Anthony Joshua has new Nigerian rival in Raphael Akpejiori who targets world title fight in Africa

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Raphael Akpejiori

Nigerian heavyweight Raphael Akpejiori has already visualised how a world title fight with Anthony Joshua would bring his nation to a standstill.

“I can guarantee that the whole country would be tuned in. I can guarantee that the whole of Africa will be tuned in,” Akpejiori.

“I’ve actually thought about the prospect of that, I still have a lot of work to do.”

The unbeaten 29-year-old wants his name to resonate in boxing’s top division after his imposing 6’8″ frame and athleticism brought him from Lagos to Florida.

He has already excelled in college basketball at the University of Miami, where he also bolstered the ranks of their American football team with his strength and size.

But Akpejiori quickly reveals: “I actually always loved fighting. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but when I was in secondary school in Nigeria I fought like every other day.”

Years on from hurling fists in a schoolyard, he has opted to trade brutal punches with the biggest men in boxing.

His raw credentials caught the eye of trainer Glen Johnson, the battle-scarred Jamaican, who famously toppled Roy Jones Jr to become IBF light-heavyweight champion.

Since then, he has acquired six professional victories all by knockout, with only one opponent reaching the second round. Had Akpejiori easily earned the approval of Johnson?

The fledgling fighter had made a similarly destructive entrance into the amateur ranks, swatting aside a string of opponents in his 14 bouts, with just a solitary defeat. If he had expected an exuberant speech from Johnson about conquering the world, he was wrong.

“He saw my amateur tapes and kind of thought I was terrible,” recalled Akpejiori.

“He has such high standards, because you know as a champion, you see things from a championship perspective, and I was the second ever boxer that he was training.”

There would be no competitive fights for a year as Akpejiori received his harsh lecture from Johnson about graduating at the highest level. Akpejiori’s weekly tutorial would be sparring sessions with a succession of accomplished fighters, instead of quick and easy amateur wins.

World amateur champion Bakhodir Jalolov and Olympic bronze medallist Ivan Dychko were among the esteemed sparring partners, along with Filip Hrgovic, Croatia’s ruthless contender. But Akpejiori was quick to dismiss any suggestion that he might be daunted by hurtful sessions with Hrgovic.

“It’s boxing man. If you can’t box, that’s when you’re going to say somebody is mean. If I’m sparring guys like Dychko, or Jalolov – world championship guys, guys that we’re going to fight in the future for money.

“If I’m sparring those kind of guys on a weekly basis, I can’t come here and be complaining. I have goals to see them in the future.”

Every hopeful heavyweight has their eyes currently fixed on Britain’s two world champions – Tyson Fury, the newly crowned WBC champion, and Joshua, the unified title holder.

Joshua has paid homage to his African heritage on a recent trip to Nigeria, even venturing into Makoko, a floating slum in the Lagos lagoon, to draw inspiration following his stunning first professional loss to Andy Ruiz Jr. An outline of Africa is etched onto Joshua’s right shoulder and he has spoken openly about boxing in the continent.

“For the next fight, Africa is not the right time. But at some point, he 100 per cent wants it,” Joshua’s manager Freddie Cunningham told Sky Sports.

For Akpejiori, who was raised in Surulere, a short drive from Makoko, the prospect of a future showdown with Joshua on Nigerian soil is a serious ambition, although he recognises that he will not be challenging for the WBA, IBF and WBO belts in the near future.

“Obviously I want to fight Anthony Joshua tomorrow,” admits Akpejiori.

“If he has the belts at that time, I’m going to collect the belts from him at that time.

“Fighting Joshua is not just about having a great record, or whatever. There’s a business side to it that I have to accomplish too.

“I have to get my name out there. I’m going to have to show some quality, in my boxing. I’m going to have to present myself to the public and to promoters as this is a fight that needs to happen.

“But if that happens, it would be a great fight for the country and for the continent. That could happen in Nigeria, that can happen in Lagos, Nigeria, that can happen in Abuja, Nigeria, that can happen in Calabar, Nigeria.”

Having achieved his initial aims in basketball and American Football,Akpejiori has set himself a target of two years to reach world title contention. He expects to resume his climb up the rankings in September, with a fight in Miami.

Will another swift knockout send out a warning to potential rivals?

“The quality of my boxing itself tells you I’m here to mean business. I don’t need my record to tell you that I mean business. If you stand in front of me, you will get knocked out. That’s how it’s going to be for the next 50 fights, or for the next how many more fights I go to.

“Whether you feel I mean business or not, it’s your problem, in my opinion, because when we face, you will get knocked out.”

An early nickname, ‘The Nigerian Hurricane,’ has been discarded by Akpejiori, who is not interested in acquiring a grandiose title.

“I don’t know where that name came from, because that’s not my name.

“I see it on the internet all the time. It’s not my job to give myself a name.”

If boxing brings him to where he expects, Akpejiori’s reputation will soon ring out in a heavyweight landscape that is ruled by Fury and Joshua.

Credit: Sky Sports

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