By Elliot Worsell

FOR a boxer, rarely is the ideal opponent someone they either love or hate. Instead, the ideal opponent tends to fall between right those two extremes, landing somewhere in a sea of indifference.

Anywhere else, you see, there is danger. If, for example, you happen to enjoy the company of an opponent, there is every chance you will hesitate when the moment comes to do damage to them. Similarly, if hate, a far more common emotion in a sport like boxing, has reached such a level that you are desperate to demonstrate your hatred for this opponent in a legal manner, it is just as likely that your animosity will backfire and adversely affect your performance.

In the case of Lawrence Okolie, the former WBO cruiserweight champion, the issue last year was more the former than the latter. In fact, when facing Chris Billam-Smith, his friend and former gym mate, Okolie was put in the most unusual and unenviable of positions, one that, for a boxer, almost redefines what it is they do for a living. After all, having for so long been accustomed to inflicting damage on unfamiliar opponents, suddenly Okolie was being told to inflict the same sort of damage on someone he would, in an ideal world, never want to hurt. Suddenly his enemy had a name, a face, a heart.

Suffice it to say, this twist on an old routine left Okolie rather lost. Not only that, with him softened already by his rise to world champion, the 31-year-old Londoner, at a time when he needed motivation and perhaps something or someone to hate, found himself drifting in a way that is never good for a boxer.

“I was just being lackadaisical,” he told Boxing News on Tuesday (May 21). “I wasn’t really taking it for what it is.

“Being a world champion came quite easily to me. Obviously, I put in a lot of hard work to get there, but going through the amateurs and then the pro scene all just felt quite easy to me. It felt like I just had to show up and get it done.

“Although I did train hard for that (Billam-Smith) fight, I also understood that there would come a time when making that weight (cruiserweight; 200 pounds) would affect me and I knew that I also had to be 100% switched on to get the job done against Chris. But I didn’t feel locked in, if I’m honest. When I was seeing Chris, I was never thinking, Right, I’m going to box this guy, this is what I need to do. When I see (Lucasz) Rozanski (Okolie’s next opponent), that’s how I feel. I’m thinking, Right, I’m going to smash him and do this and do that. I might not say it to him, or anyone, but I have those kinds of feelings. With Chris, though, I just thought, Oh, there’s Chris. I’m going to fight him at the weekend. It was a very different feeling.”

Friends Again: Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith embrace following their fight in Bournemouth on May 27, 2023 (Luke Walker/Getty Images)

Leaving Bournemouth that night there was a feeling that Okolie’s right to a rematch would be ignored due to the messy nature of the fight, which, if true, would have done little for the beaten man’s drive or indeed his self-belief. What is more, the feeling that he was being sidelined or phased out was hardly what Okolie needed when, in 2024, plotting the way back following his first career loss.

“It took some time,” he recalled. “I thought I would go straight back into the rematch but that never happened. Then I was going to sack off boxing altogether and just carry on doing what I was doing outside of boxing. But I got the call to spar Joseph Parker for (Deontay) Wilder and that experience kind of reignited the flame in December. I was like, You know what, this is a top five heavyweight preparing for the biggest fight of his life and I’m a former cruiserweight world champion who has had some time off and we’re doing some good sparring. Joe (Gallagher) was also in the corner telling me good stuff and we spoke and kind of took it from there.”

Before getting to Joe Gallagher, arguably boxing’s number one motivator, Okolie had to first find some motivation from within. Which is to say, he needed to ask himself some tough questions and discover whether, when push came to shove, he really wanted to continue in the sport.

“I had such different motivations when I was coming up,” he admitted. “I was just thinking, Oh, am I going to make a million pounds? Am I going to win a world title? But then you get to a point where it has all happened and it wasn’t really giving me any fulfilment. Now I feel like when I win this belt (against Rozanski) it’s going to mean more to me. The training and the stuff I have had to do in the gym is what makes this win so important to me.”

Asked point blank if he is still in love with boxing, Okolie, 19-1 (14), said: “I love boxing; not so much the business side, but I understand the business has to be done.

“I was ready to go straight into the rematch (against Billam-Smith), but at some point every fighter realises what boxing is: it’s a business. The time off has now changed my life for the better. I was able to see my son get born and I was able to be more present for some of the other stuff I have set up to make life after boxing a little more comfortable. Now when I box, it’s not for money. Obviously, I want to get paid, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like I need boxing to support me in that way.

“I’ve kind of just understood that at this stage in my life I am better off with it (boxing) than without it. I don’t need boxing to pay my bills, but it does make my life a lot better. I’ll be walking around and people will be asking me for pictures, so it satisfies that ego side. I can’t lie.

“Also, there aren’t many things I am world-class at. Boxing is one of them. I’m always going to push it because one thing I don’t want in my life is regret. With every fight I have won, and even the one fight I have lost, I never regretted anything afterwards. I genuinely tried my best in every fight and put as much work into it as I could. It’s the same with this fight (against Rozanski). What I don’t want is to turn 35 and be thinking to myself, I stopped boxing at 31, but I might have been able to do something in the last four years. I just want to push it as far and as hard as I can and find out. All the stuff I love outside of boxing is still going to be there when I finish, but boxing won’t be there for me in a few years.”

Lawrence Okolie fights

Lawrence Okolie with the WBO cruiserweight belt

Upon coming to this realisation, Okolie started training with Gallagher at his Manchester gym in December. There, surrounded by boxers of all ages and levels, Okolie was bigger than the rest only in so far as stature. That aside, he was just another boxer doing drills; another boxer trying to prove himself; another boxer the rest of the gym felt they could beat.

“Since I’ve been in this camp, Joe has really been forcing me to do everything,” Okolie said. “I’m talking track, versaclimber, bar bag, and just hard, hard work. If you don’t want it, this is where you’re going to find out. If you don’t want it, you will get to a point on the bar bag where you just think, F**k this, and just walk out. But we’ve gritted it out and that will show on the night, I think.

“I can only compare it to being in a gym with young, hungry fighters. Everybody else is doing the hard stuff, so you’re forced to do the same. I’ve put in the work. I think in this fight I’ll show a bit of it, but in the next fight I’ll show a lot more.”

Lawrence Okolie and Joe Gallagher

First things first, to keep his career going Okolie must defeat the unbeaten Lucasz Rozanski this Friday (May 24) in Rzeszow, Poland. Do that and Okolie will not only be up and running again, but he will have also marked his arrival at bridgerweight (220 pounds) with a WBC title, making him a two-weight world champion before the age of 32. Some, of course, will want to apply an asterisk to that on account of the bridgerweight division being a relative infant in the boxing world, but Okolie won’t care about such quibbles at this stage. All he cares about is the fact that he has a date, an opponent, and a target. More importantly, this target is one entirely unfamiliar; faceless, almost.

“So far it feels good,” he said of being in Poland. “I’ll be honest, it feels like I’m here for a job. There are no home comforts or any of that stuff. I’m just here to do a job. It allows me to think only about going out there and executing my job. I feel good about that.

“Obviously I want to win for myself and my friends and family, but ultimately all I have to do now is just go and win a boxing match. I just have to go in there and execute. The only way to win this fight is to win it well. Nothing less than that will do.

“With this one I don’t know the guy. When I look at him, I don’t feel anything. There’s no backstory. He is just another boxer who can throw a double-jab, right hand combination. That’s all I have to think about. I don’t have to think about what my old coach is up to. I can just stick to the fight itself, and we’ll see how that translates on the day.”

As for the move up in weight, Okolie, someone forever tipped to eventually land at heavyweight, sees it as part of his natural progression. Not just that, with him now in his thirties, the idea of some leeway became almost a necessity.

“It’s been a lot better, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “There’s no way I could have made cruiserweight again. I still have to make bridgerweight but today, for example, I have had the opportunity to rest. I never usually get the opportunity to rest before a fight. I would always have to do something as a cruiserweight. But now I can rest a little bit and I think that’s going to pay dividends on the night in terms of my explosiveness.”

Lawrence Okolie (Ian Walton/Matchroom Boxing)

If indeed that is true, the prospect of a return to Lawrence Okolie being explosive will be as alluring to boxing fans as it is terrifying to potential opponents. “I think that comes with the territory,” he said when asked about the pressure to produce a big knockout every time. “I’m a big, strong guy and I should be doing it. In this particular fight, the guy is going to come out and try to do it to me, so I have to stamp myself on him early. He’s not (Oleksandr) Usyk, or one of these talented boxers; he’s a brawler who is going to come and throw bombs. If I don’t put him under manners and knock him out, he’s going to be aiming to do that to me.

“When I execute properly, this is the ideal style for someone like me. When I box guys who have his dimensions and style, it’s the best because I can land at will and I’m fast enough to avoid their shots. You can only wait and see what it’s like under the lights on the night, but I do think he is tailor-made for a big KO loss.

“I want to go out there and make a statement because there is a lot of talking going on, even from him. I used the Google translator on some of the stuff he has been saying and I think it will be nice for him to feel what I’m about.”

If in the end Lucasz Rozanski is the one to feel it, it’s the rest of us, the ones watching from positions of relative safety, who will need to see – or simply be reminded of – what Lawrence Okolie is all about.