THE aircraft touched down at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, around 2pm, but it took close to an hour for Ngoli Onyeka Okafor and other passengers that flew on Continental Airlines from Houston to clear from the Immigrations post. While the process lasted, relatives, friends and a battery of journalists waited patiently to welcome Ngo, who has been making Nigeria proud in the United States.
From modeling to acting and lately boxing, the Umuoji, Anambra State-native has made his mark on the international landscape.
The long wait ended as Ngo, alongside his management team and security minders, walked through the D wing of the Arrival port, into the midst of the reporters, who besieged him with their recorders. He granted a brief interview before he was cruised in an SUV to his hotel room somewhere in Victoria Island.
Since his arrival, the Computer Science graduate has been busy with all sorts of meetings; from family to friends, business partners, and most especially, with his management team, which is working towards the unveiling of his Foundation.
AS a model, Ngo has worked with the likes of supermodel Gisele Bundchen, Lil’ Kim and Mary J. Blige, and featured in Vogue, W, Vibe, Men’s Health and The Wall Street Journal magazine.
As an actor, he has worked on soap operas, TV shows and films including The Rebound with Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Recently, Ngo wrapped work on a feature film titled Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life. He’s currently at work on Triumph of the Will, a feature-length documentary, which chronicles his journey from Nigeria to the top of the boxing world.
After he proved his worth on screen upon his arrival in the US, Ngo risked his livelihood and indeed life in pursuit of his childhood dream of playing sports; a dream, which was denied him due to a childhood plagued with illness.
Today, what began as a simple workout routine (punching the bag, skipping the rope, etc) quickly grew into an all-consuming passion for Ngo. With the fierce dedication he’s applied to his work throughout his life, he immersed himself in the boxing ring, training five to six hours every day.
Having carved a niche for himself internationally, Ngo now embarks on a journey back home to Nigeria after being away for 18 years.
“It’s been really good; I’m happy to be home. It’s been too long; I left when I was 18 and I returned 18 years after.”
From his tone, the international model is really excited with his decision to return home after his long years abroad.
“Yea, because for me, this is home and I’m always an advocate of Nigeria. In everything I’m doing, I always push Nigeria first because I want our people to be proud of being Nigerians.”
But some Nigerians abroad usually hide their identity?
“In fact, some of them even go as far as claiming to be Americans or that they are from London or Paris or something else; they don’t just want to say they are Nigerians. For me, I always want people to know that I’m a Nigerian and; secondly, that I’m proud. I want the world to know that there are successful Nigerians all over the world doing great things.”
BORN December 30 in the United States, Ngo was raised in Nigeria by his Igbo parents, before he returned to America to seek his fortune and found great success in front of the camera.
“I was born in the United States, but I came back to Nigeria to do my primary education at the University Primary School, Enugu. I later went to the Federal Government College, Enugu, where I had my secondary education.”
That’s makes you an Enugu boy?
“Oh yea, I still remember those days in Enugu; I remember where we lived, moving around the University of Nigeria (Enugu campus). In fact, I started working out while in Enugu, at the Sports Council. My elder brother, Chudi, and myself would walk from our home to the Sports Council; about 45 minutes walk everyday.”
With the incessant strikes usually embarked upon by ASUU in those days, young chaps like Ngo had time for extra curricular activities.
“We would go to the Sports Council to lift weight because we had nothing to do. Sometimes, we played basketball. I actually started lifting weight at the age of 14; I used to be very skinny those days.”
Right from his childhood, Ngo had always wanted to be a sportsman against his parents’ wish of having a career son.
“I wanted to play sports, but when I was younger, I was always sick. Besides, my parents never supported me doing sports; they wanted us to go to school, study and get good jobs.”
AFTER his secondary education, Ngo headed for the University of Connecticut where he studied Computer Science. He later secured a job with the Department of Transportations, before moving to a computer company in New York.
But shortly after moving to New York, Ngo and some staff member of the company were laid off.
“I was looking for something else to do and that was how I started thinking of getting into the entertainment business through modeling. So, I got a photographer to take some photographs of me while working out in my gym, which I took to some agencies and they said, ‘no.”
And what was their reason?
“They felt I was too muscular; even when I did the second photo shoot, they said ‘no’ again. But then, there was a small agency that took me on and started sending me out on auditions. From there, I started getting jobs.”
Ngo’s first major job as a model was for MAC Cosmetics, with Lil kim and Mary J Blige, which was shot by David Lachapelle, a notable fashion photographer in the United States. But his biggest job was for Under Armour, a sports apparel company.
“I was the face of their campaign,” he noted.
ALONG the line of gracing international magazine, strutting runways and starring in movies, Ngo came up with the weird decision of becoming a boxer.
“I didn’t start boxing until I was 31; at that stage, I was paying my own bills, live in my own house, so, I could do whatever I wanted. Boxing started almost by accident because I was just doing it for exercise and then I started to get really good. From being a hobby, it just grew into this thing… I just loved it and did my trainings everyday.”
But modeling and boxing are two opposite careers?
“For me, it was a childhood dream to be good at any sports. So, when I found out that I had a gift in boxing, I didn’t care about my face.”
For sure, you were discouraged?
“Of course; my agents didn’t want me to do it, they discouraged me. At the end of the day, I did what makes me happy; at that time, boxing was what I wanted to do. So, nobody was going to stop me.”
As usual, success has many friends, while failure is an orphan.
“Once I started winning, everybody jumped on the bandwagon; they were all happy with me. But before, everybody was like, ‘how are you going to fight for the Golden Gloves; you don’t have experience, you never boxed before, you are not going to win.’ But eventually, I did; I won two heavyweights Golden Gloves boxing.”
Ngo’s first day in a competitive boxing was really nerve-wracking, including the fight that earned him the Golden Gloves. But determination and hard work saw him through.
“I was so nervous because a lot of people came to watch me; I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I just wanted to do a good job; I didn’t want to lose.”
How good were your opponents at the Golden Gloves?
“They were good, but I trained really hard. I was stronger than all other competitors; I had a lot of good speed and that was the advantage I had over all the people that I fought.”
LOSING his computer job and not being able to break into modeling in the United States were the most difficult period in Ngo’s life
“I was trying to figure out what next to do. I always felt I pleased my parents by doing Computer Science, which I love; it has helped me in my business, but I see myself as an artiste. A lot of the thinking came from poverty; they want you to make money, they didn’t want you to suffer.
On the other hand, “a lot of the agencies felt that I have too much muscles; most of the guys in the business were skinny and not as tall as I am. For me, I felt that being a Nigerian, I have to represent strength. So, I kept pushing and taking creative pictures. Along the line, people started seeing me the way I am and not making me look like someone else. These are the most challenging periods of my life.”
Does it have anything to do with you being a Nigerian?
“No, it had nothing to do with where I come from. In fact, being a Nigerian gave me the strength and fortitude to keep pushing forward and doing things my own way.”
While in Nigeria, Ngo intends to use the life lessons he has learned from boxing to change the lives of underprivileged children, with the goal of helping to rebuild the amateur boxing programme in Nigeria. Through the platform, the boxer intends to provide safe and positive facilities where young boys and girls can exercise and learn the art of boxing, free of charge.
“I’m back in Nigeria and I’ve started a foundation called the Champion Spirit Foundation. I started it because of what boxing has given me. Boxing helped change my life; it taught me discipline and focus. Through boxing, I was able to live my childhood dream of playing sports. So, I feel that if I give the same opportunity to kids, it would help change their lives too.”
Ngo believes that the present situation in Nigeria calls for partnership with both public and private sector, calling on individuals to make personal contributions.
“In Nigeria right now, we are having a lot of problems with the youth going wild and doing negative things. I fell that if I can provide a safe place where kids can come and do boxing training, it will take their minds away from crime. It is going to be a free after-school training, where they will be taught skills in training as a way of keeping them out of the streets.”
Will you be doing anything around modeling?
“Down the road, yes, but I feel that sports impact children’s lives immediately; these kids, we need to get them off the street. Modeling doesn’t really take them off the street; after boxing, you don’t want to do anything else than to go home and rest. Later, we are going to be doing something with modeling and acting; we need to let them know that they need to put in work if they want to be successful.”
DO not mind his American accent, Ngo is very fluent in Igbo language.
“I was here till I was 18; all through my formative years, I was here. I don’t lie to myself and I’m proud of being an Igbo man; that’s what makes us different from others. We know where we are from; a lot of people wish they know where they are from. So, I’m proud of who I am, where I am from and I speak my language.”
Working on a Nollywood project is also part of Ngo’s agenda.
“Yeah, I would like to; I’ve said it a lot. As far as it is going to be well done, I would like to do be part of Nollywood production. We have great stories; we have some pretty good actors as well. As far as it’s going to be well done, I would love to.”
How often do you keep fit?
“I run a lot. Like today, I ran 10km; I try to run at least, between 8 to 10 (kilometers). I try to average five to six miles four days a week.”
As for food, “I try to eat healthy; not too much fried food. My weakness is pounded yam; now that I’m home, I eat a lot of pounded yam. I have to be careful because it puts a lot of weight on you. So, when I know I was going to eat pounded yam, I try to work it out in the gym.”
To Ngo, fashion is about looking good.
“I wear things that look good on me; I love tailored suits. I’m more on the casual side, but I don’t like my trousers tight.”
You do natives wears?
“Well, I wear native for occasions, but not all the time.”
What of perfume?
“I’m not a freak; I do more of deodorants.”
What’s your most expensive fashion item?
“It’s a suit; it’s very expensive, but I felt I needed to have it in my wardrobe.”