LAWRENCE OKOLIE will draw a line under a turbulent 13-month ring hiatus at the Manchester Arena this weekend while also returning to Sky Sports after leaving Matchroom for Boxxer in December. As it happened, he would become the first of two high profile fighters from the Rio 2016 cohort to make that move with Joshua Buatsi following in his footsteps in recent weeks.
Okolie’s first fight back on the channel is a mandatory defence of his WBO cruiserweight title against 5/1 underdog David Light in a fight he is expected to win and win well.
At 18-0 (14), Okolie is currently ranked at three in the world, behind only former long-reigning 200lb king Mairis Breidis and the man who dethroned him last year, Jai Opetaia.
Beating New Zealand’s ‘Great White’ Light, which he will, won’t suddenly boost him above either of those two but it will help to get his feet back under the table in the division and the Sky Sports platform after a year of change outside the ring.
It was February of last year that Okolie was last spotted in competitive action, outpointing Michal Cieslak over 12 rounds on a curious Sunday evening DAZN show. It’s worth noting they have not done any Sunday shows in this country since.
Fast forward 13 months and Okolie has left Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom stable and therefore DAZN too, is no longer trained by Shane McGuigan and appears to now spend his time mainly split between the Middle East and USA.
It was Hearn who steered him to British, Commonwealth, European and world titles in just 16 professional fights while McGuigan has been his head trainer for the last six of those. But since that Sunday in February, Okolie has decided to seek pastures new.
That has led him to the ever-expanding Boxxer roster on the promotional front and to Sugar Hill Steward when it comes to his new trainer. Light, who secured his shot at Okolie via an upset of Brandon Glanton in December, should provide a reasonably straight-forward introduction to life in those stables.
Okolie announced the link-up with Steward last month and has since spent time training alongside world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. Okolie, already a noted straight puncher, should benefit greatly from the Kronk teachings that Sugar Hill can impart.
Light, meanwhile, is 20-0 (12) and will be full of confidence after edging his 10-round phonebox war with Glanton on a split three months ago. He showed skills up close and he could make life uncomfortable at times for Okolie, especially if there are any signs of ring rust.
But the Hackney man, who will be desperate to make a statement after so much change over the course of the last year, could get this done in the middle rounds if he finds his range early and manages to avoid a hugfest with the smaller man.
Elsewhere, in what could emerge as the fight of the night, Manchester’s Michael Gomez Jnr faces Levi Giles for the English super-featherweight title. Grimsby’s Giles is undefeated in 13 but once-beaten Gomez, 28, has the greater experience and should win this 10 rounder on points.
Gomez edged Brian Phillips over 10 rounds to retain his Central Area title in October but Giles has been out of the ring since July in what was one of only two fights last year and has never boxed more than eight rounds. But he and Gomez both know that this televised clash on Sky Sports could be their ticket to much bigger nights over the next 12 months.
That looks like the pick of a hefty undercard at the Manchester Arena, with Boxxer using the show to give a long list of their undefeated names a run out. At heavyweight Frazer Clarke takes on 42-year-old gatekeeper Rydell Booker over eight.
Clarke has been spitting feathers at some of his opposition in his first five fights with his first three professional opponents lasting a combined total of just four rounds. Kamil Sokolowski took him the six-round distance in November before he despatched Kevin Nicolas Espindola in four this January. But Booker, who went the distance with Otto Wallin and Stephan Shaw last year, should provide at least a few rounds.
It is also a big night for undefeated Yorkshireman Callum Simpson who fights for the first time since signing a promotional deal with Boxxer last month. At 10-0 (8), the 26-year-old has a bright future and will be hoping to make a statement against Celso Neves. The Portuguese visitor went the full eight with Felix Cash in December so Simpson will be hoping to go one better.
Talented Irish middleweight Aaron McKenna is also back in action with Namibian Lukas Ndafoluma his opponent over eight. He was dropped en route to a wide points defeat to Brad Rea on his last trip to these shores 11 months ago and it should be a similar experience against McKenna.
There are also outings for middleweight Shakiel Thompson, featherweight Rhys Edwards and lightweight Frankie Stringer over six while featherweight Karriss Artingstall is in six-twos action. Samuel Antwi, who is back in action for the first time since losing his British and Commonwealth title challenge to Ekow Essowman in September, faces Omir Rodriguez over six too.
THE VERDICT – Okolie is under pressure to impress after a difficult 12-month period of inactivity.