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Ola Afolabi: A British Boxing Fan’s Appreciation

Image: Ola Afolabi: A British Boxing Fan’s AppreciationBy Paul Lam: On Saturday 27th February, one of contemporary boxing’s most underrated rivalries came to a conclusive end in Halle, Germany as Ola Afolabi was retired on his stool at the end of the tenth round of his fourth meeting with former WBO cruiserweight champion Marco Huck. It marked the first time that Afolabi had been stopped in his career.

His previous three meetings with Huck had been competitive and stirring affairs. This one was emphatically not. Early in the fight, Afolabi’s left eye started to swell from the blows he was taking, and it grew gradually worse as the fight went on.

Huck was only attacking in spurts, but still managed to land a significant number of hard shots to the head of Afolabi that shook him up, with some headbutts, wrestling moves and rabbit punches added in for good measure, as well as continuing to target the damaged eye.

Afolabi fought on valiantly, managing to connect with a few shots that caught Huck’s attention, but by the later rounds, with his left eye now completely shut and unable to see incoming fire, it was clear that he was fighting a losing battle. By the end of the tenth round, his corner had seen enough and after a quick examination by the referee the fight was waved off.

It was a sad end to an epic tetralogy. It’s reasonable to surmise that even if the eye injury and Huck’s rough-housing were taken out of the equation, the Serbian-born German fighter would still have triumphed. From the opening bell, Afolabi looked nothing like the man who had fought Huck tooth and nail on three prior occasions and waged war against the best fighters in the cruiserweight division over the course of a decade. The speed and timing weren’t there and he lacked mustard behind his shots. He appeared hesitant – almost lost at times – and did not seem to possess the physical strength to deal with Huck’s brutal tactics. In short, he displayed all the symptoms of a shot fighter. All he had left was his courage and his chin. Afolabi’s beard is the stuff of legend and it is likely that the fight, were it not for the intervention of his corner and the referee, would have gone the distance. There can be even less doubt that in such a scenario he would have been unable to turn the tide and taken further unnecessary punishment.

After the fight, Afolabi, who will shortly turn thirty six years of age, posted a photo of himself sporting the damaged eye on social media accompanied by the parting words ‘Thanks for all the love over the years. I got old.’ If this signifies an acceptance that this is indeed the end of the road, we can only reflect on what a marvelous journey it has been for the man born to Nigerian parents in London but who moved to the US in his late teens, turned pro in 2002 and has been based there ever since. This, along with the fact that he does not fight in one of boxing’s glamour divisions, helps to explain why he is still relatively unknown amongst many British boxing fans. Though if anyone doubted Afolabi’s affection for the country of his birth, they only had to look at the color of his shorts on Saturday night for an answer.

During his career, Afolabi has held the interim WBO cruiserweight championship and the lightly-regarded IBO belt, but never won a full, legitimate world title. What he did win was the respect of his fellow fighters and hardcore fans alike. Afolabi is one of those boxers who truly came up the hard way, whether they were the times being bullied at school for having a foreign name; the times roaming the streets as a teenage hoodlum; the times fending for himself in a new country, homeless and without any money; the times working odd jobs from desk clerk to strip club DJ to make ends meet; the times plying a professional trade in the ring on the back of virtually no amateur experience, always the stepping stone for the bigger name. Like the time in 2005 when he decisioned former amateur standout Michael Simms and in his next fight faced Orlin ‘The Juice’ Norris, the former WBA cruiserweight world champion. Afolabi, who took the fight with only one week’s notice, ended Norris’ career with a seventh round TKO. It should have been the breakthrough moment in his boxing career, but instead he found himself relegated to the sidelines, unable to find a foe willing to step into the ring with him. It would be two and a half years before he would receive the call again. Eric Fields had enjoyed a sparkling amateur career, during which he won two national Golden Gloves titles at heavyweight. As a pro in 2008, he had wiped out all the opposition he had faced to date and was considered to be one of the best American cruiserweight prospects. Afolabi meanwhile had ballooned up to 245 lbs during his period of inactivity and had only four weeks to make the cruiserweight limit of 200 lb. Given the circumstances, he seemed like fair game for a hungry young prospect. Afolabi took Fields to school, dropping him thrice and stopping him in the tenth. Two fights later, he faced his best opponent to date and once again he was cast as the opponent. Enzo Maccarinelli had recently lost his WBO cruiserweight world title to David Haye and was looking to bounce back with a win. Someone failed to read the script to Afolabi. He knocked out Maccarinelli in the ninth with a huge overhand right.

It was the upset of Maccarinelli which led to Afolabi’s first of three world title shots, all against the same man, his nemesis Huck. They resulted in two close decisions in Huck’s favor either side of a majority draw. That, the second fight, was undoubtedly the best of the Huck-Afolabi tetralogy and a Fight of the Year and Round of the Year contender for 2012. Through twelve rounds, both men showed great heart, incredible chins and threw non-stop leather at each other, culminating in the twelfth round where both fighters were absolutely exhausted but continued to trade bombs right to the final bell to the delight of the crowd which was on its feet at its end to applaud the two warriors. When asked about the fights when he later appeared on Boxnation TV, Afolabi in typical keep-it-real style and with a smile on his face said that the first could have gone either way, the second he definitely won and the third he got his ass kicked.

The first half of the second Huck fight was Afolabi at his slick, skilful, counter-punching best. Despite lacking an amateur background, Afolabi watched and learnt from the best in the early days at Freddie Roach’s now famed Wildcard Boxing Club. One of those was James Toney in the days before the future Hall-of-Famer’s downhill slide. Afolabi learnt so well that he ended up giving Toney fits in sparring to the point of enraging him. A lot of Afolabi at his best wasn’t even caught on camera, for he is truly one of the great gym fighters of his generation. From Toney, to the Klitschko brothers, to Gennady Golovkin, he has sparred with some of the best fighters of the modern era across a range of weight divisions, and given them full value for money.

One must not overlook either that each one of Afolabi’s fights with Huck took place in the latter’s adopted country of Germany, never an easy place for a visiting fighter to win a decision. Had the first three fights with Huck taken place elsewhere, it is quite possible that we would be looking at a very different set of results. Not that it deterred Afolabi from hitting the road time and time again. In addition to fighting in the USA, the UK and Germany, he traveled to countries as diverse as Poland, Argentina and Russia to take on the toughest available opponents in their backyard.

The one quality which Afolabi lacked was elite punching power at his weight. Arguably this is the factor which cost him the most against Huck. In four fights, he never came close to truly hurting his opponent, who himself boasts a fairly study set of whiskers. Afolabi’s knockout percentage is a relatively pedestrian 35%. And yet he did possess a sneaky kind of power which delivered some highlight reel knockouts in the course of his career. With Maccarinelli and poor Terry Dunstan, it was the overhand right that they never saw coming which did the job. However, his best knockout arguably came in his fight preceding the ill-fated fourth meeting with Huck. Last year, he travelled to Russia to face home favorite Rakhim Chakhkiev, a former Olympic Gold Medallist with a puncher’s reputation. His only loss had come against the then WBC cruiserweight champion Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, who he knocked down and was handing a beating until he gassed out and got stopped in the middle rounds. Since that setback, he had scored eight straight victories, including a devastating knockout of faded contender Valery Brudov who was left lying unconscious on the canvas for a number of minutes. Afolabi on the other hand was coming off a punishing defeat against Argentine hardman Victor Emilio Ramirez for the interim IBF belt in which he had not looked himself. The general consensus was that Chakhkiev was catching Afolabi at the right time; the bookmakers installed him as the betting favorite.

To say that Chakhiev started their fight fast would be an understatement. For three rounds, he threw the kitchen sink at Afolabi, who just soaked it up. A clash of heads in the third left Afolabi badly cut over the eye and at the end of the round, having launched another punishing onslaught against his backtracking foe, Chakhiev raised his hand in a gesture of triumph, as if the fight was already over. It effectively was. Chakhkiev’s stamina problems came back to haunt him as he took the fourth round off to regain the considerable energy he had already expended. Then in the fifth round, Afolabi came out firing and put down Chakhkiev with a right hand. Inexplicably, the referee ruled it a slip. Whether the result of incompetence or downright crookedness, it would soon become immaterial. As Chakhkiev came forward, still trying to throw bombs, he was caught by a short Afolabi right hand which stunned him momentarily, then by a huge left hook to the side of the face. Like Maccarinelli and Dunstan, he never saw the shot coming. It sent him face-first to the canvas with zero chance of beating the referee’s count. A bleeding and battered Afolabi lifted his hands towards the sky before turning his attention to his beaten foe and offering him an embrace.

As it turns out, the victory against Chakhkiev was Afolabi’s last hurrah. In retrospect, his fight against Ramirez was perhaps a better indication of the extent to which he had declined, which was emphatically proven by Huck on Saturday night. However, rather like Sugar Ray Robinson against Jake LaMotta in their decisive final fight, there was one thing which Huck never managed to do. He could never take Afolabi off his feet. No-one could. If Afolabi never fights again, he departs with that distinction, his dignity intact, one quality which you will never rob him of. For this and the reasons given earlier, I believe that it is the right decision. That said, ultimately only a fighter can decide when it is time to hang up his gloves for good and, as I write these words, I already sense the indignation in those who will perceive this as an obituary for a career that has not yet ended. So, I would like to take my writer’s hat off and bring this piece to a close with a personal message, speaking from the heart as a fan.

‘Ola, throughout your career, no-one gave you anything; you earned every cent. Many doubted you time and time again; you proved them wrong. You gave us class, skill, will, honesty, excitement and the heart of a true warrior. In our sport which is marred by rancor and divisions, in which insults fly from all directions, you won the affection and respect of all who came into contact with you. You are a great boxer but an even better person. Thank you Ola. Thank you for epitomizing everything which makes boxing great.’

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