Back in February, we gathered together two of British boxing’s brightest prospects for a joint photoshoot and interview.
Cruiserweight Lawrence Okolie and light-heavyweight Joshua Buatsi have been close friends since their days as roommates during the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Buatsi won bronze.) As professionals, the pair are well on their way to delivering on their amateur promise, with Okolie holding the European title and Buatsi the British at their respective weight classes.
Who better to describe the two than their manager – heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua.
“Okolie and I speak as men,” Joshua tells Square Mile. “He knows what he’s doing and it’s all about winning at the end of the day. He will go on to do great things in the sport and beyond.
“Buatsi is very smart, he works hard in and out the ring; a graduate from university, and a graduate from amateur boxing. He has so much unlocked potential still, it is scary. He’s going to become a world champion of the future.”
Sat opposite each another in a small room above the photo studio, it’s hard not to compare and contrast: Okolie leaning back in his chair with a relaxed, near-regal confidence; Buatsi hunched over, a smaller presence but a no-less-impressive one. Both men were perceptive and refreshingly candid as we discussed boxing, legacies, and of course each other.
How long have you guys known each other?
Lawrence: I’ve known Buatsi for a long time. Before he got on the Great Britain team I heard of a light heavyweight that was doing a good job out of South London. I had the honour of meeting him in 2015 when I got into the GB team, and he was one of the people that welcomed me in.
You were friends from the off?
Josh: Yes. At that time there were a few people from London on the team, but I felt like Lawrence was closer to where I was than anyone else, even though he’s from East London. It was like, “I’ve got a brother on the team.”
You must have sparred each other a few times as friends. Does that give it more of an edge?
Lawrence: No, not really; you’re going in there to learn. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of respect for him through sparring as well. I’ve said to him several times, before he won an Olympic medal or turned pro, “Do you know what? There’s something inside you that I love,” in terms of his willingness to go in there and have a fight, kill or be killed, and dominate. So definitely sparring is good, it helps build a level of respect.
Josh: Same for me. When you know someone you’re cool, but when you spar with them you respect them more. You might look at Lawrence and think, “This is awkward,” you don’t know what’s happening, how it’s happening. Wait until you get in there – it’s a lot worse.
I’ve always had this theory about Lawrence: watch from the outside, you might have your ideas, but if you haven’t sparred him before, you haven’t been in with him before, it’s going to be a nightmare for you. It won’t take 12 rounds to work out what you have to do with him. Whereas I sparred him loads so if we sparred now I’d be like, “Yes, I remember, since sparring him before – don’t do this, don’t do that.”
When the lights are bright and you’ve never sparred him, by the time you’re thinking or trying to process what to do, nine times out of 10 you’re on the floor. You gain respect from sparring with someone like this, and you’re like, “Do you know what? This is good work.”
You went to the Rio Olympics together. What are your memories of that month?
Lawrence: We actually shared a room, so we were there cheering each other on. Buatsi was someone that was kind of overlooked in the Olympic cycle. When people touted for medals, Buatsi’s name wasn’t ever touted, but he always had that belief, do you know what I mean?
It was amazing to watch him go in and win fight after fight after fight, and just dominate the way he did. The first person in Rio to get a knockout; it was exciting just to even be close to it.
Josh: My experience was crazy. I watch other people and I’m like, “They’ve been to the Olympics, big up yourself, you’re representing your country,” and then fast forward, and it’s like boom! We’re in that situation. We’re bearing the country on our back, we’re holding it together.
The real light should be shone on how Lawrence got on last minute. I got on last minute, cool, but he was literally last minute to get on to the team, at heavyweight as well. With no experience, no international experience, no establishment in the sport.
To get on as a raw novice and to qualify by winning the [European] gold, beating the top kids in the world that have been there for time.
How would you each say the other person would describe you as a roommate?
Lawrence: Opposites, definitely opposites. It was good, sometimes you have differences as people, but it works well. I feel like on a base level, when you talk about as men, there’s a lot of respect and love that we have about each other. Obviously we have two different ways of looking at the world. In certain situations.
Josh: Do you know what, it’s good living with Lawrence sometimes and it’s good being around Lawrence, because sometimes I take things way too seriously, and then I’m like, “Cool.”
Lawrence, do you have an anecdote about Josh?
Lawrence: Not even an anecdote. He’s just relentless in terms of training and lifestyle in general. It’s showing now as a professional. The way he’s dispatching opponents, just viciously, he’s someone I look up to as a fighter. It’s stuff that I’m still trying to emulate now. There’s a certain tenacity he has that I always look up to.
If anyone asks me, “who do I believe is a future world champion? Who do I think is a good fighter in Britain?” Buatsi’s always top of that list.
That’s as fighters. As men, is there a particular attribute in the other that you admire?
Lawrence: Can I go? I’ll give you an anecdote seeing as you like anecdotes: we all went to the Olympics, finished, we’re turning professional now. Before we came back from Christmas holidays, none of the boxers really sent that many cards or messages to the GB staff. I was going to come back and say, “Merry Christmas, here’s some chocolates.” We got back and they sat us down and they were like, “Do you know what? Mr Joshua Buatsi called every single member of staff personally and wished them a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. No other boxer did that.”
That’s something I respect. I’ll have a fight and he’ll call me. Or something negative is going on around me, he’ll call me just to be like, “Listen, I know that people are saying x,y,z, but this is the reality.” It’s something that I look up to and I admire in him. He’s actually a genuinely good person. Then there’s that little percentage that’s like, “Shit, why can’t I be the good one, why didn’t I make the phone calls to the team?”
Josh: One thing I like about Lawrence is everyone’s got an opinion, but sometimes you’ve got to do as you please and what you want, because it’s your life and you live once.
I wouldn’t say that I care about what people would say, but there are certain things I wouldn’t do just because I wouldn’t. People would be like, “That’s not really in his personality.” I will travel, I’ll have the time of my life, but I won’t necessarily put everything out there.
When other people travel I’m like, “Make sure you post, make sure you do videos.” When Lawrence goes out I’m like, “Yes, this is live, this is sick, he’s doing this, he’s doing that!” For some reason it’s built in me, I’m like, “I do my thing, you see a picture or two, I had fun, end of.”
Sometimes you have to show what you’re doing just to motivate other people. To let them know that actually this guy’s from Croydon, from Hackney, from wherever, not from a rich background or anything. Worked hard, got himself in a good position, was able to enjoy the rewards of it. So sometimes I feel like I’ve got to show a bit more so people can be motivated and think, “This is a normal guy that’s worked hard and he’s enjoying himself a bit, as you all should.”
Never to be too serious as well. I’m quite laid back and not serious, but more of an approach from Lawrence like, “OK, we’re going to fight, that’s cool but I can still have fun with it.” Whereas I’m like, “No, I’m going to fight, I’m going to fight.” Sometimes it’s long, because you do want to enjoy what you do. Which I do, but I feel like I can enjoy it more with a bit of Lawrence’s approach.
You guys have different public personas. Lawrence, you’re a bit more antagonistic, whereas Josh is a bit more reserved. Is that a fair reflection of you as characters?
Lawrence: As Buatsi said, it’s like your personality comes through in different ways. Buatsi has his opinions, he’s fine, but…
Josh: I don’t necessarily voice out like that.
Lawrence: With me, sometimes I feel like social media and all that stuff is an outlet, do you know what I mean? For example, while I’m an athlete and boxing’s first and stuff, I do kind of like and connect with rappers and that kind of outlet. So although I might not post a rap I’ll be listening to rap music, do you get where I’m coming from? And post that or have an opinion on rap or urban affairs and I want to talk about that or whatever. So I feel like it definitely is personality driven as well. You can’t all be the same in terms of who you are and what you put out there.
Do you use your platform to speak out?
Josh: It’s just different approaches, our goals are the same: be world champion, win, unify, but it’s different approaches. When I first started, I thought there was one way, which was the hard way, work hard, train hard. Then as you find out people train differently, there are different things that people do.
American pro boxers train totally different to British fighters. We do our own hand wrapping and get on with the session, but they sit at the chair and they wrap their hands. I’m thinking, “That’s like half an hour to 45 minutes gone, we’re in the gym, wrap hands, straight in the mitts.” So there are just different approaches: his approach, my approach, different but the goals are the same.
It’s just how you play the game, and I feel this whole thing is a game – how you entertain, how you come across, how you motivate, how you fight, how you perform, how you keep people excited. It’s all a game, man.
Is there a particular boxer you each want to emulate? Whether through fighting style, popularity outside the ring, legacy…
Lawrence: I don’t know about fighting style, but obviously we have to look up to someone like Anthony [Joshua], do you know what I mean? World Unified heavyweight champion two times, able to take the L, however much you don’t want to lose, bounce back, win and stay the same person. That’s someone that I look up to. He does have maybe the middle ground between myself and Buatsi. Also the amount of money that he makes, of course, who wouldn’t want to go on to make that kind of money? So yes that definitely for me is someone like AJ.
Josh: There are so many styles that I like. I try to look at how a boxer carries themselves, so like Lawrence said, there’s the obvious Big Josh, how he handles himself, always a big fan of Andre Ward, big fan of the way he fights and how he manoeuvres.
Also, you notice in an interview Ward’s not going to be rude, but he will point blank say, “You’re not going to have your way in the fight.” That’s indirectly saying, “I’m actually going to beat you up.” There are different approaches to how he’s going to say it, and you’d just be like, “I’m not going to get bullied.” Meaning, “You’re going to get bullied.” Because there are only two of you in the ring, but there are ways of how he’s saying it and that I do like.
Every fighter that’s come before me I want to pay homage to them. I respect all these fighters and I watch all of them, so for me it’s quite hard to pinpoint who I like and who I don’t like.
What do you guys take from being around Joshua the past year?
Josh: You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Lawrence: That’s it.
Josh: The only result people want is a winner. If you have to chat rubbish to win, do it. If you have to hold to win, do it. If you have to knock someone out to win, do it. If you have to run to win, do it. Just get the result. We’re in a performance-based sport, so that’s all people care about, the result. Do what you have to do to win – without cheating, let’s get that in there, no drugs, no nothing. But yes, everyone loves a winner.
Also, I’ve learnt from that year, and just within my personal life, that you have to keep the raw people close to you. You have to recognise who’s there for the good times and who’s there through thick or thin. Who was there when you didn’t have anything? Again, like I said, play the game. It’s all a game, man.
If you could pick one opponent you’d like to see the other guy fight, who would it be and why?
Josh: I was going to say [Anthony] Yarde.
Lawrence: That is hilarious! Yes, that is exactly right. I would say Yarde. As a boxer from London to see East vs South – I’ve been involved in one of those fights, I would love to be on the other side watching. It’s a fight London would get behind it and it would boost both their profiles massively.
I feel like Buatsi is destined to be a world champion, he puts in the work, he’s got the ability, he’s shown that at international and Olympic level. So going on to do that as a professional I think – you don’t want to say it’s a given, nothing in life’s a given but it’s projected. So why I would say Yarde is because I think it would be an exciting build up. I will definitely look like a snake in that one for the south side! It is a mouth-watering spectacle, that’s what I say.
Josh: On national level, I’d say Richard Riakporhe, a real good fight. Are you taller than him?
Lawrence: Yes, or a similar height.
Josh: Similar height, sparred with them both, different styles though. I feel Richard is getting up there, he’s working hard. Lawrence is obviously now at European level, but if we just talk nationally I would say Richard Riakporhe.
Lawrence: How do you see that fight going?
Josh: Good question. Both can punch, I’ve sparred both as well. You’re very unpredictable, so you don’t know when you’re going to get hit, how you’re going to get hit, it’s like, just have a shield at all times. Whereas Richard is also heavy handed, I’m blocking some of his punches and I’m like, “This is interesting because if he hits me on the chin or the head what’s going to happen?”
So I would say it’s a matter of who lands, who can make the fight their style. Like Lawrence says, there are certain ways I like to fight and for me it’s about making the fight that way, then I go boom, boom, boom and we go home. So it’s about who’s style is going to be more dominant.
Also, I’m just dropping bare names, what’s the Cuban guy called, the one that got…?
Lawrence: [Yuniel] Dorticos.
Josh: Is that his name? What’s his nickname?
Lawrence: KO Doctor.
Josh: Yes, that would be a good fight.
Lawrence: Yes, that’s serious business.
Josh: Yes man.
Would you guys ever fight? You’re not too far apart in weight...
Lawrence: Even if Buatsi moved up to my weight I still wouldn’t fight him. He says, “Different weights.” I would say, I wouldn’t box him regardless. There are maybe three or so boxers that I wouldn’t box no matter what the situation is: Buatsi is one of them, Joshua is another one, and I’ll leave that one blank just in case. I don’t want to bring that card out.
Josh: I’ve got three people. My sparring partner who’s retired now, Dwayne Sinclair, I wouldn’t box Lawrence, and funnily enough the other guy I wouldn’t box who’s the same weight category as me, that I just like as a person, is Dan Azeez. It’s mad, Dan might say he wants to fight me but I’m just going to put it out there. I’ve got time enough for Dan, man.
In terms of each other’s legacy, what would you want to see the other one achieve – both in the ring and outside the ring?
Josh: Like Lawrence says, secure the bank, man! There’s another thing I like about Lawrence that I don’t think I said earlier on: people have a lot to say about him, but when it’s all said and done, he looks after his family. I don’t care what else he does, as long as he’s looking after his mum, his dad, his sisters, I don’t care. When we’re looking back, however many years after, it would be nice and lovely if he’s like, “Buatsi, we won this and we won that, but I sorted out my mum, she’s got that yard, she’s got this, my little sisters got this.”
It would be the icing on the cake if we can all be laughing and we were just like, “You lot don’t box anymore but we still do business, we still laugh,” you still invite me to your events and we get to know each other properly. Because boxing is boxing, man. The people that I’m building with, I want to get to the point where we can look back and we can say, “We had a good run.“
Lawrence: First and foremost, in ten to 15 years, God willing we’re both out of boxing. So what I’d want is not only for him to secure the legacy, someone with his attributes and belief and hunger... I hope that the stuff that he believes in which is bigger than boxing, praising God, I hope that what he’s able to achieve, he’s able to bring light to that, do you know what I’m saying?
Then outside of that I hope he’s able to amass what he’s meant to amass in boxing: world championships, unifications, headlines, millions of pounds. Then also to be able to translate that into businesses and stuff outside of boxing.
It sounds like you hope to expand beyond boxing in the coming years?
Lawrence: Absolutely, I do enjoy the idea of business and stuff like that. I also hope to be able to do stuff that I enjoy hands on after boxing: acting, if I can find a ghostwriter then rapping, and then I suppose I don’t know.
Josh: Can you drop us a quick 16?
Lawrence: Mine are X-rated, they’re all about girls.
We can asterisk the lyrics...
Lawrence: Then it would just be, “Beep, beep, beep.” We’ll save that.
Right, quick-fire questions for the two of you. Which one is the best dressed?
Lawrence: Depends though. But yes, Lawrence.
Lawrence: I like he’s got a clean kind of, straight down the middle style…
Josh: You’re dressed clean now.
Lawrence: You’re right. Today, fine, Lawrence.
Best with girls?
Lawrence: Best with girls? Lawrence also.
Lawrence: No, there’s no way.
Josh: The gift of the gab, I can talk.
Lawrence: I don’t talk, I back action. Listen, there are impartial people shaking their head as Buatsi’s talking, there are people in the room shaking their heads like, “No, it’s just not true.”
What was it like in Rio?
Lawrence: Ask him about Rio.
Josh: The thing is I had to fight a lot.
Lawrence: Fair enough, good answer.
Josh: What was the actual question? Best with girls, it’s open to interpretation.
Josh: Lawrence, funniest, yes.
Works hardest in training?
Josh: No, you work.
Lawrence: I pack loads of sessions in a day. When I watch Buatsi train it’s intense, just round after round. Do you know what it is? He doesn’t break concentration where I feel sometimes that’s what I sort of need to work on. I do a lot of work, but he does work with high concentration.
Josh: My trainer should hear this because he doesn’t think that at all.
Don’t worry, it will all come out in print.
Lawrence: I also work hard, I’m a top-quality trainer which is why I’m in this position, but Buatsi’s work ethic is going to shine through.