BENEATH a brand new roof, it was very much back to the old Lawrence Okolie at the O2 Arena on Sunday night. This show was plunged into doubt earlier this month when Storm Eunice tore through vast areas of the white dome but the venue patched things up quickly enough for Okolie and Michal Cieslak to collide. More than 5,000 fans crammed into the sectioned off arena for DAZN’s first Sunday show and the large Polish contingent – which felt like around 80 per cent of the crowd – whipped up a superb atmosphere for the headline fight.
But in the ring it was not at all pretty as Okolie worked his way to a unanimous decision victory through 12 dogged, untidy rounds punctuated by countless warnings for both men from referee Michael Alexander.
That may sound harsh on Okolie who, in truth, navigated through the toughest fight of his career without any real trouble. Judge Leszek Jankowiak had it 116-111, Bence Kovacs 115-112 and Bob Williams 117-110. All three of those scores felt kind to the challenger who, despite making it competitive, rarely did enough to actually win any rounds.
But Okolie is a man with the potential to be box office and with designs on gatecrashing the heavyweight division. Walked out by Anthony Joshua and MMA favourite Israel Adesanya, there is no denying Okolie’s star quality and, since his alliance with Shane McGuigan, he seemed to have evolved beyond the fighter involved in dull fights with Isaac Chamberlain and Matty Askin among others.
Against Cieslak he reverted to type at times but, most importantly, he got the job done. He dropped Cieslak in the fifth round and a stoppage looked likely at that point. It did not come, however.
“He wins ugly there tonight but he’s hard to beat,” said his promoter Eddie Hearn afterwards. “He looked a bit sluggish tonight, particularly in the back half of the fight and I just feel like bringing his weight down affected him.
“I feel that if he was a heavyweight he would weigh maybe even 17 stone but he’s bringing his weight down and I feel like it might have affected him. But I feel like it would be a waste if he can unify.
“If he can’t do that then we should move up to heavyweight.”
The clear target is Mairis Breidis, who emerged during Okolie’s post-fight interview dressed as Super Mario. The Latvian has to take care of Jai Opetaia first but then he could face Okolie. Sunday night kept Lawrence on track, but it was not a star-making performance.
“He would go straight into some of the top 15 guys at heavyweight,” Hearn said. “It’s a big move but one that he’s comfortable with.
“All of his sparring is with people like Daniel Dubois, with AJ so he would not want to muck around.”
The real drama on the night came three fights down the card as Jordan Gill produced one of the most memorable moments in a British ring for years, summoning a sensational one-punch knock-out out of European champion Karim Guerfi when he looked on the verge of getting stopped himself.
With both ear drums damaged following some brutal exchanges with the Frenchman, Gill’s balance had completely gone and he was told by his trainer Dave Coldwell to stay in the corner where he would at least be able to retain his bearings.
But he was a sitting duck for Guerfi who was unloading on the badly marked up Gill as he went in search of a finishing blow. Indeed, Coldwell or referee Thomas Walser must have been considering waving it off but, with just one second remaining in round nine, Gill thundered home a right hook which sent Guerfi stumbling backwards for a second before he crashed to the canvas flat on his back, where he stayed. Walser did not even bother with a count.
Another man who ended his fight inside the distance was Olympic gold medalist Galal Yafai, who faced Carlos Vado Baustista over 10 rounds on his professional debut. He needed fewer than five of them, however, as he set about the Mexican before his corner threw in the towel after 2-11 of the fifth. Referee Mark Lyson actually did not see it come in so Yafai ended his professional debut by pointing towards the bloody towel on the floor.
Earlier in the night, his Olympic team-mate Cheavon Clarke also kicked off his professional career with a bang, seeing off Toni Visic after 2-01 of the second. The Gravesend man had already dropped the visitor in the first but closed the show with a right hook which sent him over again. The Croatian was still on his knees as referee Lee Every waved it off. It was scheduled for six.
Elsewhere, Anthony Fowler got back to winning ways by comprehensively outpointing Poland’s Lukasz Maciec over 10 rounds. Alexander scored it 99-93, Every 99-92 and Latham 99-91 after a competitive fight during which the Liverpudlian rarely looked troubled.
Maciec was constantly marauding forward, looking to land an overhand right – and he had some success early on. The visitor was doing his best to turn it into a firefight and Fowler could not resist getting stuck in. But Maciec’s pace inevitably slowed and Fowler began to control the fight by keeping it at arm’s length. By the midway point, it looked as though a stoppage was inevitable.
However Maciec, who had never lost inside the distance, is clearly made of stern stuff and successfully navigated the second half of the fight without getting hurt. Williams took charge.
Ipswich heavyweight Fabio Wardley returned after a six-month absence and made quick work of towering West Virginian Daniel Martz. After feeling his way through the first round, Wardley dropped the visitor twice in the second, rendering him unable to answer Lee Every’s count of 10 with 1-30 on the clock.
Campbell Hatton also continued his perfect start to life in the pro ranks by stopping Loughborough’s Joe Ducker in the sixth and final round, providing a flourish to what was the best performance of his career to date. Ducker looked like he might make the final bell but referee Chas Coakley had seen enough by 2-23 of the stanza.
John Hedges was the earliest winner over a Polish opponent. In the second fight of the night, the Harlow man stopped Bytom’s Aleksander Nagolski in the fourth of their scheduled six with Coakley calling it off after 38 seconds. Queenslander Demsey McKean kicked off the action on the night with an eight-round shut-out of Argentinean Ariel Esteban Bracamonte. Every reffed.
The Verdict Job done for Okolie but it wasn’t pretty.