Boxing: Fola relishes the fight for his country

Andrew Baker meets the heavyweight biding his time as the pro world beckons
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The Independent Online
In the near-deserted canteen at The Lodge, the hotel for athletes training at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, half of Britain's squad for the World Amateur Boxing Championships sat finishing off their dinner last Wednesday night. Ian Napa, a flyweight from north London, had fetched himself a slice of cheesecake and was wondering whether or not he dared eat it. Folando Okesola, on the other side of the table, had no such worries. "I'm a heavyweight," he said, chewing. "I can't get enough inside me."

Okesola's healthy appetite was some small compensation to the Crystal Palace caterers for the paucity of the squad. Hearing that the nation's amateur boxers would be descending on them for a four-day training camp, they could have been forgiven for stocking up with stacks of steaks and mountains of pasta. But the heady days when Britain went mob-handed to events like next week's world championships in Budapest are long past: the squad numbers just four fighters.

"It's not easy for lads to keep boxing as amateurs these days," Ian Irwin, the national coach, said before a training session in the splendid boxing hall at Crystal Palace. "There's not much work around and the temptation to turn pro too soon can be very strong. And often it's not a good idea - the majority of successful amateurs who turn pro get fewer than 10 fights in their professional career.

"Just look at Fola there," Irwin went on, as the tall, 23-year-old heavyweight warmed up with a jog around the gym. "He's boxed in the Olympics, he has had the offer of turning pro, but he has come back and is boxing for his country again. But where is the support? They should be saying 'Here's ten grand for the year. Next year, there'll be fifteen if you qualify for the Olympics'. It's a shame."

Fola agrees that the sport needs help, but his huge and palpable enjoyment of his boxing, and even of the privations required in training, compensate for any hardship. "The world championships are the biggest thing for me," he said at dinner. "Bigger even than the Olympics. I'm really looking forward to it."

Okesola's Olympic experience was brief and unhappy: he was stopped by the powerful American Nate Jones in his opening bout in Atlanta. "It was my first experience of fighting in hostile surroundings," he explained. "All those people shouting and screaming. I just got in the ring and... I don't really know what happened to me. But it gives me confidence to know that I have been there. I wake up in the morning now and I know that I have been an Olympic fighter." He may not have a medal, but he does have a memento: his video camera was rarely out of his hand throughout his stay in the Olympic village, where he earned the nickname "Hitchcock".

Okesola's defeat completed a grim picture for Britain's boxers in Atlanta, when the nation finished the Games without a medal of any colour for the first time since 1964. The gym in which the boxers worked out last week is hung with images of British Olympic boxing champions of the past, and it was poignant to watch the depleted squad work out beneath them.

Shortly after his return from Atlanta, Okesola, like so many other promising amateurs, had the chance to turn pro. But more disappointment ensued. "Empty promises were made," he declared, a grim grin revealing a gold front tooth. "Things did not come through, and staying on as an amateur was the best thing for me. When I do turn - and I am sure that the day will come - the time will be right for me."

But for now Okesola's thoughts are focused on Budapest, and the draw for the first round. "That's the big difference from the pro game," he said. "You don't have a promoter to pick and choose your opponents. You meet who you meet." Which could mean Felix Savon of Cuba, twice the Olympic champion and ten times the world amateur champion. Would Okesola worry about meeting him? "No," he said. Then he burst out laughing. "Seriously, though, I am not scared of fighting anyone. This is my time. My time.

I am young and I am ready."

Should he turn pro in the future, one thing Okesola will not miss about amateur boxing is the protective armour. "I hate those headguards," he said. "They get knocked sideways, they have to be adjusted. It can really throw your rhythm." But surely they mean that you don't get hurt? "No. This is boxing. Protection or no protection, if you get hit, it hurts."

Just how much it would hurt to be hit by Okesola could only be imagined as he belaboured a synthetic torso attached to a wall in the Crystal Palace gym. Irwin talked him through an imaginary five-round contest. "Doubles now - let's see some variety - quality punches. Final round. Even stevens. Stay focused. Time! Place in the semi-finals by one point." Sweat streamed down Okesola's drum-tight, heaving chest. If his opponent had not been bolted to the wall, it would have slunk into a corner to lie down.

"These few days are all about the finishing touches," the boxer explained when he had his breath back. "Concentration. You have the strength, you have the technique. But this is a mind game." Okesola is well equipped for mental battles, with the experience of Atlanta filed away. His day job, as a recruitment consultant in Battersea, south London, is also useful in that it enables him to judge the character of his opponents. "It seems that I am good at assessing people's personalities," he said. "I am good at relating to people." And, when the circumstances demand it, hitting them.