A little over five years ago, Rilwan Babatunde, then 18, was a barbershop apprentice in the Egbeda area of Lagos. In between watching his boss give haircuts to customers, the teenager flirted with boxing, sparring with other boxers in the neighbourhood.
Then came one morning in February 2015. Rilwan had arrived the Lagos Boxing Hall of Fame Gym along with over a hundred boxers, who came to what could pass for an audition of amateur boxers for the professional cadre. The audition was the first edition of GOtv Boxing NextGen Search, an initiative just launched to unearth talented young boxers to be hot-housed until when they fit for the professional cadre.
His road to boxing stardom
The selectors, who included boxing icons such as Obisia Nwakpa, Joe Mensah and Jerry Okorodudu, in three days, watched the young boxers spar and decided on those who they thought had shown the best qualities. Even the best trained eyes are not inerrant, as the Rilwan proved.
On the final day, he had been omitted from the final list, having been deemed not to have made the cut. Disappointed, he was walking out of the venue when a presumably less trained eye asked where he was going. He announced that he was heading home, as he had not been picked. The less trained eye, who had watched him spar, saw something in him that the coaches did not see and proceeded to impress it on them that the boy had looked good. The selectors, perhaps reluctantly, reviewed their decision and included him among those selected.
It took the selectors very little time to see what they had initially missed. Put in camp for two weeks along with those selected, the selectors, who were also the trainers marvelled at how quickly he responded to training and started raving about him.
There were still rough edges, notably the defensive part, but they were optimistic that those could be smoothened within a short time. And they were. By the time his professional debut took place at GOtv Boxing Night 7 in July 2016, those rough edges were no longer easily noticeable.
He has been seeing off one opponent after the other, first in the light welterweight category where he succeeded Olaide “Fijaborn” Fijabi as the national champion before moving to the welterweight division where he is the reigning WABU champion.
The next height to scale is the African Boxing Union title and he is deemed as ready, willing and able to pull it off. His star quality has seen him pick the best boxer award at GOtv Boxing Night 21, which held on Friday, November 27, 2020, winning a cash prize of N1million; GOtv Boxing Night 11 in 2017 (N2million) and GOtv Boxing Night 14 in 2018 (N1million). He had also emerged second-runner up at GOtv Boxing Night 13, winning N500,000.
“I’m very happy at what the sponsors have been doing for Nigerian boxers. They keep encouraging us to improve. I’m happy to have won the best boxer prize again. But their support is just not about the cash prize.
“Despite the challenge brought by the coronavirus pandemic, they camped us for two weeks before the fight, paid for Covid-19 tests for boxers and coaches. We can say we had a great time in the camp. Every boxer who was in the camp, a great facility with all the right equipment, was happy. I can’t thank them enough,” he said a few days after his last fight.