'My career is very different': Viddal Riley interview
Photos: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images (top); Keaton Ward photography (bottom)
Garry White speaks to cruiserweight Viddal Riley, who has only had two pro fights but has a profile in the social media universe that many world champions would covet...
Hanging around outside a locked up east end boxing gym on an April afternoon a voice calls out my name from the near distance. I turn around to see a figure gently strolling down the steps adjacent to Plaistow station.
To the sound of jangling keys, he greets me with a warm handshake and an even warmer bear hug. He apologises for being late even though it is less than five minutes past our allotted meeting time. As the door opens to an empty West Ham Boys Club, there is no doubt that we are in the part of London that is proudly claret and blue. Even the punch bags are bedecked in the colours of Moore, Hurst, and Peters. Only on the way out later does my companion, the well-proportioned cruiserweight, Viddal Riley, quietly admit that he is a Tottenham fan.
On the far wall of the gym, adjacent to the ring apron where we sit for our interview, is an old photograph of 1956 Olympic flyweight Gold medallist and British featherweight champion Terry Spinks. The hometown ‘Golden boy’ looks out from above the wood panelled honours board of the club that he long ago put on the map. Riley's name is recorded there more than once as well. When I acknowledge this he says, good-naturedly: “I think they have missed me off once or twice as well!”
Riley is training here, back where it all started for him as a junior, ahead of a headline fight at the Five Palms Jumeriah Hotel, Dubai; on Badou Jack’s inaugural promotion on 3 May. In the other corner will be local Emirati fighter Mohammad Ali Bayat, whose 12 wins have all been achieved inside the distance. It is a meteoric rise for a 21-year-old that only turned over last November and has just two pro fights to his name.
It is tempting to compare this with the old-time image of Spinks who, despite his Olympian fame, fought his third contest on an undercard - including another two-fight novice Terry Downes - down the road at Shoreditch Town Hall.
Riley is a thoroughly modern fighter yet he maintains all of the traditional amateur qualifications that should readily equip him for success in the pro ranks. “Between the ages of 11 and 21-years-old I won 9 national titles,” he recalls, in a polite and relaxed manner that soon becomes familiar.
“I won a European silver medal as a junior and appeared in three world championships, with my furthest being the quarter-finals. I qualified for the Youth Olympics and reached a senior ABA semi-final. I won the under-21 nationals. I had a good amateur career. It was very decorated and I achieved more than most. But, you know, when anyone asks me, I do have to think about what I’ve done.
“I’m not one of those people that keeps track of everything and my achievements. I gave the trophies to my dad. He looks after them better than I ever would. But it has given me the fundamentals and full confidence in my boxing abilities.”
It is Riley’s relationship with social media sensation KSI that has really kick-started his juggernaut progression to the headline act. The YouTube personality has 20 million subscribers via that medium and in excess of 30 million followers across all forms of social media.
This is an alien world for those of us that still buy daily newspapers and quantify fame by television airtime. I have an immediate feeling that I am not his core market and my kids later confirm this by telling me all about KSI and his white-collar boxing match with fellow Youtuber, Logan Paul. Without prompting they eagerly update me on how it has been watched by in excess of 17 million people. It seems almost inconsequential that it sold out the Manchester Arena as well.
This is the new media world that - with the help of KSI and manager Amer Abdallah, Riley has so successfully tapped into. One to which the traditional boxing press is mostly oblivious. “My career is very different, very spontaneous and not what you would usually expect. I can’t see any negatives in it, to be honest,” he says.
“Maybe the mainstream boxing community is not as knowledgeable on who I am, but that isn’t something that can’t be changed over time. But what I have got is harder to develop than the more local following most fighters have. That can be done by pretty much anyone. Developing a worldwide brand is very hard. There are people at the top of this sport that don’t even have that.
“They are excellent at what they do, but no one outside of the dedicated boxing fans knows who they are. I would never look down on that, but for me, I am lucky to have this massive following outside of boxing and can go down this different, reverse route.”
Riley first met KSI when he acted as his personal trainer and then stepped up to coach him for his white-collar challenge. A journey that took fighter and trainer to the famed Mayweather gym in Las Vegas. Riley recalls: “Floyd Mayweather Sr. wanted to do a session with KSI. It was good publicity for both of them. People will think I’m crazy but when we got there I asked if I could spar Badou Jack. I just thought ‘Let’s do it!’
“He would have probably beat me up, but I wouldn’t have got out of the ring without hurting him. My mentality was to make sure that he remembered sparring me.”
But with the former two-weight world champion not available Riley found himself matched with leading cruiserweight contender Andrew Tabiti instead. “In many ways, he was an even better opponent as he’s in the same weight division,” says the 21-year-old. “I sparred with him and it was competitive against a fighter ranked highly in the world top ten. That’s good enough for me. It shows my skill level and the potential that I can be where he is.”
Riley’s behind closed doors performance led to a session with Jeff Mayweather. A strong understanding and respect immediately developed and culminated in Mayweather taking on the training mantle.
It was a partnership that was first tested in the low-grade setting of Tijuana, Mexico. A sparse crowd of only around 25 people was treated to a single round knockout. Yet, Riley reveals that the contest has since been watched by more than three million people online since. These are numbers that many world champions can only dream of and a testament to Riley’s appeal outside of mainstream boxing circles.
This initial success was followed by an even briefer first round conclusion at the MGM Grand on the Pacquiao vs Broner undercard. A huge stage for such an inexperienced young pro and one that Riley was able to glean maximum benefit from.
“The weigh-in, the arena, fight week; it was all amazing,” he remembers. “It really gave me an insight into a big Vegas fight. How the media works, how you get to the weigh-in with the main fighters and behind the scenes at the hotels. I literally walked past Manny Pacquiao and shook his hand.
“It was a great experience to walk out into the arena, even though it was mostly empty. But I could picture three or four years from now when it’s going to be packed out. It was great to get that insight now.”
For Riley, who describes himself as “predominantly a counter-puncher, who can punch hard with both hands and box both stances,” there is no limit to how far he thinks he can go in the boxing business. He plans to stay active in 2019 and is targeting a progression to 6-0 by the end of the year.
But much depends on the ability of his future opponents to show more resilience than the two first-round knockouts he has banked thus far. “If they get KO’d in 30 seconds then I can fight next week and the week after that. I’m still fresh. I’ve had two fights and I haven’t been hit yet,” he laughs.
“I hope the guy in Dubai does hit me and I can get that out of the way. He can at least gain the fact that he was the first person to hit me… before I win,” he adds, ominously.
Although a Lonsdale belt is predictably something to covet, Riley doesn’t see domestic honours as necessarily being an essential requirement on his path to the highest levels.
“I believe I will become a world champion and there are many different routes to get there. You know life isn’t black and white or sometimes as straightforward as you may want it to be. But I do believe I will become a world champion and be able to make a living off the sport; which I think is the main thing for me.
“I would hate to be a world champion and not be able to change my lifestyle in the next ten to 12 years. If someone said to me: ‘You will never be a world champion, but you’ll be set for life from the sport, or you’ll be world champion but have to have a day job in ten years'; I think I know which one I would pick,” he says, through a knowing smile.
Riley often uses the term “sport” to describe boxing, but there is little doubt that deep down he has already come to the conclusion that it is a “business”. There is nothing calculated or insincere about this realisation and it instead points to a mature understanding of boxing’s often unsympathetic capitalist truths.
Pugilism runs deep in his blood, from the days his father first walked him into a gym, but if he has to spill it to achieve his goals, then he is rightly determined to extract the highest possible financial outcome.
And if he should ever forget this, then that ever-present picture of a smiling Terry Spinks is there to remind him that titles and adulation do not pay the rent.
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