What Lawrence Okolie Needs To Do To Join The British Cruiser-Greats

The WBO champion puts his title on the line this Sunday against Michal Cieslak
13:00, 24 Feb 2022

Lawrence Okolie defends his WBO cruiserweight championship on Sunday against former world title challenger Michal Cieslak. ‘The Sauce’ is the latest in a long line of top UK cruisers, with the 200lb weight class traditionally a British stronghold. Cruiserweight is a relatively young division in the sport, having crowned its first champion in 1979, with every sanctioning body recognising it by 1983. In that time, seven British fighters have held versions of the crown, with Okolie the latest in an illustrious line.

But what does Okolie have to do to match his forebears? Here’s a look at what stands between unbeaten Matchroom star, and greatness.

The nature of modern boxing, with four or more world championship belts on offer per division, means fighters can become champions without fighting the elite. This is not meant as a slight on Okolie, but there is arguably only one world class name on his record. Krzysztof Głowacki, who Okolie stopped in six brilliant rounds for the vacant WBO title, is a top notch fighter. A two-time world champion in his own right, and with his only two previous losses coming against Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis, the Pole represents the pinnacle of Okolie’s achievements. 

Beyond that though, the Londoner boasts a solid, but unspectacular, ledger. Okolie’s first defence was against the unbeaten Dilan Prasovic, but the Montenegrin had fought no one of note beforehand and was stopped in a single round in his next bout. Beyond that, Okolie has mainly operated at domestic and European level. However, the Glowacki victory demonstrated his world class credentials. Cieslak should be another interesting measuring stick, with his only loss coming via decision to WBC champion Ilunga Makabu.

If Okolie does what’s expected of him, and deals with Cieslak in impressive fashion, it will be time for a significant step up in class. Other great British cruiserweights have reached this point, and how the 29-year-old deals with it will define his legacy. 

Like Okolie, David Haye had cut a swathe through European level fighters before earning a world title tilt. The Hayemaker’s Glowacki moment arrived against the quality Frenchman, Jean-Marc Mormeck. Haye climbed from the canvas to knock Mormeck out in the seventh round, becoming WBC, WBA and The Ring champion in the process. His next bout would represent a similar step up in class for another of Britain’s top cruiserweights.

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Welsh knockout artist Enzo Maccarinelli once held Okolie’s WBO belt, and defended the strap in mixed company. Former British champion Mark Hobson and ex-bare knuckle fighter Bobby Gunn were below par challengers. However, an impressive decision win over former world champion Wayne Braithwaite underlined the fact ‘Big Mac’ belonged at world level. The table was set for an all-British three-belt unification with David Haye.

Proving the gamble of a jump in class does not always pay off, Haye obliterated Enzo in two rounds. These are the choppy waters Okolie finds himself in. Everything he’s worked for comes down to how he gets on at a higher level. Ticking over in WBO title defences would make for a solid career, but would not be enough to join the elite of the division. Instead, once Cieslak is dealt with, Okolie must broaden his horizons.

This broadening may take the form of a move to heavyweight. Okolie has spoken recently of a desire to mix with the big boys. It would be advisable to wait. For a start, champions Usyk and Tyson Fury are already occupied, and are likely to remain so for at least a year yet with rematches, mandatories and unifications all on the horizon. Also, Okolie knows deep down the WBO title on its own does not represent a true conquering of the cruiserweight division.

The division is ripe for unification, and Okolie should make it his mission to unify the title that fractured when Usyk moved up to heavyweight. WBA champion Arsen Goulamirian is the ideal starting point. He’s fought the weakest competition out of the available options, and while he is unbeaten, he is also relatively untested. The Frenchman is yet to face a fighter with the concussive power ‘The Sauce’ brings to the boxing ring.

WBC boss Ilunga Makabu is another solid option. The one-time potential Saul Alvarez foe is at a loose end now that ‘Canelo’ appears to be eyeing a light heavyweight return. Makabu struggled last time out, eking out a unanimous decision over Thabiso Mchunu. Okolie’s ability to go up through the gears could prove too much for ‘The Junior’, who is often a little one-paced in his work.

The most daunting prospect out there is a clash with IBF and The Ring champion Mairis Briedis. A genuinely world class operator, ‘The Latvian Punisher’ called out Okolie after his last fight. Briedis is considered the best cruiserweight on the planet, with his only loss coming at the generational fists of Usyk. Briedis would be a tall order for Okolie, but is also the biggest none-heavyweight fight he could undertake.

These options lay ahead of the WBO champion. If he can defeat Cieslak on Sunday, these are the sort of fights he should be chasing. The Hackney-born boxer has done tremendously well so far in his young career, and deserves to wear world gold. The next step now, is using that belt to open doors to legacy fights.

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