WBO cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie has retained his world title in Manchester with a wide points decision over New Zealander David Light but the Londoner has paid credit to his opponent’s toughness.
It is the first professional defeat for Light, who earned a mandatory challenge against the odds after winning a tough and close bout against American Brandon Glanton in the USA last December, but he impressed with his bravery and durability this morning against a fighter with an infamous right hand.
United Kingdom judge Michael Alexander scored the fight 116-112, Canadian Jean Gauthier 119-108 and South African Deon Dwarte 117-110.
Light, who gave away nine centimetres in height to Okolie, was staggered in the 10th round when hit by three consecutive right hands to the head but after being backed into a corner he stayed on his feet and finished the round strongly.
In the 11th, Okolie was docked a point for holding but immediately afterwards launched an onslaught and again had Light in trouble but the Aucklander stayed upright.
In the 12th and final round Light pressed forward like he had for the majority of the fight in the hope of scoring a knockout but, while he came up short, he earned the respect of his decorated opponent, who last fought in February last year.
“He was extremely tough and had a good tactic of moving to his right to take away my right hand and when he got inside he really went to work,” Okolie said.
“It was a good tactic and hard for me to shake it off because after a year outside the ring I’m trying to get myself pumped and going but it’s tough.
“He’s very tough. I always believe seven to nine are my rounds to get people out. I think that’s when I started hurting him.
“He was dancing around the ring and I just couldn’t get the last shot to drop him and get him out of there because he was very tough and good with his hand defences.”
The victory moves the 30-year-old Okolie to 19-0 as he hopes to unify the division before moving up to heavyweight.
Watched by fellow Kiwi Joseph Parker at ringside at the Manchester Arena, Light, a 31-year-old Commonwealth Games silver medallist, pressed forward at every opportunity against a man with a clear height and reach advantage.
He quickly earned Okolie’s respect, but, while he occasionally scored with short, chopping, blows, particularly in the second round, his opponent, who initially scored well to the body, appeared unfazed.
One of Light’s best rounds was the third, when Okolie, after barely throwing a punch, was warned for leaning on Light with his elbow. Light also scored with a flurry of punches in the fourth.
Okolie’s biggest vulnerability was perhaps his wish to win with a spectacular knockout in a stadium where he launched his professional career but while the fight opened up in the ninth, he had easily the best of the exchanges and most of those watching ringside would have been impressed with Light's ability to withstand punishment.
Okolie has been criticised for his occasionally awkward style but it was good enough against an opponent who will have enhanced his reputation despite his loss.
The same goes for Light's trainer Isaac Peach, the west Aucklander looking forward to another world title fight for Light's stablemate Mea Motu, who will fight Tania Walters of Canada for an IBO title in Auckland.