Channelling pain into resilience has built many a champion. It’s a process unique to each fighter, their own personal set of challenges acting as a catalyst for their sporting dreams. For Bilal Fawaz, making his professional debut on February 11th at York Hall represents a critical moment in his life, for few people in the sport have endured as much as him.
“It’s only the kids that the world almost breaks that become the strongest men,” he tells Boxing Social.
“I was broken. I was an alcoholic, I was smoking, I was living on the street. It broke me but it’s what you do with that that makes you stronger. It’s what you do from that. It’s what you get from it. The moment you get it and you understand that there is no way forward except you keeping pushing past this pain. Then you become best friends with that pain. You become familiar with it. The more you play around with something the more you understand it and the more you’ll become accustomed to it. So it wouldn’t be as painful as the first time you encountered it.”
Fawaz’s journey up to this point in his life is a story of unfathomable struggle. Growing up in an abusive home in Nigeria, he was trafficked as a child to the UK only to be imprisoned in a house in East London and threatened with arrest by his captors. His escape from this purgatory, into the care of the state system, should have been the start of a simpler, trouble-free, chapter.
Yet, Fawaz’s adult life has been a wild concoction of success and struggle. His intelligence gifted him an education while his amateur boxing credentials won him an ABA championship. Yet the childhood traumas he endured also led to addiction and homelessness, while the bureaucracy of the Home Office continues to weigh on his shoulders, the ambiguity of his immigration status still hanging over him.
“There’s life there but there’s still obstacles. I’m not allowed to travel. I don’t belong to any country. There is no country that wants me. (The) English don’t me, Nigeria don’t want me. I applied for a status, they refused it but they gave me a work permit. So, it’s a bit crazy.”
Reflecting on this feeling of statelessness leads Fawaz into a moment of deep introspection as he tries to describe its impact, both practically and psychologically.
“The feeling of being stateless is the feeling as a kid of being an orphan. He looks around, he sees so many kids with their mummy and daddy, playing around. That love, that sense of belonging. I never had that. I’m still searching for it. I’m in my mid-life but I’m still searching for that feeling. And I don’t what is going to give me that satisfaction or suffocate that void and cover it up. I don’t know what will. I just know there’s something missing.”
Preparation for his pro debut has been an exhausting process. Fawaz managed to scratch together enough money to successfully acquire his boxing licence last year. The future and the career he’d dreamt of were finally in his sights, only for the British Boxing Board of Control to intervene after learning of his mental health struggles from his time in a Home Office detention centre back in 2018. His right to fight in a boxing ring had become a battle in itself.
“They suspended my licence because when I was in the detention centre for deportation I told the Home Office that I had mental problems, a “psychotic break”. That I wanted to kill myself. That I’m having thoughts, that I’m hearing thoughts. Because they wanted to deport me and I didn’t want to go back to Nigeria.
“So the British Boxing Board of Control said, ‘Well, since you’re having these thoughts, that’s the sign of a psychotic break. So how about you go and find a psychiatric evaluation. Get a psychiatric evaluation done. Once you’ve done that we can discuss and reinstate your licence.’ So I was suspended for a long time. The psychiatric evaluation took so long. I had to pay out of my own pocket. Money I didn’t have. I’ve never worked before so how can I? Life has been tough basically. I can’t stress the point enough.”
An upturn in his fortunes, however, was about to take place in the form of Liverpool’s Derry Mathews. With Fawaz feeling particularly isolated in the boxing world a friend put him in touch with the former British and Commonwealth champion and Mathews welcomed him up to his Merseyside gym with open arms.
“He took me on. He took me in the ring and within ten minutes he was telling everyone that he was gonna manage me, that this is it. That this boy is gonna be a world champion. He called MTK and MTK organised the fight. I go up to Liverpool every week, Monday to Friday and then I go back to London Friday to Sunday.”
Finally Fawaz is in a place where he can begin to dream. Though the 33-year-old light-middleweight is conscious that time is not on his side it’s clear that a lifetime of hardships have strengthened his determination to make the most of these rare opportunities. Success, he says, is encapsulated in one word.
“Glory. With glory comes everything else. With glory comes money. With glory comes fame. With glory comes opportunity. I want that glory because that will give me the satisfaction that I made it. My mum and dad that was never there, that treated me like somebody that they didn’t know, they would sit there and say, “Even though we weren’t there look at what he did.” I also want to become British champion this year or next year. I don’t have much time so I need to accelerate my process. I wouldn’t be waiting around, fighting little fights. I’ll be going straight for the big dogs.”