Ola Afolabi is a glaring question mark of a fighter.
On the one hand, he has done an enormous amount of his fighting on the road and this, perhaps, has scorched his heart with the same molten steel that adorns his chin.
Born to Nigerian parents, schooled in the UK, training and boxing out of California, he seems the world’s premier road warrior now that Glen Johnson has sunk to the status of opponent. His wonderful show of courage and grit in his second fight with then cruiserweight number one Marco Huck seems typical of his best self; a fight which seemed repeatedly to be slipping away from him, and one that was eventually scored a draw, in which he came roaring back against the supposedly superior divisional boss over and over again.
Afolabi earned his third shot at Huck, but on the night of that fight, something strange happened. Perhaps affected by what was a rather flat atmosphere in his opponent’s German back yard, Afolabi failed to deliver. He brought neither the pressure nor the savagery of his first two attempts on Huck, settling instead for the beta role as Huck outworked him in a fight that was rather disappointing given the intensity of their first two encounters.
An enigma wrapped in a puzzle, until Wednesday, Afolabi slipping from the rankings after losing in another war earlier this year to Victor Emilio Ramirez. His opponent in Kazan, Russia, was Rakhim Chakhkiev, a fighter who was heralded by very significant hype until he was defeated by Pole Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in summer of 2013. This was seen as a surprise by many, but not by this writer who has remained unconvinced by Chakhkiev. That said, it should be noted that he overhauled Afolabi in the rankings as their career-trajectories were turned in opposite directions as Afolabi faded from the title picture and turned thirty-five.
Hence, even as a confirmed Afolabi fan and a Chakhkiev doubter, I felt that Chakhkiev, “The Machine,” out of Magas, Russia, had timed this well.
It looked that way, too, when the two men entered the ring. Chakhkiev looked every inch a Russian special forces soldier expelled for excessive violence, heavily muscled and bearded like any self-respecting marauding mountain-bound psychopath is these days. Afolabi on the other hand looked like a former elite athlete who has taken to minding club doors for a living.
Perceptions did not improve in the first. As he tried and failed to establish his jab, Afolabi was repeatedly tag with stiff southpaw lefts to the body whenever the Russian puncher made it inside, which was often. He boxed with absolute disregard for what Afolabi might send back, winging in hard punches designed to score the knockout. He missed with most of these, but Afolabi looked rattled.
Afolabi had the best of the opening seconds of the second round but Chakhkiev was within moments launching into a sustained two-fisted attack in the face of which Afolabi just covered up and allowed abuse to reign down on him. This set the tone for the round; Afolabi did pop up for the occasional left-hand counter but in general he was just swarmed brutally into a defensive shell, caught often with crooked, winging punches.
In the final fifty seconds of the round, however, Chakhkiev just began to look a little faded – his mouth open, he started to move rather than punch and suddenly Afolabi was prodding his way forwards.
Two more hurtful looking lefts were dug to Afolabi upstairs and down at the beginning of the third and the penny seemed to be dropping for the Russian: for all that he was an admired puncher having won eighteen of his twenty-four wins by knockout, Afolabi was able to eat what he was dishing and return to the table for more without complaint. This left Chakhkiev looking suddenly planless and an aimless walkabout of the canvas occurred with Afolabi following and prodding out the jab. Momentarily it seemed he might take control of the contest when, in keeping with the general level of luck he has enjoyed in his career, Chakhkiev landed what was probably an accidental headbutt behind a two-punch combo to the body. Afolabi was now dealing with a serious cut to the corner of his left eye as well as a rampant knockout artist who had just seen red in the water.
Chakhkiev followed that blood home with new brutality, firing in huge punches aimed for the main at Afolabi’s skull as the Brit tried to punch with the Russian and came off very much the worse. At the end of the round Chakhkiev, streaked with Afolabi’s blood, threw his hands to the sky in a gesture of triumph – in reality, he had now lost the fight even if a delighted and partisan crowd did not know it yet.
The Russian spent the opening seconds of the fourth showboating and the rest of the round giving ground as Afolabi began to dial in his right hand.
Chakhkiev just left one of his left hands to the body in a little longer than wise just seconds into the opening and Afolabi cracked him, his patent clubbing right hand to the top of the skull sending the Russian spinning off to his right and his knees. The referee, suffering from bias or blindness, elected to rule the blatant knockdown a slip and Chakhkiev was up and by turn backing up and holding on. Heavily marked around the nose and below his eyes, Afolabi now had the eyes of a predator rather than a sparring partner as he stabbed rather than prodded his way in on his bereft opponent. Another booming right followed by a left that whipped straight through the target left Chakhkiev face-down, eyes shut until the count of ten.
Afolabi proved himself the warrior of old and Chakhkiev proved that he had learned nothing from his defeat to Wlodarczyk, going out in similar fashion but suffering far more devastation – having first wrought more on an opponent who is clearly carved out of granite. Afolabi is indestructible, one of those rare fighters in possession of a chin so extraordinary that there is no point in comparing him to other fighters as he can never be anything less than #1, for all that he will be tied for that position.
Match it to that wrought heart and he is a fighter that we can never write off. If Afolabi proved anything,, he proved that.