Bilal Fawaz was not allowed to go to school. When visitors arrived at his home in London, the then 14-year-old was ordered to stay upstairs. He was beaten. He spent his days doing household chores. He was not allowed to leave the house. He was a slave.
The teenager, who had recently landed in London from Africa, was one of many children living with a Nigerian family – he is not sure where.
Everything he was told? Leave the house and you will end up in jail.
Bilal Fawaz was not allowed to leave the house … now he’s aiming for a British boxing title
“I didn’t feel like a servant,” says the 32-year-old Sportsmail‘I didn’t know what that was. I just thought, “I’m a child. I have to do what I’m told.” I never knew what a washing machine was so I used my hands. But its humiliating existence took its toll. It broke my mind. ‘
When Fawaz was eight, he was taken from his mother to live with an uncle in Nigeria. At the age of 14, he was told, “We’re going to London to meet your father.” On arrival he was driven to a house. “My uncle just dropped me off there and said, ‘I’ll be back,’” he explains. ‘He never came back. I was told my father was coming. He never came. ‘
And so the cruelty began. Fawaz says he was hit with a flip-flop and warned that only the prison on the outside was waiting.
“I had gone out the door, put my leg out, went to the front yard, looked around and ran back in,” he says. “One day I just didn’t look back … that was the first adult choice I’d made in my life.”
A stranger found him crying in the street.
Fawaz had escaped service. Boxing came to his rescue.
He is now embarking on a career with MTK Global – the management company that runs Tyson Fury and dozens of other British boxers. And the former national champion, described by Barry McGuigan as an ‘exceptional talent’, was once told he would make at least £ 230,000 in paid fights within two years. He won the ABA light middleweight title in 2012.
In 2019, the Interior Ministry accepted that he was a victim of modern day slavery, but Fawaz is still fighting to break free from that past.
“I could be in a house full of beautiful things, kids running around, a Lamborghini or Ferrari,” he says. Instead? “I’m still begging for food and asking for handouts.”
As a child, Fawaz was banned from going outside and confirmed as a victim of modern slavery
Fawaz represented England – also against his homeland – while he was nowhere a citizen. For 16 years he fought the Interior Ministry to stay here legally, and last June he was finally given leave to live – and work – for 30 months.
“Nothing has changed,” emphasizes Fawaz. “My life is more difficult than before.” With the clock at his chance, Fawaz wants to fight for the British title within six fights. “I have to speed up the process.”
Coronavirus has complicated the start of his career and as it stands Fawaz is awaiting a license from the British Boxing Board of Control. But when the opportunity finally comes, at least he will be paid for the penalty.
Back in Nigeria, pain was just a part of life. As a child, Fawaz was maltreated before being smuggled to the UK. “Getting beat up was normal,” he says. “My upbringing was not great … it was cruel because I was the black sheep.”
Fawaz grew up with a young mother and a father who was only sporadically present. “My mother didn’t treat me like her child,” he says. A beating – still branded on his psyche – made Fawaz bleed. He had to lie to make it stop, but when his alibi fell apart, the violence resumed. Then she made fun of me. She said, “You are not my son”. ‘
Even in such a brutal environment, Fawaz let his mind wander. “My dream was to become an actor,” he says. “I watched this movie and I saw these guys with beautiful bodies and I said,” If I look good, they would put me on TV. “
And so he pumps iron with the help of weights made of cement, a rod and buckets. More recently, to keep afloat, he worked as an extra in films and on TV. In addition to training, he follows online acting courses. “I can act,” he emphasizes. “I can cry on command.”
Unfortunately, his tears have never needed much of an invitation to flow. In Nigeria he was an outcast, bullied because of his mixed ancestry (his father is Lebanese, his mother from Benin. Both are now dead). Britain’s streets have hardly been more welcoming.
“I was just a young boy who needed help and the man saw that,” Fawaz says of his eventual escape. “But before he did, a lot of people passed by.” He was taken to social welfare, and during a wandering life in care, boxing became a haven.
“For once in my life, when they looked at me, the people there respected me,” he recalls. “That feeling was money to me.”
Last year, Fawaz won a 16-year battle to stay in the UK and can now start a boxing career
After his ABA title success in 2012, he believes the Olympics should have followed. The problem? After he turned 18, Fawaz was left in legal doom: Nigeria refused him a passport and citizenship; the Interior Ministry did not want to accept that he was stateless and wanted him to leave.
He was twice incarcerated in detention centers, with the threat of deportation hanging over his head.
Frank Warren and McGuigan were among those in his corner. But while Fawaz remained mired in the red tape, other problems began to snowball.
“I became an alcoholic,” he adds, “I went to my doctor, they diagnosed depression and they gave me drugs.” His relations also suffered. “My wife divorced me … that break broke me to pieces.”
For a time he stood outside the Leicester Square station asking for money. At night he hopped between the boxing gym, friends’ houses and a park in West Ealing. “They have this sofa,” he recalls.
To make a living, he cleaned the gym, did odd jobs, and relied on the kindness of others.
People offered donations. A man named Simon has paid most of his rent in recent years. “He saved my life.” Some of those faucets closed when he earned the right to work. But even a deal with MTK didn’t get an immediate reward – for most boxers, no fight means no pay.
“I have a tracksuit, a shirt and my name on a piece of paper. That’s all, ”he says. “My life has changed legally … but the future is uncertain.” The threat of deportation has at least disappeared for the time being.
In those detention centers, he discovered both self-harm and rescue. Fawaz cut himself; he also taught himself piano.
“There was a music room,” he says. “If you put a piano in front of me, I’ll touch your soul.” Last year he released a record – and music video – under the name Statelezz. “In boxing,” he says, “I can perform alone. But in music I can use my words to help people. ‘
Judging by Fawaz’s amateur tribes and boundless charisma, his fights shouldn’t be a lack of entertainment either. However, scars linger behind the layer of charm.
“I’m not really happy,” he says. ‘When I meet people, I smile at them, I make jokes. But then when I go, it’s just … emptiness. ‘
No wonder the cruelty of life in Nigeria has been followed by more turmoil and tragedy. One day his horizons will broaden. “I’m going to have a house in Spain,” he says. ‘I like the culture. I speak Spanish, I am self-taught because I am salsa … but the UK is a place where careers are made. And despite everything, this country still holds the key to his happiness.
“I feel like I’m British … I bled for them in the ring,” he says.
‘To hold that British passport in my hand and for them to say,’ You’re one of us’. I think that would affect me the most. ‘