Ola Afolabi was lost.
At 20 years old, he was a troubled young man searching for answers.
Afolabi traveled across the pond from London, leaving his family and everything he knew, for life in Southern California.
Afolabi grabbed a part-time job at the Wild Card Boxing Club cleaning mirrors. He hit the bags every now and then, and the regulars in the gym noticed his skills. They also realized Afolabi’s chief attribute – fearlessness.
The Nigerian native had little boxing experience when he came to the U.S., but through training at the Wild Card and some hard work, he worked his way to title contention.
Now 33, Afolabi has engaged in two wars with Marco Huck, settling for one loss and one draw. On Saturday at Max Schmeling Hall in Berlin, Germany, Afolabi looks to even the score with Huck in the main event of a WBO cruiserweight title fight on BoxNation.
“Huck is a very limited fighter. I don’t think he has the mental capacity to be able to create a whole new game plan starting from scratch,” Afolabi said on a media conference call Wednesday.
“He’s going to be his old self, very aggressive, very strong and good shape and I’m just going to be the new Ola, very aggressive, very strong in better shape and smarter, and I think that’s going to win me the fight.”
Afolabi (19-2-4, 9 knockouts) wasn’t particularly attracted to boxing when he was a 20-year-old living in Beverly Hills; he just needed something to keep him out of trouble. He said he “would have been dead” if he stayed in London.
He lived with his older brother and one day stumbled onto Freddie Roach’s gym.
“When I went to the Wild Card, it really wasn’t like this star-studded place it is now,” said Afolabi, THE RING’s No. 3 cruiserweight. “It was just the closest gym. I got on Google and I searched ‘boxing gym’ ÔÇª and the closest was the Wild Card. So I walked all the way from Beverly Hills to Hollywood. It was a good gym and I stayed. ÔÇª
“They were accepting. I went in there and they could tell I wasn’t from the neighborhood. They welcomed me; they showed me love. The new guy walks in, they show him respect until he proves different and then they can talk crap about him.”
Afolabi had dabbled with boxing in London and even had a “smoker” (an unsanctioned amateur fight), but had no fights on his record. Teenage hijinks always got in the way.
“I trained in the UK for a few years on an off,” he said. “Train for a month, disappear for six months; train for six months, disappear for a year. I didn’t take it seriously.”
Afolabi’s mother died in London while Afolabi was stateside and he made a decision to stick it out in the U.S.
“I didn’t want to go back to doing all the stupid stuff I was doing as a teenager in London,” Afolabi said. “It was either stay in America, suck it up and become something, or go back to London and get back into the same nonsense, and I didn’t want to do that. So I sucked it up.”
“Lights out” sessions
After Afolabi became accustomed to life in Los Angeles (where he eventually settled) he turned pro in 2002, but it didn’t go as he had hoped. He fought Gerard Barber to a majority draw at cruiserweight.
Two fights later, he was competing at super middleweight. Then in his fourth fight, he was at light heavyweight, and suffered his first career loss: a four-round decision to future contender Allan Green.
Afolabi was willing to spar with anyone at Wild Card, probable first-ballot Hall of Famer James Toney no exception. Toney was a cruiserweight at the time and Afolabi says they engaged in probably 20 or 30 sessions.
The gym wars were so spirited that Toney threatened to shoot Afolabi on more than one occasion. But the schooling with one of the greatest fighters of all time was invaluable and prepared Afolabi for a successful career as a cruiserweight contender.
“James and I clashed heads once or twice. That’s James, though. He’s that dude,” Afolabi said.
“He probably threatened to shoot me at least five or six times. He’s the kind of the guy that would threaten to shoot you and then five minutes later would say ‘great job.’ That’s James Toney. He gets in the moment and he loses it.”
Trilogy with Huck
Afolabi, fighting with no promoter to back him, took whatever fight was thrown at him. He was fighting in mostly four-round fights as the B-side and took a couple of draws along the way.
After stopping Orlin Norris in 2005, Afolabi inexplicably took 29 months off from the ring. Without a promoter or manager, it was hard for the 6-foot-3 Afolabi to attract meaningful fights.
But then in 2008, coming off the long layoff, he finally landed a fight that could get him somewhere.
He took on unbeaten Eric Fields, who had just stopped Kelvin “Koncrete” Davis in one round on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights, and Afolabi put his name on the map with an eighth-round TKO.
Two fights later, he scored a ninth-round stoppage of fellow Brit Enzo Maccarinelli, setting up a title shot with Huck in 2009.
Afolabi fell to Huck, but gave the German all he could handle, losing by scores of 115-113 (twice) and 116-112.
In May 2012, he had his rematch with Huck (35-2-1, 25 knockouts), this time settling for a draw in an absolute slugfest many felt he won.
For the third encounter with Huck, Afolabi, who is promoted by K2 promotions, worked out at Big Bear for four weeks with Gennady Golovkin and trainer Abel Sanchez. He then flew to Germany for the final stage of training under his coach Fritz Sdunek, who also trains Vitali Klitschko and Felix Sturm.
He goes into Saturday’s bout with Huck, THE RING’s No. 1 cruiserweight, coming off a 13-month layoff, but he’s confident the third time will be the charm.
“This third time we know each other so well,” he said. “The last time, I thought I won the fight, but I kind of let my foot off the gas a little bit. This time, I’m going to get ahead, and I’m going to stay ahead.”
Photos (top to bottom): Martin Rose-Bongarts/Gettyimages; Gettyimages; Gettyimages; Alexander Hassenstein-Bongarts/Gettyimages
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