“I 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. I’m not afraid to admit that I cried a few times.”
As he towers over me at 6ft 5in, his shoulders as wide as a fridge, it’s hard to imagine cruiserweight boxing hopeful Lawrence Okolie was once clinically obese, bullied by classmates for his weight and subjected to ridicule because of his African surname.
He has since represented his country at Rio 2016 and won all six of his fights as a professional. The journey Lawrence has taken from his days at Stoke Newington School in Hackney is remarkable.
Lawrence’s last professional fight was on the same night and venue as world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.
As part of anti-bullying week, the 24-year-old shares his story with pupils at his former school.
He describes in detail the contrast between how he felt pre-fight in the changing rooms in Cardiff, to the worry of getting dressed after exercise at school.
“When I was here, I was overweight. In sport I got picked last and never got into the football team,” he says.
“I looked in the mirror at home and felt fat. It wasn’t nice. There were times in the shower I would think that if I grab hold of the fat and rip it off, will it actually come off?
“It felt lonely at times. You can speak to teachers but they’re not the ones going through it. Some of the stuff that was said and done by the bullies, it did affect you when you went home.”
Find a sport you enjoy
Admitting to eating fried chicken and chips almost every day after school, Lawrence had knee pains at the age of 15 so paid a visit to his doctor.
“I told him my legs were hurting and he said for me to jump on the scales,” he says.
“He said I was obese and the pain was down to the weight on my knees.”
Ten years on, at the front of his old classroom, Lawrence openly discusses his struggles as a teenager and stresses the importance of finding a sport or activity you enjoy.
“I tried to go to the gym, or run in the park, but I wasn’t feeling it and wasn’t motivated.
“This boy in my class told me to go to his boxing gym. I put it off at first but eventually went.”
By adding a fitness routine into his life, Lawrence, who weighed almost 19 stone, began to make other lifestyle changes, replacing the chicken and chips with vegetables and nutritional foods.
“I started to think about what I was eating. You know what’s good for you and what’s bad for you. So you have to make a choice on what to eat.”
Through boxing training, Lawrence managed his weight down to 13 stone, before adding muscle as his career progressed.
‘The day-to-day stuff didn’t feel intense’
Lawrence goes by the nickname ‘Sauce’ – saying “if you got it, you know it,” by way of explaining how the name came to be.
Walking around his old school, reminiscing on the good and bad, he picks up a book in the library, grins and says “William Shakespeare, you absolute legend” before going on to read me a couple of lines from Macbeth.
What strikes me about Lawrence is his confidence and ability to light up a room with his humour – qualities he says came from playing sport and helped him overcome bullying.
“In the gym there were people who were older and younger, different schools, jobs and backgrounds, so I got to interact with different people,” he says.
“Through sport I felt confident speaking with people and that translated into normal life. So when I had to talk in class, I was confident doing it. The day-to-day stuff didn’t feel intense.”
He tells the pupils that there shouldn’t be any “rush whatsoever in finding confidence”, adding: “You’ll find it from somewhere in time. It could be from being an artist and finishing a wonderful piece, or from being a boxer.”
‘The mind is the most important aspect of getting fit’
A word used repeatedly by Lawrence over the course of the morning is “mindset”, as he shares both physical and psychological tips on how to exercise.
“The mind is the most important aspect of getting fit,” he says.
“I didn’t always want to exercise, but you have to. Training is hard physically so therefore it is hard mentally but you have to realise that although it may hurt now, you’ll see the rewards.
“If you’re overweight or have never really played sports, it’s never too late. The main thing to do is trust in the process. Do not rush. It may not be a week, month or even six months until you see the results. Just train hard and your body will reward yourself.”
Lawrence also understands the reservations that some parents may have in sending their children to a boxing club, but insists there is a “choice on whether you want it to be a contact sport” or not.
“Boxing gyms aren’t as intense as you may think, especially when you’re first starting,” he says.
“It’s about fitness, a lot of punching the pads, running, sit-ups, push-ups – the training is non-contact but also a lot of the stuff you can do at home.”
‘Don’t look at yourself too harshly’
My parting question to Lawrence is what advice would he give to his young self.
“I would tell him it is going to be OK,” he says.
“At times I wasn’t sure if everything was going to be OK, how everything was going to be when I’m older.
“And my advice to anybody who is being bullied because of their body is that if someone else treats you a certain way, it doesn’t mean you have to treat yourself like that too.
“Don’t look at yourself too harshly, plan for what you want to develop and become, and work towards it.”
Find out about ways you can get into boxing.