The life of the new WBO cruiserweight champion changed one August afternoon in 2012 when he was on a brief break from flipping burgers
By 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 (120kg) 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 Essex. “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.”