Linus Udofia, the English middleweight champion from Luton, strikes a humble, composed and focused figure as he prepares for the defence of his title against John Harding Jr on Sunday night under the bright lights of the Sky Sports cameras. It is the first defence of the title he won back in November of last year and he is looking to use this opportunity to make a statement to the rest of his domestic rivals.
As with most boxing conversations these days, and especially with a fighter who understands and appreciates the grind of fighting on small hall shows, I asked Linus how he had been coping with lockdown and the challenges that presents a fighter like himself.
“I was thinking what was going to happen with me, what was going to happen with my sponsors? What's going to happen with this? I mean, what's going to happen with everything? I just didn’t know what was going to happen, so how did you deal with it?
“I was worried at first and then I just kind of thought ‘you know what actually, I think I'll be all right here’ and luckily for me, my sponsors stayed on board with me. They were so helpful and saw the vision for me and we all grew and got through it together. It meant I was able to stay a full-time professional. They said, ‘listen to take the time out, you know, enjoy yourself take you to have a rest and just train’. They were incredibly supportive.
“It was very humbling, and I could have cried. I just thought ‘what you guys are just you guys have just done me such a massive favour you know’. You lot have kept me going and it's just it's amazing and I love that. All I can say is thank you, man.”
That support he received during the pandemic has led to a domestic duel with John Harding Jr which has captured the attention of the British boxing scene. I asked Linus how it came to be.
“My manager called me one day and said we’d got this offer. This is the money. This is the platform and this is the opponent. I thought ‘I don’t know why you’re even asking me. This is a no brainer.’ I could have just sat on my title and wait for small hall shows to come back but I thought this is a good opportunity.”
Before interviewing Linus, I familiarised myself with the build-up to this fight and watched the content on other platforms to see how this fight was bubbling up. From my perspective, it feels like Harding Jr is looking to get under the skin of Udofia and make this somewhat personal between the pair.
“John is John. He does his thing. I know what he’s trying to do – we all know. I just leave him to it. I don’t think there is anything personal between us. I don’t feel that way anyway. He started knocking on my door a long time ago. A couple of years back, he started commenting on all my stuff and being a bit more than friendly. I just kept watching it. The more success I had, the louder he got.
“I just knew this guy was not going to stop especially as a lot of fights these days are getting made over social media. Where I replied was when I won the title and he was like ‘keep it warm for me. I’m going to take it’. I didn’t go off on one but I just said, ‘shut up, when you’re back from Saudi with Dillian Whyte I’ll batter you’. The was the only interaction I had with him on that level and he just kept it going ever since. Obviously, lockdown happened, and he kept commenting on all my stuff and then I got the offer, so it was sweet.”
I asked Linus how he responds to these tactics, does he take strength from the fact an opponent feels the need to play mind games or is he happy to get involved in them too.
“It's all about me. In my head, I just concentrate on me. Nothing else matters. I just focus on me and do my thing. Going back and forth with someone online, I don't have time to be doing any of that madness. I don't have time to do any of that. I’ve got training to do. I've got a lot of energy, but I need to keep that on training and on myself to make me the best possible fighter I can be.
“That’s who he is and I’ve accepted that’s who he is. That’s just what he is always going to do and all he knows. He is very flamboyant; he is brash, and he just goes for it. He’s doing a lot and that’s him, that’s fair enough. What I do is keep myself to myself. Work on me and prepare myself for battle because you know, really that’s what we're going to do. I’ve always looked at it differently, make all the noise you want but eventually, we're going to be stepping into the ring to actually fight each other.
“So, it's all good making that noise but you’ve got to back it up. If you're making a lot of noise, I feel that you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.”
Mind games aside, I asked Linus what he makes of John as a fighter and how he is looking to approach the challenged. It has been well documented from Harding Jr that the two have sparred in the past so they have some experience of each-other.
“I don’t remember the spar but I have footage of it and I’ve been watching a lot of that. Obviously, it’s a couple of years ago so you can’t take it at face value. I know what I’m up against and what I’m dealing with. He has improved since that spar so we’re just looking at things.
“We are prepared for anything that is going to happen. We’re making ourselves our best self and how I can implement my game plan is just to do what I do best and I know that is a very vague answer but it is what it is. I just need to stay focused during the fight and I should be coming out of there with my hand raised.”
The British middleweight division is starting to bubble up nicely and we have already seen a great domestic dust-up recently between Mark Heffron and Denzel Bentley which split fans and ended in a draw. I couldn’t help but get Linus’ thoughts on that fight.
“It was a very good fight stylistically. It was very interesting. Personally, I think Bentley did the right thing against Heffron but I think he just hung on the ropes for too long and let Heffron work for too long. That’s why I gave Heffron the fight because I think he worked. What Bentley did good in the fight worked but what Heffron did, I felt was more effective and more consistent.
“That’s why I had Heffron winning it literally by a round. I respect both fighters but I feel their styles were made for each other. I think if Bentley did a little bit more he would have won it.
“It was one of those things where it was good because their two top-class fighters in the division. They had to go in there and show something. It was a really good fight to watch and hats off to both men.”
All roads point towards a rematch between the pair and Linus offered some insight on how he thought that would pan out.
“I feel like they both know what to do. Bentley knows exactly what to do to not have it so close again and Heffron knows too. So it's one of those ones where whoever implements their game plan, whoever shows up on the night wins. To an extent, it’s whoever wants it more. Both of their styles are completely different. Polar opposites. Heffron is a pressure fighter and a boxer-puncher. Bentley is boxer-puncher counter-puncher. It’s just who about stamps their style on the fight.
Liam Williams is currently ruling the roost in the middleweight division as British champion and looking towards fighting for world level honours. I asked Linus to give me a breakdown of how he sees the lay of the land.
“I think Liam Williams beat Andrew Robinson and after that, I think he might try and win it out-right which means the British will be on hold. I think Williams is world level, so no disrespect to Robinson but I don’t think anyone at world level will look to fight him. He doesn’t seem to be getting any opportunities despite calling everyone out.
“I’m not looking past John but obviously it’s a good division with a lot of good fighters but I believe I’m one of the best in it. I just need to show people that and the more quality opposition I go against the more I can show what I’m about.
As boxing continues behind closed doors, Udofia will be without the huge Luton Town fanbase which supports him throughout his career. I wanted to delve into what being a Luton fan represents to him and what drives him to represent his town so passionately.
“That’s always been what I’m about – especially in these COVID times where you’ve really got to support the little guy. All my sponsors are local, Luton companies. I’ve always been that guy who supports the little guy. I class myself as a little guy myself, I don’t have massive exposure so I always will support a little guy too. There is nothing wrong with supporting your local team.
With little clubs you go to matches and you know people, you recognise people you know from the area and you go to a lot of games. I’m representing my town, people know and recognise me and a lot of that support is just natural from the way I am as a person and the way I carry myself. I look at the way Josh Warrington has his Leeds United fanbase, very organic process and that is sort of what I’m doing with Luton.”