Not all boxing matches are learning fights. It’s hard to imagine what Michael Spinks took from being bulldozered in 91 seconds by Mike Tyson, apart from a banging headache and a space on his shelf where The Ring heavyweight title used to sit. But some fights teach a boxer so much they are equivalent to a diploma in the sweet science even if the bout ends in defeat. This is the fate that befell Lawrence Okolie as he lost his WBO cruiserweight title to former training partner Chris Billam-Smith.
The majority decision in Billam-Smith’s favour, the result of a truly scandalous 112-112 card from one of the judges, was a humbling experience for Okolie. The defeated champion was knocked down three times, albeit two of them were a result of his awkward stance and style. But to have been comprehensively outpointed by a former classmate will have been a knock to the ego of ‘The Sauce’.
However, once the dust has settled and the WBO belt-shaped void in Okolie’s life has been mourned, he could do worse than watch those 12 messy rounds over again. While what went down at AFC Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium on Saturday night will be a painful memory to revisit, proper study of the fight could teach Okolie more than his 19 wins put together.
Okolie has been intermittently impressive in his four world title victories so far, but he has never been taken to the places that Billam-Smith forced him into. Opponents like David Light and Dilan Prasovic were compliant in a way ‘The Gentleman’ wasn’t. But even then, there were chances in the early rounds for Okolie.
The now-former champion rocked his challenger in the opening round but failed to capitalise and was ultimately too cautious. This same overt pragmatism frustrated fans against Light, when Okolie won every exchange in every round but failed to press for a stoppage. Okolie can bang, but similar to Anthony Joshua’s descent into caution, he seems reluctant to truly trust the power that has brought him 14 knockouts in 19 victories.
Okolie also needs to get better at realising what works for him and what doesn’t. Against Billam-Smith, he smothered much of his best work. No sooner had he landed a solid shot than he would move in too close and negate any chance of a follow-up. Okolie had points deducted for holding and mauling on the inside and these tactics only became more frequent when Billam-Smith began to hurt him.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson of all for Okolie to take away from his first professional defeat. The way a fighter reacts to being hurt can end up defining his career. How many of Amir Khan’s losses could have been converted into wins if his first instinct when caught wasn’t to try and go to war? While the latter two knockdowns on Saturday weren’t clean by any means, Okolie’s dishevelled state on both occasions is ultimately what sent him into the canvas. Rather than take a measured retreat, Okolie seemed to forget the basics and allow Billam-Smith to discombobulate him.
A defeat can be the best thing that happens to a fighter. Not in the moment. In the immediate aftermath a loss is nothing but despair. But if you can find where you went wrong and iron out those wrinkles, you can end up a better fighter. Lennox Lewis used the lessons he learned in defeat to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman to become the greatest heavyweight of his era. Okolie may stop short of that enduring greatness, but the things that went wrong against Billam-Smith can light his way back to the top. There’s a boxing diploma on offer here for Okolie, if he is willing to study.
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