Boxing in the UK has never been bigger. With the likes of Anthony Joshua and Billy Joe Saunders considered among the best in their respective divisions, the birthplace of the Queensberry rules is the “most dominant force in world boxing right now, top to bottom.”
In this rising star series, the UK’s top young boxing prospects will be highlighted. The first to be featured is cruiserweight Lawrence Okolie.
Born on December 16, 1992 in the London Borough of Hackney, Okolie’s first fight was with himself. As a teenager, he was clinically obese, which his classmates bullied him for, and mocked for his African family name.
It was so bad that Okolie stayed in the change room for five minutes after gym class so he wouldn’t have to take his shirt off in front of everyone.
“I looked in the mirror at home and felt fat,” Okolie said to BBC Sport. “It wasn’t nice. There were times in the shower I would think that if I grab hold of the fat and rip it off, will it actually come off?”
Weighing 266 pounds (19 stone), the 17-year-old Okolie couldn’t stop himself from eating. Nearly every day after school he munched on fried chicken and chips, and even saved up money to buy chocolate.
His eating habits eventually led him to the doctor’s office where the practitioner confirmed the source of his leg pains was his weight.
Looking to make a lifestyle change, Okolie tried to find a sport or activity he enjoyed, but his attempts were to no avail.
“I tried to go to the gym, or run in the park, but I wasn’t feeling it and wasn’t motivated,” Okolie told BBC Sport.
It wasn’t until a classmate insisted that Okolie go to his boxing gym that everything changed for the London native.
He began working out regularly and switched to a vegan diet. The result was an 84-pound weight loss (6 stone).
“Boxing was a big reason to lose weight for me because of the weight categories in the sport,” Okolie expressed to Sky Sports. “The heavier the weight class, the harder you will get hit, so I became desperate to get down my weight as much as possible.”
With a newfound focus, Okolie desired to make a name for himself in the sport.
Despite his inexperience, Okolie went on to have a successful amateur career.
He won two consecutive English University National Championships (2014-2015) and a bronze medal at the Tammer Tournament (2015).
He also helped the British Lionhearts finish second at the 2016 World Series of Boxing, scoring two victories in three matches.
Although the East Londoner proved to be a formidable fighter in the tournaments he participated in, he still wasn’t satisfied with where he was at.
Working at McDonald’s, the 2012 London Olympics seemed more like a TV spectacle rather than a goal to Okolie.
But after watching fellow Briton Anthony Joshua win gold during his break, he was inspired to follow in his idol’s footsteps.
“That really boosted my motivation because I saw his progression and thought that was doable,” Okolie stated to The Sun. “So the Olympics was always my dream but I wasn’t sure how I would get the opportunity.”
With only 19 fights under his belt, Okolie traveled to Turkey for the AIBA European Olympics Qualification Event in 2016. He went to gain experience more than anything else as many people didn’t expect him to go far because of his short time in the ring.
However, he shocked everyone when he defeated three of the world’s top-10-ranked boxers in the heavyweight division (91 kg) to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“There was belief within the camp that I could win, but it was just a case of being so inexperienced,” Okolie voiced to The Sun. “I went in with 19 fights, [against] people who have had 50, 100, or however many, and they’ve been training for four years for it, so it was just a case of going in and seeing what happens. But I always knew I was going in there to qualify and fortunately, I kept my cool and it ended up working out that way.”
As part of the renowned Team Great Britain, Okolie was determined to bring home a gold medal just like Joshua did.
“Winning a gold medal [in Rio] is not about scraping by or getting lucky – it’s about being able to beat everyone,” Okolie told Breaking News. “If I can beat the people who are in front of me, I’ll get a gold. If I can’t I don’t deserve it. That’s where I’m at mentally. To become a legend, you have to do legendary stuff. This is just part of the journey to become a legend.”
At the 2016 Games, he won his first bout against Poland’s Igor Jakubowski, but lost his next fight in the round of 16 to eventual bronze medalist Erislandy Savon of Cuba.
Although Okolie was disappointed to not come away with a medal, he valued the lessons he learned.
“I was cooking burgers while I was watching Savon fight Anthony Joshua at the London Olympics,” Okolie said to the Daily Mail. “He was the ideal man to teach me. I’ll learn. I’m only 23 so it’s not the end for me because I’ve got time on my side, belief and ability.”
Following the Olympics, Okolie turned pro and signed a promotional deal with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing in January 2017.
Making his debut in the 200-pound cruiserweight division in March 2017, Okolie set lofty goals for himself.
“I want to be the best cruiserweight that Britain has seen,” Okolie stated to Sky Sports. “David Haye has done great things, so has Johnny Nelson and many others, but I want to cement my legacy, have my name go down in history and maybe follow Haye by winning the heavyweight crown too.”
After winning his first pro bout with an opening round knockout of Geoffrey Cave (0-3), he continued to demolish the competition under the guidance of trainer Brian O’Shaughnessy.
Okolie won his next three fights, all via first round stoppage, against Lukasz Rusiewicz (22-30, 13 KOs), Rudolf Helesic (2-1, 2 KOs), and Russell Henshaw (7-6, 2 KOs) before taking on Blaise Mendouo (3-4) in September. He went the distance in the six round scrap for the first time in his career, but outpointed the game Mendouo to earn the victory.
He followed up the win with knockouts of Adam Williams (1-2) the next month and Antonio Sousa (4-7-1, 3 KOs) in December.
Okolie’s impressive performances put him in position for his first title shot.
Last November, while at York Hall with his brother, Okolie was confronted by undefeated London rival Isaac Chamberlain.
That encounter prompted Okolie to ask “the match-makers to make the fight happen” so the two fighters could settle their heated feud.
In December, Sky Sports granted his wish and the domestic grudge match was set for February 3, 2018 with the vacant WBA Continental cruiserweight title on the line.
Over the months leading up to the bout, the duo traded shots on social media and at their press conferences further escalating their rivalry and increasing the hype for “British Beef.”
Regardless of what Chamberlain said, Okolie was confident he’d outclass the Brixton native due to his Olympic background and experience fighting highly-touted amateurs.
“I am better than him in every single department,” Okolie expressed at his pre-fight press conference (transcribed by Boxing News Online). “If he comes at me, it’s over quickly. If he boxes on the backfoot and look to take me rounds, I’ll show my boxing pedigree. Anything he brings to the table, I will answer it and do so with a brutal KO.”
“The people in his gym know what it takes to get to the Olympics, because they tried and failed. He’s never taken a risk as an amateur or a pro so he can’t talk about levels or pedigree as he’s done nothing to show it and he’s only boxed at Southern Asia level. I haven’t boxed at that level yet but I’m taking that step-up now.”
Okolie backed up his talk as he dominated from start to finish, dropping Chamberlain (9-1, 4 KOs) twice in the process, to sweep the scorecards in the 10-round fight to win by unanimous decision and claim his first title.
Having secured bragging rights, the Rio Olympian chose not to hold Chamberlain and his team accountable for their comments before the fight.
“That was funny, and was good for the build-up but I’ve got the belt and still got my 0,” Okolie voiced to Sky News. “His coach said that he would quit boxing if Isaac didn’t stop me. I’m not going to hold him to that, but be careful with your words.”
Headlining the O2 Arena just eight fights into his professional career, the 25-year-old has the potential to achieve greatness.
Okolie (8-0, 6 KOs) intends to return to the ring in March on the Anthony Joshua-Joseph Parker heavyweight unification undercard in Cardiff.
His main target is a fight with former IBF International titleholder Craig Kennedy (16-1, 8 KOs), who he called out after silencing Chamberlain.
“I want to have a little rest and then box on the Anthony Joshua undercard next against some like Craig Kennedy,” Okolie told The Independent. “I want to face someone good and keep working, Kennedy is from Wales so it will be another good learning experience.”
There was talk of Okolie moving up to heavyweight, but he has no immediate plans to join boxing’s premier division since there’s plenty of work left to be done at cruiserweight.
“I need to get a lot more experience,” Okolie said to Sky News. “I’ve got a lot of attributes but I need to get more experience before I think about going up to heavyweight. In heavyweight boxing, more than the weight I’m at now, one punch can end a fight.”
Okolie, nicknamed “The Sauce,” has an exciting future ahead of him. Considered one of the UK’s best young boxing prospects, the rags-to-riches Hackney product looks to turn his potential into stardom as he shows the world “Okolie’s out the cage!”