Richard Riakporhe: Man on a mission

Luke G. Williams
25/01/2017 9:15am

Photo by Bahareh Hosseini

Richard Riakporhe turned his back on south London street life after he discovered his calling in a boxing gym. The cruiserweight prospect tells Luke G. Williams he has a message for kids who grew up like he did...

I first met Richard Riakporhe in 2004. I was a trainee teacher and he was just 14 years old and one of 26 pupils in my GCSE Drama class at an inner-city comprehensive in Camberwell, south London.

Richard wasn’t an outwardly naughty pupil, but there was definitely an edge to him. Tall but slender, he would glide around in the shadows of the corridors. Although not overly boisterous or rude there was, nevertheless, a sense of danger about him.

In some of our lessons he would be surly and uncommunicative, while at other times he was merely quiet and reserved, his mind apparently mulling over issues and dilemmas that were beyond my resolutely middle-class experience to comprehend.

Occasionally, Richard’s public mask of teenage male bravado would slip and a polite young man with a charming smile would emerge.

This happened all too infrequently, however, and I certainly can’t pretend that Richard and I ever forged a close teacher-pupil connection. The talk in the staff room was that he was heavily embroiled in the gangster street culture of south London.

Certainly he was part of a particularly troubled year group. I would later estimate, based on anecdotal evidence, that around a quarter of my drama class would end up in prison at one time or another over the next decade.

After Richard left school, aged 16, for years I heard nothing more about him until earlier this year when one of my colleagues told me he had become a professional boxer.

I was immediately intrigued. How had Richard ended up in boxing? What path had he followed since leaving school?

So I tracked him down via Twitter, we met on a bench in a local park on a scorching summer’s afternoon, and a remarkable story emerged.

Appropriately enough, as we sat catching up on the events of the past 12 years, the Aylesbury Estate, Walworth, where Richard grew up, loomed forbiddingly in the background.

Richard no longer lives there, and the estate itself is now due for demolition, but for the 26-year-old cruiserweight prospect the memories linger. “Growing up in the Aylesbury was crazy,” he said with a rueful shake of his head, before launching into a vivid description of life growing up on the mean streets of south London.

“Let me give you an example — I remember waking up one morning and the block had been cordoned off because someone was lying dead on the ground. Decapitated. We didn’t know if they’d committed suicide or been pushed.

“You’d regularly hear stories of people being shot in the flats over some dispute, people being thrown off the block. Murders, rapes happening all around. And it was like that for years — drug addicts screaming every night, drunks everywhere.

“Seeing dead bodies and things like that, it’s not normal, but it leaves an imprint on your subconscious and you start to think it is normal. I had friends who wouldn’t come to the estate. They’d say: ‘Listen, I’m not coming around there at dark. That block’s crazy. Meet me at Westmorland Road or on the Walworth Road but I’m not driving into the estate.’”

Amid such chaos, positive role models were in short supply and the peer pressure to conform by drifting into crime was overwhelming. “When I look back on it, it’s insane that a child had to go through things like that,” Richard reflected. “There was nothing to elevate our thoughts. I can’t think of a single person on the estate who was a good role model.

“Our idols were people who were up to no good — drug dealers, gamblers, people who made money through corrupt means. These people got a lot of attention from people in the local area. They had the power and the respect and the women. So for youngsters like me, it seemed that was the way to go. I wanted to follow in their footsteps and be exactly like them. They seemed like they were achieving. If you wanted to be popular, this was the life you had to lead.

“We lacked a lot of knowledge. We’d go to school but we never used to focus. We didn’t have anybody to tell us this was not the way to go. We had to learn everything for ourselves, which is quite sad really.

“Some of the teachers did their best, they were on our backs the whole time, but in a school there’s a lot of pupils to deal with and a lot of those pupils come from broken homes or homes with working parents who don’t have time to keep an eye on their kids. It was the same for me too. That’s one of the reasons I ended up getting in trouble with the police and involved with the gangster lifestyle.”

One of Richard’s first wake-up calls came when he was stabbed at about 15. “I was at a party, someone asked for my phone, I said no and the next thing I know I was waking up in hospital on the operating table.

“I suffered internal bleeding. I couldn’t breathe and I needed an operation to drain the blood out of my lungs. I was in hospital for about a week. It had a tremendous effect on my family. It gave them a reality check — it made them realise the sort of things that I was involved in.”

However, it was not until his later teenage years that Richard began to make a concerted effort to turn his life around. “I started to read a lot and analyse the fate of a lot of the older gangsters from my area and looked at where they had ended up. I realised that following that path didn’t make sense.

“I was on the streets for a long time and didn’t make a substantial amount of money, so in the end I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing?’ I feel like I wasted about seven or eight years of my life indulging in this gangster lifestyle. Eventually I thought to myself: ‘Something needs to be different. Something needs to change.’

“I had some friends, thankfully, who had the same mindset. We decided to try to be involved in positive things. We changed the music we listened to. We changed the environment we were in as much as we could. We got rid of the tracksuits, gloves and hoodies.

“We had been to the school of slang and we couldn’t speak proper formal English so we listened to radio stations like LBC over and over again. We listened to the way people on the radio spoke and conversed with people from different backgrounds. We read books. It was a long process, but everything changed in the end.”

At around the same time, boxing entered Richard’s life, providing the structure and discipline he had previously lacked. Encouraged by a friend to give the sport a try, he turned up at the Lynn ABC gym one evening and was immediately hooked.

“Boxing was a million per cent part of this process,” he confirmed. “I’d always been interested in boxing but had never taken the time to go to a club and investigate it properly. I was 19 when I went to the Lynn for the first time.

“At this point, I didn’t even know how to anticipate a shot or about footwork or anything. I was quite strong but soon realised smaller guys could beat me up with their superior boxing.

“Training proved very beneficial. Most of the time when I’d got in trouble it had been out of boredom, because I had nothing better to do. Boxing stopped me from going out and getting involved in mischief. I had to train and prepare for fights so I didn’t have time to be getting up to no good.

“Boxing gave me a serious purpose and direction in life. From my first few amateur fights onwards, I could tell the gym thought I was a good prospect. I was knocking out a lot of my opponents in the amateurs. I had a lot of power and potential.”

While boxing as an amateur at light-heavyweight, Richard also re-engaged in education, an access course at college supplying a route to Kingston University, from where he graduated with a degree in marketing and communication in 2015.

For a while, this meant his boxing career was put on the backburner. “I could have been in the mix-up for Olympic qualification but I decided to go to uni instead,” he recalled. “It was very hard to balance boxing with my studies. I couldn’t really push to go to the Olympics. My amateur career was about six years in all, and very on and off for the last three when I was studying. My studies pushed me mentally, though, which has helped my boxing.”

One of the most striking aspects of Richard’s amateur career was his high percentage of victories by knockout, with around 70 per cent of his 30-odd wins coming by way of stoppage.

Once he graduated from university, Richard decided to make the jump into the pros, joining his Lynn colleague, welterweight Chris Kongo, as part of former European light-welterweight champion Ted Bami’s stable at Miguel’s Gym in Brixton.

“I decided to go for it,” he explained. “Initially I was vacillating about whether to turn pro, but I went along with Chris to Miguel’s and that was the best decision. Ted has a lot of links and really cares for his fighters.”

Richard made his debut in August at York Hall, defeating Jason Jones on points in a

four-rounder, before moving to 2-0 with an explosive first-round knockout of Aaron Lacey in October.

With a slender but highly defined and muscular 6ft 5ins frame and blistering power, Richard has already earned glowing praise from former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon, who compared him to WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.

“At my fights, I’ve had a lot of people show up to support me and I try to block it all out, the faces, the cheering, the adrenaline rushing and everyone shouting,” Richard said. “I just listen to my coach and focus on my mission, which is to get the ‘W’ and box to the best of my ability.

“To be honest, I was a bit unhappy with my debut because I’d been looking for a knockout and the fight went to points, even though I knocked him down. I should have learnt a lesson from the amateurs — when you go looking for a knockout, it doesn’t always come.

“In my second fight, the aim was to use my reach and the jab and be really spiteful when throwing power shots once the opening became available. I think the cruiserweight division is wide open and I have a good chance of doing amazing things, hopefully becoming a unified world champion. I don’t think many people in the division have my strength or my power.”

Among the crowd at York Hall for his second fight were a contingent of current pupils from his former school, where he is now something of a hero, having recently given a motivational talk to the whole of Year 11 in assembly, as well as run mentoring sessions with pupils with behavioural difficulties.

“One hundred per cent I want to use boxing as a platform to reach young people,” he said. “My brother and I have set up a company called Enhancing Minds. We go into schools and give talks aiming to elevate young people’s thoughts towards more positive endeavours. It’s about planting seeds which manifest later.

“It’s such a good feeling to have people come up and say that you helped them or that what you said helped them. It’s a priceless feeling. It makes you feel like you’re a part of a bigger family, a bigger community.”

All in all, the confident, articulate 26-year-old man that Richard has grown into today is a far cry from the troubled 14-year-old schoolboy I first met all those years ago. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that his life was not turned around by a teacher or by some outside force or agency, but by his own determination to forge a new, positive lifestyle — with, of course, a little bit of help from boxing along the way.

riakRichard Riakporhe's next professional fight takes place on 18 February at York Hall. See left for details.

A champion's style - Riakporhe's current and former trainers sing his praises...

Amateur trainer Terry Pearson, of Lynn AC, says: "Richard wandered in off the street when he was about 19 and said he wanted to start boxing. He had no experience at all as a junior so joined our beginners’ adult class on a Tuesday. He was one of those people who picked it up so quick, we just knew he was going to go on and box. He had, and still as, so much power. In his first three amateur bouts, he got three stoppages. He got to the national novice championship final, which unfortunately he lost on points. But he was always a pleasure to have in the gym. A really nice young lad. I know he came from a background of being on the streets, but he lifted himself out of that. He told me that boxing changed his life and he put everything into it. He was always in the gym and all he wanted to do was box. As a pro, I think he’ll do well. His power alone could take him far. Whoever he hits is going over!"

Current trainer Ted Bami, of Miguel’s Gym, says: “Richard is still finding his style but he has progressed a lot lately. When he first came to me he still had that in-and-out amateur style. I told him to watch Deontay Wilder’s fights. I’ve had the privilege of having been in Wilder’s camp in Alabama and seen how he uses his range. Richard has similar range. Before his first pro fight, he hadn’t fought for a year and a half and in that fight he showed a bit of a lack of experience, but in his second fight he really used his range well. Richard is a good all-rounder. The kid can go all the way. He puts 100 per cent into his training. He never complains and he’s a solid cruiserweight now. He’s very dedicated and he loves what he does. When you see him and [Southern Area cruiserweight champion] Isaac Chamberlain spar, it’s like they’re fighting for the British title. By next year, he can be fighting for championships. He has power and he’s also started to use his head. There’s still so much to come. I reckon he’s going to be world champion and by his 10th fight he could be British champion — I’m not just saying that. He has tremendous power and range and can go all the way.”