Lawrence Okolie: ‘Joshua’s gold in 2012 spoke to me. It changed my life’ | Donald McRae

“I was working at McDonald’s in Victoria station,” Lawrence Okolie remembers of a time, in the summer of 2012, when he was lost, lonely and clinically obese. Last month, in a very different world, Okolie became the WBO cruiserweight champion as he completed his “crazy transition” from being an unhappy teenager who weighed more than 19 stone and earned £5 an hour while working at McDonald’s.

His life changed one August afternoon in 2012 when he was on a brief break from flipping burgers. The television flickered in a corner of a back room at McDonald’s and Okolie’s gaze fixed on the screen as Anthony Joshua fought in the Olympic super-heavyweight final. Okolie lived every punch, and every moment, as Joshua finally won the gold medal.

He resolved to quit his job the following day, go to a boxing gym, learn how to fight, work like a dog, lose five stone and represent GB at the 2016 Olympic Games. Okolie did exactly that and he is now a professional world champion managed by Joshua. But he is also a thoughtful 28-year-old as he explains how he was bullied and felt he could be killed by gangsters when growing up in Hackney.

The memories are still bruising on a bitingly cold yet sunlit afternoon in his garden in Ilford. “It’s a place where I would bump into people I knew,” Okolie says of his 18-month stint selling burgers and chicken nuggets. “We went to school together and they were coming to get their trains to university or wearing their suits and you can tell they have big business meetings and nice watches. They would rush to get their burgers and they’d see me there. I definitely felt stuck. I felt I’m not doing anything with my life.”

Okolie nods when I say it sounds as if he was ashamed. “I think that’s accurate. I never took pictures of me in my uniform. Even with past girlfriends I didn’t want their parents to know what I did. I’d rather say I didn’t have a job. I definitely wasn’t in the best mental state.”

The Joshua fight on the last afternoon of London 2012 “spoke to me with urgency and clarity”, Okolie says. “It changed my life. Actually, it’s quite bizarre to think something like that can change your life in a moment. I don’t want people to think you need an epiphany to do it but for me that moment definitely kickstarted the real change. AJ came from a Nigerian family like me. He was also tall and had seen some trouble as a kid. I was really invested in him and then the actual fight was hard. It’s not like he went in and bashed up the other guy [Italy’s Roberto Cammarelle]. AJ had to overcome adversity. I was so engrossed in it that, afterwards, the emotion really hit home.”

Does he think that, if he had not seen the fight, he might still be slogging away in McDonald’s today? “Actually I do – because it was the turning point of my life.”

The transformation has an added gloss this week as Okolie publishes a book which traces his story in a way he hopes will inspire others to change their lives. He makes the point that black voices are still not heard enough in publishing and, for him, “representation is really important – if you don’t see yourself within books, it’s harder to take it in”.

“When I was in school I could relate more when they brought in former gang members. I understood their stories a lot more. Sometimes you look up to the wrong people, who sell drugs or move in gangs, because they’re the ones with money and the flashy stuff.”

Lawerence Okolie in action against Nikodem Jezewski in December
Lawerence Okolie in action against Nikodem Jezewski in December. Photograph: Richard Pelham/NMC Pool

Okolie stresses in the book that, despite his exceptional story, he is “an unexceptional person”. His memories of being mocked and bullied remind him that he is an ordinary person. “Even though I am a world champion I still have all the same memories, the same experiences growing up. I was never an athletic child. I was never motivated to train or to handle pressure. I was never this amazing person destined to do something special. I just changed my mindset and made it happen. I believe if you put your mind to it and really knuckle down, you can accomplish anything.

“If you’ve got the right mentality you’re going to find a way to push through the difficult moments. A lot of times we get stuck in a negative mindset. So sometimes you have to take a risk and find a different route and just understand you are the key. I genuinely believe that people out there can change the world. I made it to the Olympics and then I became a world champion. Other people can do much more in the grand scheme of things. They can actually change human life, whether it’s finding a cure for cancer or getting to the moon easier. But they are not taking that risk to pursue their dreams. So I hope my book encourages people to push on and become the best they can be.”

Okolie’s story feels most profound when he documents the bullying gang culture and racism he overcame in London. He tells a harrowing story of how he thought he was going to die when, after he finally lashed out at a boy who had been taunting him about his weight, more than 20 kids turned up at his house to administer a punishment beating. Many of them were gang members and Okolie, aged 14, believed they could stab him to death.

“I was petrified. But I was more scared of it happening outside my mum’s house. So when I heard they were coming for me I went out to meet them. I waited and when I saw them turn the corner I realised I should have gone home. There were 20 of them. I was very scared and I was with my little brother and didn’t want anything to happen to him. The boy [he had punched at school] had a bottle in his hand. He was posturing to hit me, but he wasn’t pulling the trigger. I was pleading with him.

“One of his friends took the bottle out of his hand and said to me: ‘You’re going to stand there and my friend is going to punch you in the face as many times as he likes. You’ve got to take it. If you don’t we’ll deal with you appropriately.’ It was like a punishment beating. But I was more scared of knives because the area they come from was notorious, especially as the older guys were in gangs.

“I got hit a couple of times and I took it. But my little brother was braver than me. He screamed my name and then, suddenly, I hit the guy. It wasn’t intentional, it was just a reaction to my brother. The boy dropped as it was a good punch. They all stepped forward but some in the group were saying ‘No, no’ [to hurting or stabbing Okolie]. And then a guy came in a car. He had a dog. I thought: ‘Can this get any worse?’ The guy with the dog jumped out and I was saying sorry.”

Lawrence Okolie in the tiny gym at the bottom of his garden in Woodford Green, London
Lawrence Okolie in the tiny gym at the bottom of his garden in Woodford Green, London. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The man with the dog took control. He told Okolie and the boy that they would settle it between themselves in a fair fight. It only took one punch for Okolie to splatter the ground with blood from the boy’s broken nose. “We then shook hands,” Okolie says, “which is a weird one because of what they’re known for. But I won their respect.”

Okolie then had to resist invitations to join various gangs. “The older drug dealers would try their best. It’s not like we were poor but if I wanted the newest trainers it wasn’t going to happen. So I was constantly offered opportunities to join gangs. There was an underlying fear because everyone seemed to be in a gang. You just hope they don’t attack you. I was tempted as it would have been easy to join a gang but, out of respect and fear even of my mum, I didn’t.”

He was also hounded by the police and he remembers one day being stopped and searched three times by the police – simply because he was a black teenager. “It doesn’t happen to me now because I wouldn’t be in the same area or look the same. But there is definitely still tension between the police and young people who are a lot more aware of their rights.”

Okolie speaks of the more furtive racism he encounters now. In an ordinary department store he will be watched and even followed by the security staff. When he looks at them they will respond with a polite: “Anything we can help you with, sir?” But the message is clear. He is being tracked because he is black.

As the George Floyd trial continues in Minneapolis, Okolie explains how his murder last summer had such a distressing impact on him. “I watched the whole video [which took almost nine minutes as Floyd was suffocated to death by a policeman’s knee] and it was so difficult. The scariest part was that, while I felt pain and empathy, I didn’t feel shocked. It was far from a one-off incident. The only positive is seeing the togetherness around the world from everyone, black and white, in saying: ‘It’s enough now.’”

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After Okolie won his world title in his 16th fight, when he knocked out Krzysztof Glowacki in the sixth round of a commanding performance, he returned to the council flat where he grew up. The reaction of his ecstatic mum, who knew all the pain he had been through to reach that point, became a minor internet sensation. “It’s one of the best moments of my life,” he says of her screaming in delight as he walks through the door with his world championship belt. “I saw how much it meant to her as she came from Africa and made a lot of sacrifices to get to this country. It felt like her world title, too. Those moments really resonate with me.”

Okolie hopes to become the unified world cruiserweight champion before he eventually moves up to heavyweight where he is willing to fight anyone – apart from his manager. He jokes that his mum loves Joshua too much to allow them to fight and, instead, he looks ahead to a time when he has made enough money to buy a couple of McDonald’s franchises.

I am surprised because, apart from turning his life around after those bleak days in a burger joint, Okolie is now a dedicated vegan. “They have some vegan options coming soon,” he says with a smile. “I was working in McDonald’s when I saw AJ win an Olympic medal. I went to the Olympics and now I’ve won a world title. A lot of my life feels like it has come full circle. That would complete the circle.”

Lawrence Okolie’s Dare to Change Your Life is published by Ebury.


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