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Lawrence Okolie had a point to prove – and he’s not done yet

The East London boxer went from overweight teen to Olympian and then to world cruiserweight champion in just over ten years. SCTR spoke to him about his journey so far, his inspiration and his laser-like focus on the future.

Story by Jack Figg

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Photography by Hamish Brown

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Video Director Brunel Johnson

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Stylist Tony Cook

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MUA Lucy Thomas

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"When I qualified for the Olympics, that’s when I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve done it. This is it, this is the career now’.

Despite Lawrence Okolie’s raw power, natural speed and lithe athleticism, a life in professional sport would have seemed unthinkable at one stage of his life. He was 17 years old and weighing 19 stone when he first walked into a boxing gym, hoping to shift some of his excess timber. But fast forward two years and Okolie would watch in awe of Team GB’s London 2012 Olympic boxing squad – all while working the tills at a McDonald’s in London Victoria.

A certain Anthony Joshua was part of that squad, won a gold medal – and Okolie was hooked and inspired to take boxing seriously. “It came to me later on in life. It wasn’t expected, as it were,” he says. “I started it as a way of losing weight. I was overweight and I wanted to get in better shape. After that, I got a bit of the bug but I wasn’t taking it seriously.

“I felt I had a chip on my shoulder, a point to prove,"

“Then in 2012 I was working in McDonald’s and I saw AJ and a few other people win Olympic medals and I wanted to do similar.

“That was 2016 in Rio – I managed to get to the 2016 Olympics and we’ve gone from there to here.”

Okolie would box for Repton and Dagenham Boxing Club before remarkably landing a place on the Team GB squad after just 15 bouts, qualifying for the Rio games in the process. It was at that moment he knew boxing could become life-changing – a job and not just a hobby. “When I qualified for the Olympics, that’s when I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve done it. This is it, this is the career now.’

“Beforehand I was thinking, I’ll turn pro but I’ll work another job and blah, blah, blah. But after I qualified for the Rio Olympics, I knew I could make it full-time.”

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“The point was mainly to myself that I won’t ever just be happy to be somewhere again, I’m going to go and take it."

Unfortunately for Okolie, he was beaten by Cuban legend Erislandy Savon and dumped out of the Games after just two bouts. It left him to turn his attention to the pro ranks – but he did so with a burning desire to prove himself.

Boxing royalty of the past such as Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr both used their Olympic heartache to inspire iconic careers – and Okolie has done the same.

“I felt I had a chip on my shoulder, a point to prove,” he admits, reflecting on his Olympic elimination. “The point was mainly to myself that I won’t ever just be happy to be somewhere again. I’m going to go and take it.

“Definitely, I took my pain from not being an Olympic medallist and took it on to becoming a world champion.”

Okolie, now 29, turned pro in 2017 and did so with the backing of promoter Eddie Hearn and heavyweight superstar Joshua. His heavy hands, physical attributes and elite amateur experience meant the cruiserweight was fast-tracked. And after only four years and 16 fights – the same number as his mentor AJ – Okolie found himself challenging for a world title.

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“It’s changed massively. Not just financially, but the pride that my family feel"

It came in March 2021 and the eerie stages of the coronavirus pandemic, when sport was forced to go behind closed doors. That meant every savage blow Okolie landed on Pole Krzysztof Glowacki reverberated around the deserted Wembley Arena, including the sweet knockout shot in round six.

It crowned Okolie as WBO champion – and life would never be the same again. He explains: “It’s changed massively. Not just financially, but the pride that my family feels – the list goes on and on. It’s just an amazing place to be.”

Okolie has made two defences of his title and now wants unification bouts to add more belts to his collection. Winning all four straps would make him undisputed champion – a feat only achieved by six other men.

He could also lay claim to being Britain’s greatest ever cruiserweight, while also having the size to move up to heavyweight further down the line. But does the man himself ever have time to take in just what it is that he could achieve before his boxing career is all said and done? He says: “I do at the start of training camp. Then I remember, ‘one fight at a time, one punch at a time’.”

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“You’ve got to keep the ones closest to you that will be there with or without the victorious, money and all the clout."

“Now it will be my reflection time as I recharge and think about what’s coming next or what could come next, then I go and make it happen. But I remember that I’m only one part of the puzzle. You need other people up for it as well. That’s the tough part.”

Okolie does find himself in good hands, under the guidance of 258 management. He is sharing the stable with the likes of ‘boss’ AJ and light-heavyweight contender Joshua Buatsi.

“We all push each other on and want the best for each other. It’s a good outfit,” he reveals.

And Okolie feels he has gone “full circle” by being managed by the man who first motivated him to fight. He says: “Watching AJ from McDonald’s to then me going to the Olympics, that was one circle. “Now turning over to his management company and winning my own world title, that’s another.

“To become unified and, God-willing, undisputed, it just keeps going round and round. I love it.”

They say there are no friends in the boxing business but Okolie is close with his family and those there from the get-go, before all the fame and fortune. “You’ve got to keep the ones closest to you that will be there, with or without the victories, money and all the clout.
“And the best way I can do that, not only with family but the people that were there before all of it happened, is by staying consistent.”

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His mum Elizabeth and dad Lawrence Sr are perhaps his biggest fans, even if they cannot always bear to watch his fights. “They find it difficult. My mum can’t come to the venue. My dad – in the last fight, he had to leave after a period because it wasn’t my usual ‘KO and get out of there’. “It was a bit more physical so I think he found it difficult to watch. But it’s all good.”

Elizabeth and Lawrence Sr were both born in Nigeria but raised their three sons and one daughter in Hackney.

Okolie remains proud of his African heritage and most recently walked to the ring bearing the Nigerian flag alongside Joshua and the UFC’s Israel Adesanya, who also have roots in the west African country. The undefeated boxer is proud of where his family hail from and wants to go back to Nigeria in the near future.

Possibly with more than one belt to his name.

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