From McDonald’s to world champion boxer: How Anthony Joshua inspired Lawrence Okolie to change his life

·8-min read
 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Lawrence Okolie might be smiling at me on Zoom but there’s a growing sense that I only have half of the boxer’s attention. Off screen, his personal manager, Will Harvey, has knocked over an Ottoman box and is wandering dangerously close to his beloved chess set. Okolie jokes that he can’t take Harvey anywhere and grows fidgety as he strays towards his most treasured item of all: his new gold trophy, presented at Wembley in March when he was crowned world champion.

It’s been seven weeks since the 28-year-old beat former two-time world champion Krzysztof Glowacki to claim the WBO cruiserweight title and if it wasn’t for the conveyor belt of photographers and TV crews in his garden, Okolie says he isn’t sure the victory would have has sunk in.

“It’s mad saying it,” he laughs, head in hands, as he holds the shiny trophy outside his home in east London. Less than a decade ago, he was an overweight teenager working in a McDonald’s. Now, he’s best friends with his idol, Anthony Joshua, has an unbeaten 16-fight career and has bought a house with the winnings, where he lives with three housemates. “From £5 an hour to five-bedroom home,” Okolie tells his 162,000 followers in a motivational Instagram post.

Okolie has been inundated with messages from new fans, and strangers have started recognising him in the corner shop down the street in Woodford Green. But unlike many new lockdown celebrities, Okolie is relieved his fame rocketed behind closed doors.

He was approached by three groups of fans just walking from his car to a physio appointment for his hand last week and the attention was overwhelming. “Being indoors has probably helped with the transition,” he tells me with a nervous laugh. “I can only imagine what would happen if I was outside with this new wave of people who are aware of me.” A world title would probably have been enough to make 2021 a landmark year, but the trophy was just the start of Okolie’s recent success.

Less than three weeks after his victory, the boxer released his first book, Dare To Change Your Life: a part-memoir-part-motivational guide with 40 key life lessons from his 28 years so far. The story is an inspiring one with a plot that reads like fiction: just nine years ago in 2012, Okolie weighed 19 stone and caught a glimpse of Anthony Joshua winning his gold Olympic medal during his lunch break at McDonald’s in Victoria station.

On the spot, after years of being bullied about his weight and Nigerian heritage, he felt that something had spurred him to turn his life around.

The book tells the story of how he qualified for the Rio Olympics just four years later and shed seven stone to become a professional boxer, after an upbringing marred by experiences of gang culture and being stopped-and-searched on the way home from school.

“Dream big,” Okolie tells readers, insistent that anyone can change their life if they put their mind to it. “If I can go from obesity to the Olympics in four years, and then become a professional boxer, then anything is possible in your life.” Okolie’s manager and now close friend Anthony Joshua is quoted on the cover calling him an “inspiration”, and broadcaster Fearne Cotton says the memoir is the most motivating book she has ever read.

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Okolie is still pinching himself at the reaction, but admits his proudest endorsement so far was from his mum, Elizabeth Okolie, who raised him and his two younger brothers and sister on her own and always hoped her son would become a professor.

“The smile on my mum’s face has made every sacrifice worthwhile,” the fighter tweeted after his win at Wembley. Alongside the tweet is a now-viral video of his mother showering him with hugs as he walks the trophy into the same house in Stoke Newington where he grew up, now a trophy-cabinet for her son’s success (Okolie has since paid for his mum to give the house an upgrade). “That moment is going to stay with me forever,” he says of the scene in the video, which left them both in tears.

Okolie speaks with a mix of ring-ready fighting talk and modern male sensitivity. He talks about the “responsibility” of being a world champion and tells me he’d rather be seen as a “reference” than a role model. Fans approach him from every walk of life but the messages that mean the most are those from young people, like the 16-year-old boy who was bullied for being overweight and thanked Okolie for showing him a brighter future.

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He, too, was bullied and ended up in “scuffles” at school — in one particularly scarring incident Okolie remembers 20 peers turning up at his house to give him a “punishment beating” after he’d lashed out at one of them for taunting him about his weight. Okolie was 14 at the time and feared they would stab him to death.

Over the years, he says he was “constantly” offered invitations to join gangs and says it would have been easy. “It’s not like we were poor but if I wanted the newest trainers it wasn’t going to happen,” he once said in an interview. “But out of respect and fear even of my mum, I didn’t.”

As a black male teenager, Okolie said he was also a common target of police stop-and-search powers. He was once stopped by officers three times in a day and says he is still followed by security staff in department stores today. George Floyd’s killing last summer in the United States affected him deeply — does he think it marks a turning point? “You can only hope, but I’d like to believe it’s made a difference,” he says. “A lot of people I know hadn’t even realised these were struggles that ethnic minorities and black people have to go through. Whether you liked it or not, it was in your face, so for that it was good.”

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Okolie hopes his story can be an example of overcoming those struggles. At school, he never succeeded at football or mainstream sports, but there was something about seeing Joshua on TV that was “relatable”. “He looked like me,” says Okolie on the importance of positive male role models. “He’s a big guy of African descent — I could see similarities between himself and myself.”

Joshua has since signed Okolie to his management company, 258 Management (he is the firm’s first world champion), and Okolie describes Joshua as a “big brother figure”. They are in different weight categories so don’t expect to come up against each other in a fight, but even if Okolie did move into the heavyweight league he “wouldn’t anyway” — his mum, a longtime Joshua fan, would never allow it.

Alongside being Joshua’s firm’s first world champion, Okolie is also the first vegan boxer to win his category, after changing his diet several years ago and finding he felt lighter and “more alive”.

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As travel starts to reopen, Okolie is keen to visit family in Nigeria and hopes to take the odd holiday, “maybe to Mexico”, he says. I ask about the chess set, revealed earlier by his manager. Okolie says he was a keen player long before the Queen’s Gambit and refuses to watch the Netflix series because it’s too mainstream. Instead, he prefers cartoons such as The Boss Baby because they’re “easier to digest” — not that he’s had much free time in lockdown. Alongside training and writing a book, Okolie has been busy making his name as a rap artist.

He previously dated British rapper Ms Banks and despite the pair reportedly splitting a couple of years ago (Okolie tells me he is now dating again), he clearly picked up some tips. His debut single, TKO, was recorded during lockdown and played through speakers as the boxer made his way down the ramp at Wembley in March.

“Hit him in the face, cause a whole lot of damage,” raps Okolie in the video, filmed on a lavish trip to Dubai featuring penthouse views, desert buggies and Ferraris alongside clips of the boxer with his trophies.

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Okolie says he’s written almost 100 songs and insists rap music isn’t the most ambitious of his plans. Now he wants to take on acting. “I’m still relatively young and in my entertainment prime, so I may as well try my hand at a few things,” he shrugs, adding that he’s had to accept he’ll never star in Harry Potter but would love to get a role in a Marvel film or superhero movie.

“I’m quite competitive and I like to be good at whatever I’m doing, so I’m really, really practising,” he says, mentioning “a few scripts” he needs to go over with a partner. If his boxing career is anything to go by, Marvel should probably get its contract in now.

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