Richard Riakporhe: ‘I felt the need to change the whole narrative’

Richard Riakporhe is between his morning training session and his afternoon hill run. The coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with the boxing calendar but he is staying focused. Having won his first 11 fights as a professional – as well as picking up the British and WBA Intercontinental titles along the way – Riakporhe knows his next outing in the ring could be an eliminator for a world title. He has been training at Loughborough University for the last few months and is feeling sharp. “Loughborough offers me unbelievable, state-of-the-art facilities all under one roof,” he says. “I have everything I need right here, all the equipment plus support from a huge range of specialists like nutritionists, trainers and performance analysts.”

This pristine environment is a far cry from where Riakporhe grew up in the Aylesbury estate in south London. With more than 7,500 residents, the Aylesbury was one of the largest housing estates in Europe. It was also one of the toughest. Tony Blair delivered his first speech as prime minister at the estate, telling the crowd that “the poorest people in our country have been forgotten by government” and that his party wanted to create a “new Britain with no no-hope areas”.

The poverty on the estate engendered a gang culture that seduced the teenage Riakporhe. “My mindset at the time revolved around materialism: having good cars, good clothes, the right trainers and being surrounded by beautiful women,” he says. “That involved being part of a gang. Most of my friends from that time have either passed or are in prison.”

If Riakporhe was going to escape this cycle of crime and violence, his best way out seemed to be through sport – although boxing was not his first love. “I was always passionate about football and I used to dream about playing for Palace. I played football every single day and turned out for Meryl Rovers, which was run by Jason Euell’s mum. But I was getting distracted quite a bit. So, when I started secondary school, I was attracted by things that would lead me down the wrong path. I got involved in street life, street culture, trying to gain popularity. So I lost interest in football.”

He reached his lowest point in 2005, when he was stabbed in the chest outside a party by someone who was trying to steal his mobile phone. Riakporhe nearly lost his life. He was just 15 years old. “When you have been that close to death – I had to have my sternum broken in order to operate – I soon began to realise I had chosen the wrong path and wanted to make my life a reference point for others. I received a huge amount of support and attention in the aftermath of the stabbing and was determined to go down a different route. It planted the seed that I couldn’t go on living like this. I needed to invest in my future.”

He made two decisions that would change his life: he took up boxing and he returned to education. Having left school and dropped out of college twice, Riakporhe took an access course that helped him gain a place at Kingston University, where he graduated with a degree in marketing communications and advertising in 2015. “I chose that course because I wanted to study something that crossed all types of business and marketing is part of every industry,” he says.

Richard Riakporhe celebrates after beating Jack Massey at York Hall in December 2019.

Richard Riakporhe celebrates after beating Jack Massey at York Hall in December 2019. Photograph: Philip Sharkey/TGS Photo/REX/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, he was developing as a boxer and filming a series of interviews with sportsmen, such as heavyweight fighters Joe Joyce and Dillian Whyte, who subsequently became his mentor. “DW gave me a lot of understanding about the sport of boxing, its demands and what the fans like to see,” he says of Whyte. “He taught me the procedures and the background work of making fights, media obligations and preparing for a champion fight as a headliner.”

Riakporhe was a late starter in boxing. “Most of the opponents I have faced in my pro bouts – such as Sam Hyde and Tommy McCarthy – had been boxing since they were eight years old,” he says. “I was way behind these guys. I sparred for the first time when I was 19 and then had my first fight as an amateur that year.” After steadily improving as an amateur, he turned professional in 2016. He remains unbeaten and has won 73% of his fights by knockout.

Having left school at the earliest opportunity some 15 years ago, Riakporhe has since returned to speak to students about the dangers of knife crime and the rocky path that he abandoned. “My first visit was to an institution for excluded pupils in 2013 to give them some advice and tell them about my journey. I didn’t get that sort of advice when I was younger, hence where I ended up. I felt the need to change the whole narrative in a more positive direction. I managed to connect with them, as they had never been given any guidance and it was refreshing for them.”

Riakporhe has given plenty of talks in schools by now, but he was nervous before his first meeting with students. “I had to read books about calming down as I was very anxious. But then I quickly recognised that I am telling my story – it’s my life. It’s a skill to be able to connect with people, as the kids’ attention spans are so short. Also it helps in that I talk in their lingo and my experiences are so much closer to theirs than anybody else who talks to them, such as their teachers.”

His talks have been valuable to his young audience. “I have lots of head teachers messaging me about the impact the talk has had on particular students who face enormous challenges. Even my little sister, who goes to my old secondary school where I gave a talk back in 2018, told me about how lots of the boys’ behaviours have completely changed since. I receive lots of feedback from parents and I interact with the kids on social media to check how they are doing as lots of them are boxers or sportspeople. I am now working closely with a head teacher who comes to my fights as he has been taking a course in data analysis and we are working together so we can measure the effectiveness of these talks.”

Riakporhe returns home fairly regularly and is struck by how much still needs to change in the area. “There has to be more done. Lots of the youth clubs around Walworth where I grew up have closed. There’s a lack of funding and you have to wonder where is this going? I still see young kids getting involved in the wrong things and much of this is led by boredom with nothing else to do. They need opportunities to try something new.”

Sport was his way out of trouble but, to his regret, he doesn’t play football anymore as it clashes with his ambition to become a world champion. “In boxing your legs have to be at 100% and football affects that because of the tackling and all the twisting and turning. I went in goal once but I didn’t warm up properly and ended up punting the ball and pulling my hamstring. I had a fight in three weeks, so that put an end to any more football.”

Riakporhe’s ambitions of playing for Palace are long gone but he is having a big impact in south-east London and has sights set on fighting for a world title. He hopes to be back in the ring before the end of the year as he builds up to a world title shot within the next 18 months. Having achieved so much from that low point 15 years ago, nobody would deny him that chance.

Richard Foster’s new book Premier League Nuggets is out now and you can follow him on Twitter.