WBO cruiserweight titlist Lawrence Okolie puts focus on Dilan Prasovic before anything heavy arises
WBO cruiserweight titlist Lawrence Okolie said he’s in no hurry to move up to heavyweight, even though it’s inevitable he will one day campaign in boxing’s flagship weight class.
Okolie is 16-0 with 13 early wins since turning pro in 2017 and he meets Montenegro’s Dilan Prasovic (15-0, 12 KOs) on Saturday night at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
In time, trainer Shane McGuigan is keen for Okolie to move up. He has ready-made sparring with stablemate Daniel Dubois.
“(I’m) not necessarily in a hurry,” explained Okolie, of why he’s patient to stay put. “I like to get paid extremely well, but that’s not that important to me as long as I’m able to keep performing at this weight. I’m very comfortable. I’m very happy to call myself a world champion and also the landscape of the heavyweight division right now doesn’t look favorable in my opinion to someone moving up from cruiserweight, because there’s a backlog of fighters who need their shots.
“You’ve got the Dillians (Whytes), you’ve got AJ (Joshua), (Deontay) Wilder, (Tyson) Fury, so much going on, people coming up the rankings so there’s a backlog and if you move up (now) you are just one of the flock or are you pushing towards something?”
He doesn’t see the sense in moving up and being in a holding pattern, but he also has bigger fish to fry than Prasovic, who is his obstacle to the cruiserweight unification fights he wants.
“I’ve watched quite a bit of (Prasovic’) tape,” Okolie admitted. “He’s got a good knockout ratio, he’s a good puncher. He’s confident and seems to be taking all of this in stride. Obviously, tactically, I know what he brings, but it will be interesting to see how easy it is to get him to try the shots I see him trying out. But I’ve watched a lot of him.”
He does his homework and coach McGuigan does his. Then, when they are in the gym, they work on their combined analysis on the pads and bags. That said, the rangy, unconventional and stiff-hitting Okolie has prepared for one version before, only to find the opposite in the ring.
“The problem I’ve had in my career is you watch someone on tape and then, as soon as they come against me, they change it up completely,” Okolie said. “It’s hard to say that you know someone, but he (Prasovic) has a few key things that he does that I’ll be cautious of and he has some mistakes that he seems to make. We will see if and when and how I’m able to capitalize on them and how efficiently.”
The fight will take place in front of more than 70,000 fans and he’ll be hoping reviews are better this time than when he last fought in a stadium, when he and Matty Askin shared 12 messy rounds for the British title at Wembley.
The size of the crowd brings pressure, his reputation as a puncher brings expectation, but sometimes it’s best not to think about those things.
“It obviously makes me want a KO,” Okolie commented. “To get a knockout in front of that many people screaming would be epic and I want them to be screaming so it has to be an electric knockout. That’s where I am. In terms of the occasion, it’s really making me focus on what I have to do. If I focus on the crowd, it becomes 10 times bigger than it needs to be, so I’m focused on landing my shots, moving, seeing what he has to offer, figuring out how good his chin is and breaking him down as quickly as I can.”
But he insists he can’t look beyond Prasovic. As much as he might want to face the likes of Mairis Briedis and the other champions, a slip up on Saturday and he’s at the back of the line.
“That’s why I believe in training hard, you know how hard camps are, overcoming things, I’ve been really focused,” Okolie maintained. “I see my opponents as monsters before I fight them. Until I’m getting ready to go in to the ring, in training camp I see them as killers. Every time I see one of their knockouts I think, ‘Whoa, that could have been me, don’t make that mistake.’ Ultimately, no one likes to lose a fight, so when the fight is here, I will do whatever it takes to come out victorious but nowadays it’s about doing it well. I’m in a position where I’m quite big and strong for my weight class, good engine, so I can get in and smother and do what I have to do to win, but now I think you know what? Don’t be lazy. Don’t be relying on those kinds of things. Let’s see how good your boxing brain is. Let’s see how good your jab is. Let’s see how good your movement is both ways. Let’s see how good your set ups are for rounds three and four…”
That transformation was born from the negativity surrounding his performances against Askin and Isaac Chamberlain, when Okolie won the fights, but was derided for being in bouts that were aesthetically horrific.
“After I boxed Matty Askin, I had to reassess everything and I said, ‘You know what? Could I win a world title as I am now?’ The answer in my opinion was no. So, I had to go and reassess. Is it the mental fortitude? Is it the confidence in what I’m doing? Why is it I’m allowing certain things to happen in the ring? It’s up to me. This guy I’m boxing now (Prasovic), he does a few things where if I’m not careful it turns ugly, he leaps in with left hooks, he’s okay with holding, if I allow that it’s an ugly fight, but I have to take some responsibility to make sure I dictate the distance.
Why did I let him come in and do that? Why did I let Matty Askin break down the distance? Why did I let Chamberlain? I’ve been growing and learning over the years and hopefully that will pay dividends on Saturday. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of some stick, rightfully so. Even at a youngish age, still quite new to professional boxing, and I know what it’s like to get the positives. Long story short, I prefer the good to the bad so I’ll be looking for the good.”
There will be a point on Saturday night when Okolie turns spectator to watch his friend, Anthony Joshua, defend his heavyweight titles against Oleksandr Usyk. Despite having his own plans to move up from cruiserweight to heavy, Okolie thinks size will matter on the night. Okolie is seen as a heavy-handed heavyweight in waiting, while Usyk’s power was never his meal ticket.
“It sounds bizarre but I think AJ is going to stop him in the middle rounds, I think seven to nine or 10,” Okolie predicted. “Reason being, Usyk is one of the best fighters I’ve watched in terms of cruiserweights. He’s a really good fighter, really good mental fortitude, sticks to the job at hand, but the issue I think he’s going to have is this is a contact sport and it’s at heavyweight now. I’ve sparred with heavyweights so I understand the difference and it’s different being in there with them. He knows. He’s boxed Gassiev and he’ll know the difference between the Gassiev fight and the Chisora fight and even though Gassiev was a world champion and a great puncher I believe the early part of the Chisora fight was much harder for him, he was looking at the referee and whatever. Same with the (Chazz) Witherspoon fight. Very limited heavyweight, no disrespect to him, but when he (Witherspoon) landed a shot or pushed (Usyk) he was half way across the ring.
“It’s a very different thing being at heavyweight now, and everyone forgets that AJ is a really athletic heavyweight so he won’t be able to just dive in and out at will. I think AJ will land some good shots early and they’ll be boxing together, but I don’t think Usyk was a massive puncher at cruiserweight and I don’t think somehow, he’s going to be now … I think he’s a really accurate puncher so anything can happen, but I just think AJ’s going to be a bit too destructive on fight day with 10-ounce gloves on.”
Usyk has followed the likes of Evander Holyfield and David Haye as cruiserweight champions trying their hand at heavyweight and Okolie thinks he might meet Usyk down the line.
“I believe so. Definitely,” Okolie added. “When it was early doors, I put all these guys on pedestals, every single one of them. Then I pushed myself to get to the point where I’m a world champion so I’m on the same playing field in terms of accomplishments. I’m really interested to see, how would I do against Usyk, how would he fare against me, same with Briedis. It’s all good seeing these guys on television, but when you strip it down, they’re human beings walking around. Same with the guy I’m boxing next.”
One person not in his sights, however, is old friend AJ. Regardless of where their careers take them, Okolie can’t envision the day they fight, even though he’s often asked about it.
“I get asked but I wouldn’t,” Okolie said. “Although it’s life changing money, I wouldn’t because he’s been such a help in my life to this point and so I see him as an actual friend where most boxers I don’t see them as friends, I see them as work colleagues. I also don’t think my mum would like it!”