Brains and brawn. Usually, people are blessed with one or the other, so when we tell you that Ngo Okafor graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in computer science and went on to a career in IT and the creation of his own app, you'd probably think he’s wicked smart—and he is.
But then the story takes a turn. At the age of 31, he decided to try his hand at boxing. He didn’t just succeed—he went on to win the Golden Gloves Championship two years in a row. He parlayed his success in the ring into the creation of Raka, a cardio/boxing-inspired class based on African rhythms and music, and a personal training business that counts numerous celebs as clients.
From there it was a short leap into modeling and acting—you might recognize him from magazines like Fortune, Vogue, W, ESPN Magazine and The Source or Law & Order: SVU, One Life to Live or the James Franco/Jonah Hill movie True Story. If not, you gotta know him from the Internet since he’s considered by many to be the most downloaded black male model ever.
Though now of strong mind and body, things weren’t always so for Okafor. And his first foray into modeling was almost a complete disaster that nearly destroyed his confidence and threatened to wipe out his dreams.
Here Okafor explains how he overcame these obstacles to create his own business Iconoclast Fitness Gym, run a non-profit and train famous hotties—all the while staying super fit.
BECOMING A SUPERHERO
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you have to know the set up for superhero stories—both for the hero and villain. Each has something difficult happen to them when they are kids and it becomes what defines them. The hero uses it as a call to good; the villain uses it as an excuse to do evil. In Hollywood’s hands, it becomes overblown, but the idea of our childhood traumas having a powerful effect on us is true, as Okafor knows all about.
As a kid growing up in Nigeria, he was stuck in bed for most of his childhood due to chronic asthma and bronchitis. It lasted till he was 13, and even when he finally felt better his illness had taken its toll, leaving him skinny and weak. On the outside, this left him open for bullying. And on the inside, it created immense pain and doubt.
“The hardest part of growing up and not being able to play outside was feeling as though everyone else was living life and I wasn’t,” he remembers. “I felt left out. I didn’t feel normal.”
Just like Batman, Okafor used these feelings to turn himself into someone new. He started working out and soon he was probably bigger and stronger than anyone else around. It’s safe to say, the bullies weren’t a problem anymore. In fact, Okafor himself could have easily become the tormentor at this point, getting revenge on all those who had teased him.
But despite all the hardship he suffered, Okafor chose to look at the silver lining instead of the negative consequences. “I learned that you have to be grateful for every single moment and live as though as though each moment could be your last,” he says.
Still, that little boy who never got to play with the other kids never left him. It drove him to always be fitter, stronger and to work harder than everyone else. It also taught him to never back down from a challenge, so when he picked up boxing as a way to change up his workouts something inside him clicked.
“As my passion for boxing grew, I had the idea that boxing would be my opportunity to live my childhood dream of playing sports,” he recalls. “It was me against one opponent, my will against their will.”
As you can imagine, Okafor’s will won most of those battles to the point that he rose to the top of the sport. “Outside of the Olympics, The Golden Gloves are the highest level of competition in amateur boxing and I decided that this is where I will attempt to live my dream,” he says.
As the competition got better so did he and when he entered his first Golden Gloves fight he was primed for success. Only it didn’t happen. “My worst failure was losing my first Golden Gloves fight,” Okafor laments.
This is the part in the superhero movie when he wanders alone in the darkness, trying to decide whether all the hard work was worth it, or if he should pack it in his cape. Okafor too was distraught over his failure in the ring. It was like all those hard times as a kid coming back to haunt to him. But again he turned the tough times into motivation—not an excuse.
“I used the anger and frustration from the loss to train harder than ever. I entered the next Golden Gloves and started with back-to-back knockouts,” he proudly shares. “Then I went on to win two back-to-back Golden Gloves championships.”
Even with his success in the ring and his fitness and modeling careers doing well, the sick kid still plays a big role in Okafor’s life. He made sure to create a kids play space in his gym—one that his four-year-old son loves.
“I created the turf room because I want Iconoclast Fitness to be a family and kid-friendly space,” he points out. “Once kids see the turf, it immediately reminds them of grass and they want to start playing and running around.”
And it’s not just for the little ones. “I created the turf room for both adults too,” he adds. “I believe that there is a kid in every single one of us and in order to be truly happy, we have to feed that kid by playing.”
When he’s not in the gym, Okafor works with the non-profit that he found, Champion Spirit Foundation (championspirit.org), which provides facilities in Nigeria where free of charge children can exercise and learn to box in an effort to raise their self-esteem.
“Growing up in Nigeria showed me how difficult life can be. You grow up face to face with hunger, which built a focus and work ethic in me that has continued to drive me,” he says. “I want to pass that on to these kids so they can have a better life.”
Take one look at Okafor and the physical strength is obvious. But it’s his mental fortitude that’s really impressive. Still, it wasn’t always this way. When he was trying to get his modeling career off the ground, Okafor made his own catalog. Friends had convinced him to do it and some of his connections had promised to help him promote and sell it.
But after Okafor laid out the cash to have them printed, most of his would-be helpers disappeared, leaving him with a bedroom full of boxes of calendars and no idea how to get rid of them.
“I descended into a deep depression. Once I realized that I was depressed, I knew that I had to use action to work my way out of the depression,” he remembers. “I built up my self-esteem by convincing myself that I didn’t have a choice because I really didn’t. Time was literally running out.”
Spurred on by fear of failure, every day he filled a bag with catalogs and went out onto the street to sell them. Some days, he faced ridicule. Other days he was just ignored. But he persevered. After selling a few here, giving away some there, he decided to try his luck in Times Square, where he would be awash in a sea of upwards of half a million people.
There, instead of sinking, Okafor rose to the occasion, captivating passersby with his stunning physique and upbeat personality. A short while later, he had sold all the catalogs and his career started its upward trajectory.
“I tell my clients that there is no point in living if you’re only going to live half of your life,” Okafor says. “I tell them to aggressively pursue their goals and dreams. That’s the only way to find true happiness.” He adds that you also better be prepared to outwork everyone, and he’s not just talking about doing more reps in the gym or logging more miles on the track.
Although Okafor determination and industrious nature manifests itself in his stunning physique, it’s all an outgrowth of his mental toughness and his cognitive approach to training. “I have always believed that the mind controls everything we do,” Okafor states. “The body is a slave to the mind. It does whatever you tell it to do.”
That doesn’t mean you can just think you’ll succeed and you will. Just like you have to hit the gym over and over again to develop strength and stamina, you have to train your brain in the same repetitive manner. “You can strengthen your mind through meditation and repeating positive inspirational words or quotes,” Okafor explains. “But this has to be repeated daily or it doesn’t work.”
The mind-body connection isn’t for everyone, which is why Okafor decided to open his own gym. “I wanted to create a space where I could be free to create and grow without judgment,” he says. “Also, I’ve been performing mental and physical transformations on clients, 1-on-1, for several years and I needed a facility to expand, in order to reach more clients.”
And it goes beyond the clients to try and transform the client/trainer relationship. “In order to do this, I needed to hire and teach my methodology to other trainers and have them train even more clients, utilizing my knowledge,” he clarifies. “I also wanted to create a facility where other personal trainers would be supported and encouraged to work and grow their businesses.”
So for Okafor the end is more than just trying to help people lose a couple of pounds that they are going to just put back on in a few months. He wants to change lives and give as many people as possible the chance to live their best life. After all, he’s living his so why shouldn’t everybody else.
NO TIME FOR DOWNTIME
If you get the sense from Okafor’s driven mentality that he’s not one for taking long, lethargic vacations or for just chillin’ at home, you’re right. That isn’t to say he doesn’t understand the benefits of offsetting all his time spent working out with some relaxation. It’s just hard to pull off.
“I’m constantly trying to find balance in my life,” he admits. “The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as balance when you’re trying to do something spectacular. You just have to try to not neglect other parts of your life or people in your life.”
Two people he always has time for are his wife and his four-year son, but beyond that, he’s not a regular at Hobby Lobby or practicing his fly fishing cast in his spare time, well, because he doesn’t have any. And things are about to get even more hectic for Okafor with his wife expecting their second child soon.
So what does he do to stay with all the craziness of running his own business, being in the fashion/entertainment business and having a young family? You guessed it. He works out. Everyday.
“I can’t allow myself to gain weight or get out of shape, just because I’m busy. You can always squeeze out 30 minutes for a quick workout,” he explains. “Also, I do my work on cardio equipment. I answer emails, text, I’m actually answering these questions on an elliptical machine!”
While he loves his gym he does make an effort to take his training sessions outside—most notably to run. “Running about four to six miles helps me shake out my muscles and loosen up,” he says. “To be able to get outside and run is so freeing for me. I feel as though I’m flying.” Sort of like a superhero.