The legal status surrounding Lawrence Okolie’s promotional status has prompted an immediate change of plans for the sanctioning body whose title he holds.
A December 14 purse bid hearing has been scheduled by the WBO just one day after instructing Okolie and his team to enter talks with New Zealand’s David Light for a mandatory cruiserweight title defense. The ordered title fight sparked a series of emails from within Okolie’s fractured team, leading the Puerto Rico-headquartered sanctioning body to find a resolution that would at least allow the fight to move forward.
“On December 5, 2022, this Committee ordered the commencement of negotiations between Team Okolie and Team Light as per the notice issued,” WBO Championship Committee chairman Luis Batista-Salas stated to all parties via official letter, a copy of which was obtained by BoxingScene.com. “The parties were granted 20-days to reach an agreement or purse bid proceedings would be called per WBO Rules and Regulations.
“Immediately upon issuance of the notice order, representatives of Team Okolie and Matchroom Boxing began arguing about which party had the right to be included and notified of all official rulings by the WBO pertaining to Okolie. Certainly, the above-referenced communications between Team Okolie and Matchroom Boxing reflect opposite positions and/or versions as to the promotional representation of Okolie.
“Therefore, considering the conflicting circumstances between the parties and the lack of communication going forward during the negotiation proceedings, this Committee strongly believes that purse bid proceedings shall be ordered immediately. In doing so, we avoid a futile negotiation process and a further delay in discharging the mandatory title defense obligation.”
The original notification letter to all parties listed Matchroom Boxing as the representative for Okolie, having promoted the unbeaten Brit since turning pro following his 2016 Rio Olympics appearance for Great Britain. The listing hit a sore spot with Okolie (16-0, 13KOs) and his team, including Themba Smith who is identified in the most recent WBO correspondence as Head of Commercial and Operations on behalf of the boxer.
As noted by the WBO’s official resolution in canceling the negotiation period, “the WBO confirmed email communication by Mr. Themba Smith, on behalf of Team Okolie confirming receipt of the negotiation notice and advising that Matchroom Boxing was no longer Okolie’s promoter. Consequently, Mr. Smith requested that the WBO refrain from including Matchroom in any further correspondence pertaining to Okolie/Light.
“Thereafter, the WBO received an email response from Mr. Shaun Palmer, on behalf of Matchroom Boxing asserting that Okolie and Matchroom are parties to a pending dispute resolution process and in order to preserve the legal status quo, Matchroom should remain informed on matters pertaining to Okolie.
Matchroom Boxing remains copied on all notices pertaining to this fight.
There are no such issues on the side of the challenger. Light is proudly represented by Matt Rose and No Limit Boxing. The team was eager to begin the process to secure the first career title shot for Light (20-0, 12KOs), who advanced to the number-one mandatory position following a ten-round, split decision win over previously unbeaten Brandon Glanton on December 2 in Plant City, Florida.
The feat marked the second win in the U.S. for the 31-year-old Light, who hails from North Shore, New Zealand. There is a chance that he will have to hit the road for the third time in a span of four fights.
Okolie (18-0, 14KOs) has held the WBO crown since a sixth-round knockout of former two-time champ Krzysztof Glowacki last March at Wembley Arena (now OVO Arena Wembley) in what remains his best performance to date. Two title defenses have followed, including a twelve-round, unanimous decision victory over Michal Cieslak on February 27 at The O2 in his London hometown.
The nine-plus months since his last bout have featured oft-publicized reports of a messy relationship with Matchroom, to the point of clarification needed as to his exact promotional status. It was since confirmed by Matchroom that there remains one fight left on their contract.
Hearn previously addressed the reported issues and Okolie’s public comments, noting in an iFL TV interview that “the animosity began when the boxer brought in new members to his inner circle. Everything was positive until he started hanging around people who have no idea.”
Okolie and his team clearly continue to take issue with that claim.
“In response to Matchroom’s position, Mr. Smith replied via email and argued that the referenced dispute resolution process relates to a promotional agreement that allegedly expired,” noted Batista-Salas. “In considering the foregoing, Matchroom should have no right to be involved in any correspondence relating to Okolie.”
The WBO made an immediate ruling on the matter, in accordance with Section 1 (b), (9) and (24); Section (5) (a) and (c); and Section 13 of its Rules and Regulations.
Absent a behind-closed-doors deal reached, promotional rights to the fight will be determined at the December 14 purse bid. The session will be open to all WBO-registered promoters, who are required to submit a minimum $300,000 for the bid to be rendered valid. The winning bid will be distributed 75/25 in favor of Okolie, or 80/20 for the champ should the fight land in the country of origin or residence of the challenger.
Both boxers must also commit in writing within 48 hours of the purse bid their commitment to proceeding with the fight under the terms of the purse bid. The promoter of record for the event will also be required to submit a twenty-percent deposit, also within two business days upon completion of the session.
The WBO ruling also stipulated that any failure by Okolie to proceed with the fight—be it injury, illness or unavailable for any other reason—could result in his being stripped of the title or for the sanctioning body to call for an interim title fight between Light and the highest ranked available contender. Similar unavailability by Light would leave the New Zealander out of the title mix and the mandatory position.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox