Nigerian Heavyweight Efe Ajagba May Yet Prove to be As Good As Advertised


By Arne K. Lang

The heavyweight division is the glamour division of boxing, but it is also the mustiest. Very few heavyweights under the age of 30 appear on the current top-10 lists of the major sanctioning bodies. Exceptions include Efe Ajagba (29) and Jared Anderson (24), ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, by the WBC. Both will be in action on April 13 on a Top Rank/ESPN card in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Ajagba has lost two of his last 21 fights. The first of those setbacks came at the 2016 Rio Olympics where he was outpointed by Kazakhstan’s Ivan Dychko, a fellow who would leave the amateur ranks with two Olympic bronze medals. The second came in his sixteenth pro fight where he lost a 10-round decision to Cuban import Frank Sanchez, another boxer with a deep and distinguished amateur background.

As pros, Dychko and Sanchez are both undefeated. However, one could argue that Ajagba -- who didn't take up boxing until he was in his late teens -- has made greater strides. He would be favored to defeat Dychko if they were to meet up again and would be no worse than “pick-‘em” in a rematch with Frank Sanchez, notwithstanding the fact that the Cuban won comfortably on the scorecards.

Ajagba has won four fights since his match with Sanchez, but of greater import from a handicapping standpoint, he had surgeries on both elbows. “I couldn’t let my hands go as freely as I wanted to,” he says about the Sanchez fight.

Ajagba was born and raised in Ughelli which is in the Delta region of Nigeria. He was the only Nigerian boxer to advance to Rio, the others on his team thwarted in the Olympic qualifiers. Although he failed to medal, he caught the eye of Hall of Fame facilitator Shelly Finkel, an agent for Al Hayman’s Premier Boxing Champions. PBC set him up with an apartment in Stafford, Texas, a suburb of Houston, home to the noted trainer Ronnie Shields.

To say that Shields was impressed by his new charge was an understatement. “What we have here, gentlemen, is a future world heavyweight champion,” he said, or words to this effect. Ajagba reminded Shields of a young George Foreman. An associate of Shields, strength and conditioning coach Danny Arnold, likened Efe to Jadeveon Clowney who went from being the top defensive end in college football to the top overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. (Arnold was very familiar with Clowney who spent his first five NFL seasons in Houston.)

If Shields’ prophecy were to be fulfilled, Ajagba would become Nigeria’s first heavyweight champion. (Anthony Joshua has Nigerian roots but was born and raised in England.) But should that happen, it’s doubtful that Shields will be there to celebrate the moment. Ajagba’s relationship with PBC eventually soured. When their contract expired, Top Rank swooped in and Kay Koroma replaced Ronnie Shields as Efe’s head trainer.

Efe Ajagba allows that America has been good to him. He married a girl from Dallas and they have two children, a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. He’s made enough money to send a portion of it home to his family in Ughelli where he grew up with six siblings and worked in a bakery before finding his niche in the sweet science. As for other sports, he grew up playing soccer and has been following the fortunes of the Seattle Seahawks for the very good reason that he has a family connection. Jordyn Brooks, the Seahawks standout linebacker (a free agent reportedly headed to the Dallas Cowboys), is his brother-in-law.

Asked his opinion of the May 18 mega-fight between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, Ajagba picked Usyk without hesitation simply because he regards the Ukrainian as the better boxer. Moreover, he doesn’t believe that the cut that Fury suffered in sparring was sufficient to push the fight back three months from its originally scheduled date of Feb. 17. “He knew he needed more time to get in shape,” he says, a declaration that certainly won’t sit well with Bob Arum who also has a promotional tie to the Gypsy King.

Efe Ajagba can crack with both hands. In April of 2021, in his second bout with Kay Koroma, he knocked Brian Howard unconscious with one well-placed right hand. A week ago, it was a short left that flattened a sparring partner during a session at Bones Adams gym with this reporter in attendance.

Ajagba’s opponent on April 13 is Guido Vianello. It’s an interesting matchup between two former Olympians who each have of only one loss at the professional level.

They previously fought on the same card at Turning Stone. On that night, Vianello was well ahead on the scorecards in his match with Jonnie Rice when he suffered a bad gash over his left eye in the sixth frame. In the following round, during a break in the action, the ringside physician stopped it.

In his most recent outing, Vianello (12-1-1, 10 KOs) blew away overmatched Moses Johnson in the opening round on the undercard of Foster vs. Nova at Madison Square Garden.

What’s interesting is that Vianello, apparently dissatisfied with the way that Top Rank was moving him, pushed for this fight when he could have chosen an easier assignment. It’s a crossroads fight for the Italian who was raised in an upper-middle-class home in Rome and has many options when he chooses to hang up his gloves.

Those that anointed Efe Ajagba a champion-in-waiting had egg on their faces when he was out-boxed by Frank Sanchez. However, that may ultimately prove to be just a bump in the road for the formidable Nigerian.

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Good article. I refereed Efe Ajagba V Razvan Cojanu March 7, 2020 at the Barclay Center in the last Boxing show in NY State before Covid struck.
Ajagba was strong, skilled and remains a formidable heavyweight. Both men gave it all they had.


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Very good read. Initially when Ajagba was first coming up I thought he was more hype than substance. Essentially another Seth Mitchell. But that loss to Sanchez seems to have been a wake up call. He has steadily gotten better since and his last outing, albeit against a not so formidble opponent, he looked substantially more complete in my eyes. Still have some questions on the chin but I think he is doing things right and can at least be a contender at heavyweight (and make for some good fights).

If he fought Sanchez again I would lean slightly in Ajagba's direction and do agree that the fight would essentially be lined as a pick em.