Lawrence Okolie outpoints Michal Cieslak in scrappy fight to retain cruiserweight title

The Londoner was a unanimous-decision winner in the English capital, where his Polish opponent had considerable support

<p>Londoner Lawrence Okolie (right) achieved a unanimous-decision win against Michal Cieslak at the O2</p>

Londoner Lawrence Okolie (right) achieved a unanimous-decision win against Michal Cieslak at the O2

Lawrence Okolie retained his WBO cruiserweight title against Michal Cieslak on Saturday night, outpointing the Pole in a scrappy affair.

Okolie was the hometown fighter in London’s O2 Arena, but it was his challenger who had the greater support throughout the main-event contest, which marked the Briton’s second defence of the belt.

Okolie (18-0, 14 knockouts) remained unbeaten with the victory, which was hard fought and failed to see the 29-year-old operate at his highest level.

The former Team GB Olympian struggled to time his right hand throughout the fight, while Cieslak (21-2, 15 KOs) frequently held the champion and looked to make it a messy contest.

Although that was the pattern of the bout, it did not manifest itself at once, with Okolie actually looking like securing an early stoppage in the first round. The Briton connected with a massive overhand right with his opponent backed up against the ropes, and the punch sent Cieslak down to a knee.

Cheered on by “Michal” chants from the Polish fans in the arena, Cieslak gathered his composure and set about tying up Okolie as often as possible.

Much of the main event took place in the clinch

The 32-year-old was soon sporting some significant swelling around his left eye and swivelled into a southpaw stance. While it made little difference to Cieslak’s offence, which was largely non-existent, it did contribute to Okolie’s ongoing difficulties in connecting with clean shots.

Cieslak was clinching Okolie almost every time the champion looked to initiate exchanges, frustrating the Londoner and even trading a few punches in close after the bell at the end of the fourth round.

The referee warned each man for punching the other to the back of the head in the clinch, though the official could and probably should have been stricter in punishing the fighters for the dangerous strikes.

In the fifth round, Okolie finally timed a right straight, which dropped Cieslak to a knee despite only catching the Pole’s glove – such was the power behind the punch. The visitor was soon standing again but only on unsteady legs, which buckled as Cieslak ate another firm right hand.

Cieslak survived the round, but Okolie was able to maintain his newfound accuracy with sharp right straights. The champion was also utilising his jab more effectively, measuring the distance to his opponent well before sliding in with heavier punches.

Cieslak’s first significant shot of the night did not arrive until the seventh round, when the Pole landed a wild uppercut on a retreating Okolie, whose accuracy was already diminishing again.

The referee was almost as active as the fighters, warning and separating them throughout

There was more clinching from the fighters and there were more warnings from the referee as the championship rounds approached, Okolie and Cieslak again exchanging punches after the bell at the end of the ninth.

Okolie’s right hand flickered into life occasionally, but it was a left hook to the body from range that became the 29-year-old’s best weapon in the final few rounds.

Okolie took some unnecessary risks with wild entries in the final frame and even stumbled to the canvas during one clinch, but ultimately the title holder made it to the final bell without having seen his lead come under any real threat.

As such, it was little surprise when the judges’ scorecards were all revealed to favour Okolie – 117-110, 116-111, 115-112 – though the third flattered Cieslak.

Okolie admitted after the fight that his focus had drifted somewhat this week, with the Londoner eyeing opportunities to unify the cruiserweight belts.

“I think it’s difficult to get up for certain fights when I’m looking at potential unifications,” he said in the ring following his victory, after assessing his performance.

Okolie retained his WBO cruiserweight title for the second time

“The right hand... He was tucking under it very well, so I was trying to find different angles,” Okolie said.

“I think I was taking too long to find the right shot.

“He had a lot of grit. I thought when I dropped him in the fifth that I’d close the show.”

Okolie remains champion and remains unbeaten, but this was no showcase performance by the Briton.

That was, however, in large part due to Cieslak’s approach here, and Okolie – who is still relatively inexperienced despite his status as champion – will learn from this bout and adapt going forward.

Cleaner performances from slicker opponents might just bring out the best in Okolie. He will certainly hope so.

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