Interview by Paul Zanon
“Boxing has given me a lot more hope, helped me with a bit of depression and also given me a lot of discipline. If it wasn’t for boxing I don’t think I’d have any structure in my life and I’d probably still be smoking and drinking. Most importantly, boxing has provided me with dreams and aspirations.”
However, there was a time when Mikael Lawal’s only dream was wondering where his next meal was coming from. “I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but came over to the UK at the age of one. When I was about 13, I went back to Nigeria with my mum and she sadly passed away from low blood pressure. That hit me really hard.
“I came back to the UK briefly and then went back to Nigeria at the age of 14, but this time I was going to stay with my real dad, that I’d never met before and my stepmom, who was quite evil. She used to tell lies about me and then my dad used to beat me. I guess it was perhaps the culture over there, but that’s still child abuse.
“Eventually I ran away from home. I stayed under a bridge for a couple of days and then after that went to the British High Commission. When I got there, it was a bank holiday and they gave me a little bit of money and said, ‘Go and find somewhere to stay.’ I slept in front of a shop for a number of days and had to live off the little bit of money they gave me to buy some food.
“I went back to the High Commission the week after. I told them my story, showed them the marks on my body from the beatings I’d taken and they could obviously see I was malnourished and underweight. They put me in an orphanage and I ended up staying there for a few months while they were trying to sort out my papers. Compared to where I’d been living, it wasn’t bad. I started getting into the Nigerian way of living and the culture, but then finally the great news came that they’d got me a temporary passport and a flight back to the UK. I was 16 at this stage.”
Six months after running away from his father, Lawal’s turbulent journey was far from over. “Arriving back in the UK brought new challenges. Most of my mum’s family are based here, but I didn’t stay with them, because we didn’t get on. It wasn’t that I was doing anything crazy, just things like wanting to go out with friends. Normal teenage stuff. They didn’t allow me to do that, so I lived with a family friend for a little bit, but that didn’t work out either.
“Eventually I moved to a hostel. I’ll be honest, it was a bad time of my life. I had a lot of anger and was getting involved in a lot of fights and doing this and that. In the end, my key worker referred me to boxing, which was being run at a school. I liked it and it got my interest straight away.
“I wanted to take boxing more seriously, but I struggled to go forward with it because I didn’t have any funds and I couldn’t find a proper amateur boxing club. At the time, I was about 18 and one of my cousins told me he was going to Stonebridge Amateur Boxing Club, told me the cost, but I said, ‘I don’t think I can afford it.’ He said, ‘Come and take a look and just try it out.’
“The moment I walked in, I loved the energy, how it looked and kept going back. Then it got to the point where I just couldn’t pay any longer, so I stopped going. When I eventually did go back, Ali [Aamir Ali, Stonebridge ABC’s Director] said, ‘Where have you been?’ I replied, ‘I’ll be honest with you. I had no money to pay for training.’ He said, ‘If you haven’t got the money, don’t worry. Just train anyway. You’ve got great potential.’ You don’t forget those sort of things.
Despite a brief amateur stint of seven wins and two debatable split decision losses, the 21- year-old Lawal embarked on his professional boxing career on 22 April 2017 at the York Hall. His opponent, Czech Jindrich Velecky, was stopped in the first round. “Winning like that in my first fight was nice. At the time, I was younger, happy and a bit naive, because there’s a lot more to the sport than meets the eye. Not just the boxing, but the business side of things.”
The Sauerland promoted cruiserweight fighter clocked up two further wins before demolishing Tomislav Rudan on 14 October 2017 in two rounds, on the undercard of George Groves versus Jamie Cox, at Wembley Arena. ‘Lethal’ Lawal discussed the victory and fighting on the big stage. “I was playing to the crowd to a certain extent and didn’t display my boxing skills the way I would have liked to, because I was trying to take him out of there. Again, it’s all part of the learning curve, but don’t get me wrong, it was a great feeling winning at a World Boxing Super Series event.”
The 6ft 2in banger from Shepherd Bush’s next outing was in Riga, Latvia on 27 January 2018 against Hungarian, Istvan Orsos, who he defeated on points. Yet again he was fighting on the WBSS’s spectacular stage, this time on the Oleksander Usyk and Mairis Briedis undercard. Lawal explained how a world class training camp made such a difference this time round. “I went over to spar with Usyk as preparation for his fight against Briedis. I ended up going over on two occasions actually. First time was for Briedis and the other time when he fought Gassiev.
“I remember the first time I walked into the gym, it was funny because you could tell they looked over at me and didn’t really take me seriously. There were four sparring partners and they put me last. When I got in the ring, I started throwing bombs, trying to take Usyk out, but obviously, he’s so skilled, he was never in danger. But the day after, when he was done with the first sparring partner, they put me in. I was second sparring partner for the remainder of the time I was there. Maybe they took me a bit more serious?”
Lawal was quick to point out just how special the Ukrainian is. “I sparred Lawrence Okolie once, down the Peacock Gym when I was still an amateur. He’s much better than he looks, a lot stronger than you’d think and very difficult to get to. It was a good experience and good sparring, but Usyk was another level. I don’t really like to put any one man on such a high pedestal, but it was like sparring with a ghost. Sometimes he’d be doing that tippy-tap thing, then next thing, bang, he’d come out with a hard shot from nowhere and you’ll be like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ He’s incredibly talented and so unpredictable.”
Three fights later, on 28 September 2018, Lawal knocked out Hungarian, Tomas Kozma on the George Groves versus Callum Smith WBSS super middleweight final in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In his last four fights, the Nigerian born wrecking machine has fought in four different countries. “Boxing has allowed me to do that. I’ve seen a lot more of the world and it’s been a great experience.”
When asked to name the top two venues in the world he would he’d love to headline, he replied, “It would have to be Wembley stadium and the MGM in Las Vegas. That would be crazy!”
In 2019 Lawal clocked up four further victories. The last three were for the Ultimate Boxxer on 19 July. Prior to the competition, his longest fight was six rounds. With the prospect of fighting three three minute rounds, against three different opponents on the same night, Lawal explained how he adjusted preparations for his winning display at Planet Ice, Altrincham. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I fell down the stairs and got a hairline fracture in my foot about a month or so before the competition. I couldn’t go running, but I just had to train through it and bear the pain, which was crazy.
“The main difference in training for this was to fly out of the blocks in the fights, because I tend to start slowly. My team took me out of my comfort zone and had to force it out of me in training, so I’d be ready come fight night.
“When it came to sparring I was doing three, three minute rounds, three times with different fighters. Basically trying to re-create what it would be like on the night. Even on the bags I’d do three rounds as fast as I could, then have a little break. It was all about trying to get me used to that breathing pattern and dynamic that came with that style of boxing.”
Lawal beat Anthony Woolery and David Jamieson on points in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, then stopped Damian Chambers in one minute and 34 seconds of the first round of the final, to be crowned the Ultimate Boxxer cruiserweight champion and pick up the £16,000 prize. Pundit and journalist Steve Bunce, reporting for BT Sport, encapsulated the energy of the final perfectly. ‘The best round of boxing we’ve seen so far in all four Ultimate Boxxer tournaments.’
With the domestic scene hotting up in Britain, there are a number of enticing fights for Lawal, with one standing out above all others, given their current form. “I’ve been keeping an eye out for [Richard] Riakporhe, so maybe he’s the one I’d like to fight soon.”
Not many people know this, but Lawal was the first boxer to be officially photographed for the British Vintage Boxing clothing brand. “All the tops Zen [Zenaide Martinoli, Managing Director, BVB] has given me, I’ve still got in my cupboard. They’re great quality clothes that don’t fall apart in the wash.” But does he still train in them? Lawal hesitates before answering. “I’ll be honest, I only train in one of two of the tops, but the rest, I like to wear as casual wear, because they look good!”
Mikael Lawal signed off with a message for the boxing fans. “There’s a lot more to see of me. I’m nowhere near my best. I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I want to get my boxing and life on point. When all of that comes together, you’ll see the best of me. I can’t wait to further my journey and dreams.”