The dictionary definition of the word ‘tough’ [adj: able to endure hardship or pain] couldn’t be more apt, when assessing the troubled journey of unbeaten cruiserweight, Mikael Lawal (12-0, 7KOs). Before learning to cuff his hands around his face, tightly in self-defence, he’d been slipping heavy punches, both literally and metaphorically.
Entering the boxing gym for the first time should have filled him with uncertainty, but recovering from early adolescence as a Nigerian runaway had stolen any remaining innocence, despite the jolly tone with which he tells his story. Fresh from his emergence as the Ultimate Boxxer champion, Lawal was dead set on survival over victory, at all costs. The fighting came easy.
Far from the boutiques and buzzing nightlife offered up by Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, fourteen-year old Mikael escaped a violent home in search of a return to the United Kingdom. He’d moved back to his birthplace after the sudden, tragic passing of his mother only a year prior, but fell victim to violence at the hands of a man he barely knew. Life in Lagos was dangerous enough, but deciding to escape his biological father for a term on the streets had left him exposed to certain situations, often struggling to eat.
“The beginning of my life, man it’s been a crazy road”, he began, exhaling heavily. “It’s still crazy, but at the age of thirteen, my mum passed away and up until then, I pretty much had a normal life. When that happened, it went downhill. I literally watched her pass. The hospital didn’t even take me out or anything, so at the age of thirteen, I remember foamy substances coming out of her nose and mouth and even when she died, her eyes were still open.”
“I didn’t know that my stepdad was my stepdad, at one point. That was a big shock to me. [I only found out] straight after my mum died. She had low blood pressure, that was the first time I’d even heard of that. I didn’t know that was a thing. It had a mad impact on my life. I didn’t originally want people to know about my story. I didn’t wanna release it to the world, but actually, I want more people to know about me, so I could help people who are in dark situations.”
It wasn’t until stumbling through the doors of Stonebridge ABC, situated on the fourth floor of a Wembley sweatbox, that Lawal had started facing those demons. The club has played an active part in combating knife crime in its local North London area and became the only constant in the wandering cruiserweight’s already-dizzying life.
The Nigerian-born, ‘Lethal’ Lawal had very little experience in the way of exposure to amateur boxing. But the seventeen-year old that had initially crossed the entrance of the struggling gym was blessed with raw athleticism and mental fortitude, which has helped him close the gap on his peers. As soon as those hands were wrapped and the echo of skipping rope disturbed him, he’d fallen in love with boxing.
Unbeaten in twelve contests, the musclebound, part-time personal trainer felt that now, the time was right to capture titles. With his recent triumph in BT Sport’s knockout tournament, he’d been provided the British television exposure his team had craved. Now, aged twenty-four, the Team Sauerland-promoted fighter had featured on European and Middle Eastern shows, travelling to Latvia, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
“It was just [important] to get the UK fans behind my back, as well. I’m Team Sauerland, so they’re based in Germany and most of my fights have been out in Europe. I didn’t feel as though I was getting the kinda support I needed from my own home, if that makes sense? Ultimate Boxxer was this thing that a lot of the British public watched, so it was a great platform for me to get that exposure.
“I definitely prepared differently. I had a very long camp because I was preparing for other fights that fell through, then I was just gonna wait until next season. All of a sudden, this came up. It definitely was hard to prepare for it and I said at the press conference before it, I do start a bit slow. I’m the type that needs to get warmed up and I tried to force it out. I didn’t wanna leave it to the judges, but that messed up what I was trying to do. It worked the opposite way. So, then I started boxing and I closed the show.”
When asked about a potential raid on the domestic scene, he explained, “I just believe that I should be the one on top. I’ve got something that no-one else has. A part of me doesn’t even know what that is – but I know I’ve got something different. Obviously, Lawrence Okolie, on paper, is the best in Britain. I’m definitely keeping an eye out for him and I don’t think the fight is too far [away]. We’ll meet and it should be a good domestic fight, for sure.”
Lawal’s promotional deal with German powerhouse, Team Sauerland, was one that had initially taken the Stonebridge ABC man by surprise. Nisse Sauerland, their head of operations, had been closely linked with the gym and the London-based contender would become the club’s first ever professional boxer, grasping the opportunity to pursue a professional career within the sport.
With the cruiserweight division bubbling, featuring names such as the aforementioned British and Commonwealth champion, Lawrence Okolie, Richard Riakporhe, Chris Billam-Smith, Deion Jumah, Jack Massey and Isaac Chamberlain, there hasn’t been a better time to tangle with the two-hundred pounders. Having his gold robe, proudly hanging up at home and fresh from beating Damian Chambers, David Jamieson and Antony Woolery, Lawal had his sights firmly set on British clashes in the short-term.
“I definitely wanna have a few belts. Definitely get the Southern Area and then some intercontinental or European, I dunno. Maybe the British. I don’t know how I’ll make it possible, but God willing with no injuries and no problems. Sometimes that’s a lot to ask in life – ‘no problems’ – but I’ve been trying to pray for it. Then I can move on to bigger and better things. I’ll do it step-by-step. Whoever is in front of me and whatever I have to overcome.
“I’ve come a lot further than I ever thought I would in my life. I didn’t really think I would get to a point like this in my life. I was in a scary place. A lot of uncertainty and I was just unsure about life. I didn’t know where I was gonna go or what I was gonna do. I went to SBC and I just stuck to it like glue. It was home.
“A lot of the guys I do fight, they’ve got more experience than me and I’m just trying to cram so much into a short space of time. But in boxing, you can’t rush it and I’m learning that. The fans want to see power and they wanna see you take on tougher opponents and that’s understandable – they pay good money. I’m just trying to make sure I soak everything up like a sponge.”
Coming much further than he previously anticipated, Lawal had watched eleven years trickle by since his mother had passed away. Begging for food on the streets of Nigeria seemed a lifetime ago, as the well dressed, tattooed, future champion laughed down the phone. He seemed relaxed, despite life recently once again dealing him a tricky hand.
Family, for most fighters, is their driving force. However, the Shepherd’s Bush resident had been forever battling the darker side of blood relations; from the premature death of his mother, to the abuse suffered at the hands of a man who’d been absent for his entire life. Mikael’s family had been something of an unsolved puzzle, with pieces scattered, as though cast aside in frustration.
“I don’t think I can really pinpoint [the hardest moment], because there’s just so many difficult things. Just having problems with my baby mama, providing for my kids, my friends, the list goes on. At the end of the day, it’s life.”
“My grandma passing when I was in camp. My mum passed away when I was thirteen, so that was my mum’s mum, she was like my mother. That one last piece of family, that one last person I could say truly loved me – she died too. But I still had to train through that. It’s hard, I’m not gonna lie.”
He continued, “When you’re training, you can relieve your stress but other times it doesn’t leave you. If you’re sparring and the other guy is feeling good, he’s strong, he’s ready and you’re just thinking, ‘Fuck’. I’ve had that a few times. My sparring partners have had an upper hand just because of that [mental advantage].”
Despite the continual setbacks in his personal life, Mikael was expecting a return to the ring in the Autumn of this year. Maybe for a title, but maybe not. As long as he was learning on the job, his next outing could be considered worthwhile.
Before featuring on the most recent Ultimate Boxxer, he’d boxed on a card at the iconic York Hall, giving yet another indication of his team’s plan to remain local, growing his fanbase. He just wanted to stay active, though, telling me that becoming a father had changed his outlook on life, let alone boxing as a means of earning.
With a roof over his head, a family of his own and a purpose, Mikael Lawal is ready to carve out the next chapter of his tumultuous story. Those eerie evenings spent trawling the streets of Lagos, filled with hurt and struggling on an empty stomach look far behind him.
Being dragged from adversity and abuse in Africa, and dropped directly into the dingy hostels of London, the man he’s become seemed a fictional character to him not so long ago. The big, intimidating boxer was now ready to channel those experiences, once lost in life, yet undefeated between the ropes.
“Life is one big, hard maze. There’s more to boxing than fighting. There’s more downs than there is ups. At the end of the day, I’ve got people that rely on me. I need to make sure [I deliver now]. I can’t just be broke, I need money coming in so that I can send it out to the kids.
“I just want people to think of me as a survivor. I’ve gone through lots of adversity and I want people to recognise that. I didn’t originally want people to know about my story. I didn’t wanna release it to the world, but actually I want more people to know about me, so I could help more people who are in dark situations. I want them to think I’m a real champ, I’m a real survivor. That’s the key word for me.”
Interview written by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209