Efe Ajagba can laugh about Curtis Harper walking out on him now: 'He helped me put my profile up'

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efe-ajagba-Stephanie-Trapp-TGB-Promotions-ftr (Stephanie Trapp/TGB Promotions)

It has been just over a year and a half since the infamous heavyweight tilt between Efe Ajagba and Curtis Harper. The fighters were formally introduced in the ring, the referee reviewed final instructions and Ajagba and Harper bumped fists. Then the bell rang … and Harper notoriously trudged out of the ring, leaving Ajagba, the crowd gathered at the Minneapolis Armory in Minnesota and those watching the nationally-televised bout from home absolutely stunned.

Ajagba’s immediate reaction was to drape his arms on the ropes and shake his head in utter disbelief. Roughly 18 months later, though, and Ajagba’s reflection on one of boxing’s most bizarre moments is very different.

Yes, Ajagba traveled from Houston to Minnesota for the fight, but his trip wasn’t completely wasted by that disqualification victory. When Harper walked out of the ring that night, casual boxing fans tuning in got to know his name and Ajagba’s. More serious fans and pundits alike sharpened their lens on the Nigerian boxer. So, when you evoke Harper’s name to Ajagba these days, he simply takes the incident for what it’s worth — a big laugh. But there’s truth in his jest.

“He helped me put my profile up,” Ajagba said of Harper abandoning him in the ring that Aug. 24, 2018 night. “That guy already made my name high up.”

The narrative of Ajagba being “the guy who Curtis Harper walked out on” followed the heavyweight prospect with his next several fights. The 6-6 boxer handled the rest by producing four straight knockouts and six consecutive wins. That shifted the narrative to "hey, the guy who Curtis Harper walked out on is good!"

How good? Well, that’s what Ajagba is trying to assert right now, as he tries to climb up boxing’s heavyweight rungs and continue to prove himself. The undefeated Ajagba (12-0, 10 KOs) will face veteran Razvan Cojanu at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday night. The bout will serve as the co-main event to the Adam Kownacki-Rober Helenius headliner in yet another nationally-televised fight for Ajagba.

The 25-year-old believes an emphatic victory can help inch him closer to getting in the ring with a bigger-name opponent … and soon.

“I feel it. I feel it. I feel the energy. It’s going to come soon — that big fight,” Ajagba told DAZN News. “It’s not just up to me — it’s my team, promoter, my manager. After this fight, I’m looking forward to a big fight. After this fight, you’re going to know exactly what I’m going to do for my next fight.”

To land that bigger-name opponent, Ajagba will look to deliver a sharper performance than his last time out against Iago Kiladze in December. Kiladze entered the ring that night having lost three of his past four fights, with the expectation that he was going to get finished by Ajagba easily.

For a couple of rounds, it looked like it was going to unravel just like that, as Ajagba blasted Kiladze with a big right hand to drop him in the second. Kiladze survived the frame, but the end looked to be near as he was badly wobbled with under a minute left in the third round.

Instead of clinching and trying to get his legs back, Kiladze dared Ajagba to come at him. Ajagba took the bait and was shocked with a counter right hand that put his backside onto the canvas for the first time in his pro career.

Ajagba rebounded to score a fifth-round KO on a picture-perfect right hand, but being dropped in that third round was just the scare he needed moving forward to always be focused on the task at hand.

“Different boxers, different styles,” Ajagba said looking back at the moment as a reminder of having to always be sharp in the ring.

“It’s a big fight for me,” he added about the Cojanu bout Saturday night. “Every fight for me is a big fight.”

Every fight is a big fight for Ajagba if he’s going to land bigger bouts and box for a world title someday in the foreseeable future. So, there’s that motivation, and then there’s his other fuel — representing hope for his native Nigeria.

There have been recent reports about the country’s boxing federation deciding to not participate in the 2020 Olympic qualifiers as it reached the conclusion that none of its boxers are medal hopefuls. That decision was met with backlash from the country’s boxers, who protested the ruling. Ajagba is vehemently against the decision.

“I was so disappointed because that’s the opportunity for them to represent in the Olympics,” said Ajagba, who’s from Ughelli, Nigeria. “I don’t have the power to (change) that because it’s a government matter. The people around sports, the commission thinks that Nigeria cannot make gold in the Olympics.”

That gives Ajagba the fire to live up to his nickname of “The One and Only” and represent Nigeria to the fullest.

“That’s why I’m here in America,” said Ajagba, who trains in Houston in pursuit of climbing up the heavyweight ranks and eventually vying for a world title.

“It’s like a dream,” he continued. “I have to do what I have to do.”

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