Even in a division as overlooked as cruiserweight, Ola Afolabi has a case to be made as its most unsung hero. Though rated No. 4 at 200 pounds by THE RING, meaningful fights have been hard to come by for the 33-year-old globe trotter.
Afolabi, who was born in London, England to Nigerian parents but now calls Los Angeles home, hasn’t had a fight on U.S. soil in five years, having criss-crossed Europe for fights in his opponents’ hometowns.
This Saturday, Afolabi (19-3-4, 9 knockouts) will get a rare bout on neutral turf when he faces Poland’s Lukasz Janik (26-1, 14 KOs) at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The fight will be part of the off-TV undercard headlined by the Gennady Golovkin-Curtis Stevens WBA middleweight title fight on HBO. The second-tier IBO cruiserweight title, which is currently vacant, will be at stake.
Though overshadowed by the Golovin-Stevens bout, Afolabi-Janik still qualifies as the first significant cruiserweight bout at The Garden since the O’Neil Bell-Jean Marc Mormeck championship bout in 2006. For Afolabi, the opportunity to fight at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” is a career highlight.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” said Afolabi, who shares trainer Abel Sanchez with Golovkin. “I grew up watching fights on TV, guys like Roy Jones and other big names fight here. When I was in London, I would tell my friends ‘One day you’re going to see me fighting on TV.’ I would tell them I’d be fighting in places like Madison Square Garden. They doubted me, and even though I fought on TV, they doubted that I’d ever get to fight in a place as grand as Madison Square.”
Afolabi, who came to America in 2000 and turned pro two years later without a single amateur bout, gave people good reason to doubt whether he’d ever make it to the level he has reached.
What Afolabi lacked in experience, he made up for in courage. In just his third fight, Afolabi faced future world title challenger Allan Green, who just the year before in 2002 had won the National Golden Gloves. Green won a unanimous decision, but the experience bolstered Afolabi’s confidence.
“I’m not that good; I just have balls,” Afolabi would say in a later interview.
Afolabi went unbeaten for the next six years, fighting around the Las Vegas/Southern California region, scoring knockouts over prospect Eric Fields and faded former titleholder Orlin Norris.
Afolabi finally made his name on the world scene in 2009, when he rallied from behind to stop Enzo Maccarinelli in nine rounds to earn the interim WBO cruiserweight title. The victory set up the first of his three cracks at Marco Huck and the WBO cruiserweight title later that year, losing a close but unanimous decision in Germany.
Afolabi won his next three bouts in Germany before getting another shot at the WBO interim title. Afolabi went on to demolish former challenger Valery Brudov in five rounds, setting up a rematch with Huck. Set for May 2012, Afolabi managed to earn a draw in Germany, with two of the judges scoring it even. For his efforts, the WBO reinstated Afolabi as the mandatory challenger. In their third bout – and Afolabi’s most recent – Huck won a majority, but clear decision in June.
Standing in Afolabi’s way of another big fight is Janik, a 27-year-old who hasn’t lost since a fifth-round TKO defeat to countryman Mateusz Masternak. Afolabi says he has seen two fight videos of Janik, and feels he has a good understanding of what he’s about in the ring.
“He’s a big cruiserweight,” said the 6-foot-3 Afolabi. “Usually when I fight cruiserweights, I’m taller than them. We’re exactly the same height, and he comes forward a lot and puts a lot of pressure on and throws combinations. He’s like Huck with the aggression and combinations, but he tries to be a bit slick about his punches.”
Afolabi reveals that his training was affected several weeks ago by a gash on his right wrist that required stitches to close. For two weeks Afolabi had to train using only his left, which he says was a “blessing in disguise” because it strengthened his lead hand.
Despite dropping his sparring schedule from the typical four weeks to three, Afolabi says he managed to spar 120 rounds in preparation. “That’s enough I think. I don’t want to leave it all in the gym.”
Though the IBO is considered a lower-rent title, it holds weight in other countries where the top cruiserweights reside. Afolabi hopes that having a belt will lead to fights with other top contenders. After all, all he’s looking for is a fight.
“It’ll open up doors to bigger fights for me in Europe or in America,” said Afolabi. “In the cruiserweight division, there’s Guillermo Jones, there’s Denis Lebedev, there’s Lateef Kayode, Antonio Tarver. I’m 33 years old now. I’m out of time to be picking cherries.
“If anybody tells me to fight, I’ll fight. Right now, the only person I’m looking at is Janik, and after that anybody they tell me to fight will get fought.”
Photos / Martin Rose-Bongarts, Alex Livesey-Getty Images
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.