The champ can take a punch. You can see in his three title fights with Marco Huck, how he eats right hands and lefts hooks, then keeps on his feet. Not even Huck, the top 200 pounder in the world could make him kiss canvas, nor could the 25 others who have laced up against him in prize fights.
But like the fighters say, it’s the punch you don’t see coming that puts you on your butt, and the same can be said about life.
The champ already knows. He paid his dues on the minimum wage scale of boxing, in the small shows where promoters matched him against their young guns, thinking he was soft, thinking him an easy win for their man. And maybe he would have been, if he hadn’t known loss or hardship, if life hadn’t kept him bobbing and weaving. He’s counting on that experience Dec. 6, when he’ll seek to unify his cruiserweight title against slickster Yoan Pablo Hernandez.
Ola Afolabi will tell you that London could have been the death of him more than a decade ago, when shoplifting and street fights occupied his time. He escaped that fate, ducked away, hopping a plane to Los Angeles to live with his brother. He saw that dreadful end fast approaching, so he shoulder rolled out of the way.
Then another hit came: fights with his brother, irreconcilable differences that made the unfamiliar Glendale streets his new home. He took that one, too, absorbing it and moving on. He slept in youth hostels when he had some cash. When money was tight, he’d break into a movie ticket booth he knew was always available. There was boxing, too. A broke 20-year-old, he began his education in Hollywood, at Wild Card Gym before it was the world class bastion of pugilism it is today. It was the first gym to come up in an internet search. He learned his trade against the big bodies there, like former heavyweight champions James Toney and Michael Moorer, earning experience and a lifetime of knowledge paid for with blood and sweat. It was a road less traveled, away from the amateur ranks and a glittering Olympic resume. He bypassed that altogether, eventually going straight to the pro fight game, a nearly unheard of feat amongst world champions.
He convinced Wild Card owner Freddie Roach to let him clean the gym for $50 a week, making money on the side as a DJ at a strip club for $200 a night.
But as his life began to come together, as the hooligan in him drifted away, the hit he could not prepare for landed.
His mother lost a bout with illness, the last piece that made London home, gone. Fearing he’d relapse into his old street fighting ways, he stayed put in Los Angeles and stood fast in the ring.
He got back in the ring, turned pro at 22, beginning a long slog to the top. His first fight ended in a draw, his fourth was a loss to light heavyweight Allan Green. A slow start. But he got his first break when a promoter called him up to fight Orlin Norris, a battle tested veteran with a record of 57-10-1. He had one week to prepare.
Technical knockout in round seven.
He didn’t get another call for a fight for almost three years, until one promoter dared to pit him against highly touted Eric Fields, then 11-0.
“I was 245 pounds four weeks out,” Afolabi said. “We didn’t eat for like five days to make weight that fight.”
No matter. 10th round stoppage. But he wasn’t a world title contender, not until 2009 when he erased big punching Enzo Maccarinelli in the ninth round one fight later.
Then came Huck, his foil over three competitive fights that went the distance, and when Afolabi surmises what happened, all he can do is shake his head:
“We went there and fought a close fight, I thought I might have edged it or it was a draw, but they gave it to him. The second time I won, but they called it a draw. The third fight, I blew it.”
The champ’s fists hit the trainers padded hands, head movement and gloves moving in harmony; hit and don’t get hit in pure form. The two float around each other to the beat of quick hands striking fat pads. Nearly a foot shorter, the bald trainer sometimes pauses, softly speaking instructions through gold teeth.
Though the fight is still a distance away, they plot their strategy against Hernandez before Afolabi thinks better of it.
“You talk too much,” he says.
“It won’t matter,” Jerry Rosenberg replies.
“Yes, it will. That’s our whole plan.”
Both brim with confidence.
“That’s the best cruiserweight in the world,” Rosenberg will say of Afolabi with little prompting. “There’s only one cruiserweight who can give him trouble, and that’s Marco Huck.”
There’s reason for confidence. Afolabi is riding a two fight win streak, including a12th round decision over Lucaz Janik to win a version of the 200 pound title, and a third round demolition of Anthony Caputo Smith in July at Madison Square Garden.
“I know I’ve done everything I can outside the ring to win the title. Now inside the ring, if I’m good enough, I’ll win,” Afolabi said. “If I’m not good enough, then I didn’t deserve it. Then I’ll cash my check and on to the next one.”