn’t really matter who won or lost. They’re both good fighters and they will both build themselves up and we’ll see where they end up.
“Look at Nick Blackwell. He’d lost a few before he became British champion and it didn’t matter. People just loved watching him fight. He always provided entertainment. It’s much better to have a career like that than to have an unbeaten record and no fans or interest.”
Make no mistake, Watkins, despite the call-out, is well aware of Okolie’s danger and isn’t ignorant to the possibility of defeat. He doesn’t expect to lose, hence the reason for the chase, but knows Okolie’s Olympic pedigree, and his six knockouts from eight pro wins, must count for something.
“He can punch,” admits Watkins. “That’s the obvious strength he has. It is the biggest thing in his arsenal – punching power. We’re yet to see much else in terms of his boxing ability, though.
“There was one journeyman I saw him fight who got inside on him and he didn’t really know how to deal with it. He won the fight but didn’t have it all his way. I am definitely not a journeyman.”
Certainly, on paper, the fight makes sense. Not too dissimilar to Okolie’s last, in the respect of it being a battle of unbeaten boxers, Watkins brings something to the table Isaac Chamberlain didn’t – a professional title. Not only that, Watkins, unlike Chamberlain, has some solid wins on his record, wins he accumulated during a fruitful 2017, and seems to have grown into his role as Commonwealth champion. A late bloomer, Watkins, 28, appears to be coming into his own.
“I can fight, I can box, I can punch and I’ve got speed,” says the former ice hockey player. “When you bring that into a fight, you have a chance.
“Lawrence has a lot of hype and a lot of backing when it comes to management and promotion. He has a fan base that he has built. But when I bring what I can bring, and when he brings what he brings, it’s exciting.
“I feel like we’ll both go to war. I’m happy to sit there and trade with any man. We’ll see what he’s got. We’ll see what he’s made of. He hasn’t necessarily been in a position to show that yet. I’ve done it. I’ve done it in fights and regularly in sparring. We haven’t seen that with Lawrence yet and I will be his biggest test.”
The fear for Watkins and his coach, Paddy Fitzpatrick, is that the early excitement of a potential Okolie set-to eventually simmers before disappearing altogether, the fight consigned to the to-do list. This might happen, too. Okolie, after all, is a rising star with options, presumably in demand, and a clash with a fellow unbeaten boxer with a title to his name hardly represents the move of someone looking to take their time or protect their zero. But Watkins, the Swindon native, remains defiant, hopeful.
“I think it’s going to happen next,” he says. “The fans are on it now. They’re thinking about it. You make moves when things are hot and right now, even if it’s only on social media, this fight is sizzling. So, why not take advantage of it when it’s hot? Why wait until it cools down? Eddie Hearn is a businessman. He knows what works. He’s done it enough times now.”
Stay classy, Duke. (No really, do.) Nowadays, it’s what makes a boxer stand out.