Lawrence Okolie: From Bullied Teen To Flipping Burgers In McDonald’s To World Title Shot
Ask Lawrence Okolie about his path to Saturday's cruiserweight world title fight and he's as likely to bring up bullying and humiliation as he is wins and knockouts.
"I try my best not to overthink it, but: working in McDonald's, bullied at school, being overweight... Even then, I always had this feeling that I wanted to win," the 28-year-old Londoner tells SPORTbible via Zoom. "But I just never had the outlet, I hadn't found the thing that I was good at."
At age 15, Okolie was taken to see a doctor about the pain in his knees. "He was like: jump on the scales, I'll check your height - I've been tall since I was young - but it was still too heavy. He said I was obese, that the pain was down to my weight."
Okolie weighed almost 19 stone. It seems outlandish to imagine now, but the sculpted, 6ft 5in, unbeaten boxer was once the teenager who "would stay in the changing rooms for five minutes after PE, so I didn't have to take my top off in front of everyone."
On top of that, Okolie, who has Nigerian parents, explains that his African names were mocked, that he was shy, that the bullying would turn physical, that he was an easy target because he never wanted to fight at school.
"It's strange but I almost thank that stuff for happening, because it shaped me into a tougher character," Okolie says.
"But I had to do something about my weight, the doctor set me these targets. I tried playing basketball and football in school - but it just was not working. I wasn't able to get into any of the teams anyway. But once I tried boxing, the weight started to fall off. I remember the first time actually seeing a six-pack and thinking - what is this?!
"And then for some reason, with boxing, the bullying kind of stopped [laughs], so it was a win-win."
Okolie's easy openness in talking about his childhood struggles is in part to do with his success since. The Hackney kid picked last for the football team is now a bruising boxer with a 15-0 (12 KOs) pro record who fights for a cruiserweight world title - against experienced Pole Krzysztof Glowacki - at Wembley Arena on Saturday, live on Sky Sports.
But he has another motivation for his frankness. Spreading the word to others, who might be struggling with their mental or physical health, that there is a way through it.
READY :earth_americas: @Lawrence_tko :sparkles: #OkolieGlowacki pic.twitter.com/euBpnydAav
- Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) March 17, 2021
"That's why it's important to open up and talk ," he says. "I'm in a position now where no one can or would bully me - and I could just live in this reality and forget the past.
"But it's important to show kids who are getting bullied - or people who might be going through hard times - that there can be light at the end of the tunnel. If you make changes, you can start believing in yourself."
Plenty of boxers can be surprisingly shy away from the ring. But Okolie isn't one of those types. The 2016 Olympian speaks with a relaxed confidence totally at odds with the image of himself as a shy teen. He's recorded his own hip-hop tune (it'll be his ring walk music on Saturday night) and written a book about his life experiences.
But the path to headlining shows on Sky, being mentored by Anthony Joshua and being a part of Eddie Hearn's Matchroom stable hasn't happened in a smooth, direct line from when he first laced up gloves.
When Joshua was boxing at the London 2012 Olympics, Okolie was a 19-year-old working in McDonald's. While AJ was picking up gold medals, Okolie was doling out Happy Meals - but he admits that watching Joshua's success was the spark for him to ditch his apron and take boxing more seriously.
Although at least his burger-flipping past was handy when it came to a nickname. When asked about the origins of his moniker - 'The Sauce' - Oklie explains: "I did an interview when I first turned professional and I said, as a part of an analogy, that boxing is like a burger. And that the most important ingredient is the sauce - that's how you give it your own special flavour.
"Then all of a sudden, a week later: 'The Sauce' is on my shorts! So my team kinda said: yes, this is what it is now, let's go."
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Okolie's amateur career was brief - less than 30 fights - so he's been on a rapid learning curve during his four years as a professional. It hasn't all been easy.
One criticism that can ruin a young fighter's prospects of stardom is a simple, everyday phrase: boring.
Okolie is heavy-handed, able to generate KO power with his long levers. But before his current five-fight knockout streak, he had two ugly, clinch-filled fights against Isaac Chamberlain then Matty Askin in 2018. For the latter, Okolie was docked three points for fouls as he won the British cruiserweight title in underwhelming circumstances.
"No, I didn't take it personally," he says of the subsequent criticism. "I'm realistic. Look, I enjoy watching myself - and that [the Askin bout] is a fight I never want to watch again! When it comes on, I'm just like... skip.
"So it comes from a genuine place, that criticism. I didn't feel hard done by, I just felt: first of all, I deserved it. And then secondly, more importantly, what can I do going forwards to win in the style I want?"
One change Okolie made in 2019 was taking on a new trainer, Shane McGuigan, the former coach of Carl Frampton and Josh Taylor.
"I'm a powerful guy anyway," says Okolie. "But he's a guy who's interested in punching hard, punching fast, being explosive. Boxing with purpose and intent. He doesn't want to see over-clinching. He wants to see graft."
If Okolie ever needs a reminder of explosive punching, he gets it first-hand during his sparring sessions with Joshua. The cruiserweight admits it can be surreal, being managed by AJ's 258 Management and now able to call the boxer who once inspired him, a friend.
It puts Okolie in a privileged position, however. Having also sparred Tyson Fury - helping the 'Gypsy King' prepare for his first fight with Deontay Wilder - he knows what it's like to trade punches with both heavyweights champs, the men finally set to face-off in 2021.
"You have to be clever," says Okolie of sparring Joshua. "But I don't go into sparring with ego, I go in to learn. Will I be punished if I make silly mistakes? Yes. Will he be punished if he makes the same mistakes? Yes. So that's the best type of sparring: when you're not just in there for a tear-up, because who does that benefit?"
What does it actually feel like when Joshua connects with a full-blooded shot?
"You definitely feel it," says Okolie. "It's very explosive and it's consistent. Not the sort of punches you want to stand there and take! 'OK, let's get on the inside and have a go...' No! Absolutely not. He's a powerful, powerful guy."
When it comes to Fury, famed for his unusual skill set as a versatile, 6ft 9in boxer, Okolie admits it's a totally different challenge.
"Again, I don't go in there with an agenda of damaging somebody," he says. "Also they didn't put me in a box and say: 'Box in this style; imitate Wilder.' They said just be the best you. So it was great to see the stuff that he was good at.
"He's very different from an AJ. AJ is really really technically good, really powerful. With Tyson, it's more that he's moving and he's able to keep moving - for round after round - where heavyweights usually are quite static. So it's a challenge."
Okolie's next challenge - before the rangy cruiserweight even thinks about stepping up and fighting elite heavyweights for real - is Glowacki this weekend for a vacant 200lb world title belt.
:punch:OKOLIE GOES THROUGH HIS PACES:punch:@Lawrence_tko was throwing some big right hands during his media workout ahead of Saturday's world title fight against Krzysztof Głowacki #OkolieGlowacki pic.twitter.com/WHpv4O6teS
- Sky Sports Boxing (@SkySportsBoxing) March 17, 2021
The 34-year-old Glowacki, a former world champion, has fought at a far higher level than Okolie. While he lost his last fight back in 2019, his only two defeats in 33 contests have come against the two best cruiserweights of the past decade: Oleksandr Usyk and the division's current No 1, Mairis Briedis.
Glowacki and Okolie were originally supposed to clash on the same card as Joshua's win over Kubrat Pulev in December. But a positive Covid-19 test for Glowacki delayed the contest to Saturday, 20 March.
"I've been asked this and I don't know how to articulate it," Okolie says on what it will feel like if he does become a world champion. "I think I need to speak to someone!
"It will be an amazing thing, especially for my mum, my brother, people that are close to me that have been here on this journey. But there's much more to be done. If I win, there are unifications to be had. There are heavyweight aims.
"So I need to keep this journey going and that doesn't work if I'm not winning. So it might even be more a feeling of relief than happiness. I'll be relieved that I get this belt; not because I didn't believe I was going to win, but because it means that the goals that I've set myself are still in motion."
Lawrence Okolie vs Krzysztof Glowacki is live on Sky Sports, from 7pm, Saturday 20 March
All imagery: PA Images/Instagram @lawrenceokolie
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