THERE are numerous reasons why a refreshing Commonwealth cruiserweight title fight between Luke Watkins
and Lawrence Okolie is happening on a Wednesday night (June 6) in Bethnal Green.
It is happening, first of all, because Luke Watkins and his coach, Paddy Fitzpatrick, actively pursued the fight, doing so via social media, and have realised the best way to attract attention is to target the best-known cruiserweight in Britain.
It is also happening because Lawrence Okolie and his promoter, Eddie Hearn, were more than receptive to the idea of a York Hall dust-up and quickly concluded Watkins isn’t Isaac Chamberlain, in terms of style, and that a Lawrence Okolie vs Luke Watkins might could go some way to restoring an Olympian’s reputation as an exciting puncher.
The moral of the story, however, is this: Watkins vs Okolie is happening at this unusual juncture in their respective careers – when both are relatively green and unbeaten – because they have proven themselves to be a couple of ambitious but well-mannered cruiserweights who have the intelligence to understand hate isn’t always the right path to take. In this instance, the wooing process – started by Watkins, reciprocated by Okolie – was full of class and purpose and their rivalry, if it can even be called that, has since led to a fight that is happening sooner than most expected.
Okolie, 8-0 (6), would dispute this. He might even take umbrage at the suggestion he’d avoid a test like this so early in his career, considering the fact he boxed Isaac Chamberlain, then 9-0, in February. And that’s fair enough. He has set out his stall and seemingly has no qualms about putting his zero on the line. He also knows the key to making it as a cruiserweight, a division historically unfashionable, is to engage in fights that are compelling and eye-catching.
It is difficult, as a cruiserweight, to become a big star without big fights. Even David Haye, arguably the finest cruiserweight this country has produced, was defending the European title at York Hall in front of less than a thousand fans before he won world titles and then hit the jackpot with Enzo Maccarinelli. And it’s no coincidence the World Boxing Super Series’ cruiserweight tournament involves the very best cruiserweights in the world while their super-middleweight tournament, in contrast, doesn’t.
Okolie gets this. It’s why the Londoner didn’t hesitate when offered Chamberlain and why there is no hesitation taking a gamble against Watkins, either. Moreover, as touched on earlier, Okolie knows a fight against Watkins makes sense, stylistically, and could be just what’s required to silence those who unfairly criticised him for his role in that Chamberlain debacle four months ago.
But ‘The Duke’ Watkins, 13-0 (9), is no mere opponent. In fact, as Commonwealth champion, he brings his own value to the fight, as well as nine knockouts, and has proven himself an articulate and thoughtful character who goes about his work with a quiet confidence. Indeed, even his calling out of Okolie, the politest in history, was tinged with unwavering self-belief.
“I can fight, I can box, I can punch and I’ve got speed,” said the 28-year-old, a former ice hockey player. “When you bring that into a fight, you have a chance.
“Lawrence has a lot of hype and backing when it comes to management and promotion. He has a fanbase 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 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.”
Though it could be argued Chamberlain has more natural ability, perhaps more skill, Watkins certainly represents the biggest puncher Okolie will have faced to date. One look at his fourth-round knockout of Ian Tims tells you that.
Also, with stoppage wins over the likes of Robin Dupre and Mike Stafford in Commonwealth title defences, Watkins has momentum, consistency and an all-round sturdiness Chamberlain lacked. Ever-improving, the Swindon man now boxes with composure and is happy to exchange. He doesn’t go running. He’s right there in front of you; a big believer in his own power.
Which is why Okolie, you suspect, was so happy to entertain his advances. After chasing Chamberlain for 10 rounds, the 25-year-old needed something easier to digest in his next fight and would seem to have found it. Watkins, he believes, will be ready-made for spiteful right hands and slashing shots to body and head. He’ll be open; easy to hit. He’ll look good on a highlight reel.
Yet, on current form, Okolie, the favourite, can’t be backed with any real certainty. Like any boxer who tests himself at this early stage, he does so while learning, while still rough around the edges, and that leaves him susceptible to anyone capable of executing a perfect game plan. Watkins, a clever champion with a big heart, has more than enough ability to be Okolie’s bogeyman. To rough him up. To land something telling. To exploit deficiencies.
But, ultimately, it’s difficult to pick against the house fighter, the one with the extensive amateur background, and Okolie, having survived a scare or two early, is favoured to win late or on points.
On what is a tremendous small hall bill, Reece Bellotti and Ryan Doyle meet for Bellotti’s Commonwealth featherweight title, and Paul Upton challenges Ted Cheeseman for his WBA international super-welterweight strap.
Not only that, Kazakhstan’s gifted Daniyar Yeleussinov, the 2016 Olympic gold medallist, also makes his UK debut in a six-rounder.