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‘After being stabbed at 15 I knew I had to change’

Meet the boxer helping to change the world one fight at a time. Richard Riakporhe is 14 and 0. A cruiserweight eliminator looms in June before a full-on assault at the world title, maybe an all-British super-fight for Lawrence Okolie’s WBC crown.

There is considerable excitement about Riakporhe’s prospects, as you might expect of a big unit with lights-out power. However, his quality in the ring may not be his most impressive attribute.

Riakporhe is that rare thing in elite sport, a winner who cares about others more than himself.

After he beat Deion Jumah in March, Riakporhe flew to Nigeria with the charity Street Child to learn more about the plight of victims of conflict among the Hausa people in the remote north-east state of Borno.

The appalling trauma and dislocation reported each day from Ukraine is a constant in the unstable Nigerian hinterland. But there are no cameras, no heads of state flying in to meet community leaders, no broadcasting of atrocities. Riakporhe, who is of Nigerian descent, was shocked by what he discovered.

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“I was interested in informal schools for victims of insurgency,” Riakporhe tells i. “Boko Haram are known to operate in the area. I was told of attacks. One woman was from a family of farmers working in the onion fields. They heard gunshots and fled. When they came back, houses and crops were being burned and their dead relatives were lying burned and shot on the floor. More than 200 women were abducted. The woman’s sister and auntie were taken.

“Many of the women were mothers. Their children had to be adopted by the women left behind. These people have nothing. Kids running around barefoot, playing football with goals made of sticks. They were living in little boxes made of hay and a bit of wood with mats for beds. They don’t have access to services. The first thing they asked me for was food.

“I stayed in a UN hub in a fortified building. There were bunkers inside the compound in case of any attacks. Missile strikes from militias were an everyday occurrence. We were escorted by the military everywhere.

Riakporhe visits a school for victim’s of insurgency in Borno, Nigeria (Photo: Nelson Owoicho/Sightsaver)

“There is no formal education system. Informal schools struggle to cope. When the schools get full, kids are sent home. Most births take place at home so no one really knows ages or birthdates. Schools are based on ability. You can have four or five-year-olds in the same class as a 17-year-old who has had no education. That’s how it works.”

Riakporhe’s acute sensitivity to suffering and injustice is rooted in his own experience growing up on a south London housing estate where gang culture was the dominant feature. At 15 he survived a near-fatal knife attack to the chest. The blade narrowly missed his heart. The episode proved transformational.

“This guy just popped out of a club and started asking me and my friends for our phones. I thought we had stolen his phone from him. We were confused. There was a bit of hesitation and then three people got stabbed. I was one. Mine was the most severe. He went back inside and found his phone from him. He returned apologetic, trying to help me, but by that time I collapsed and lost consciousness.

“Before I knew it I was in hospital undergoing surgery. That planted a seed. I wasn’t a saint but on that occasion I was innocent. I was the victim. That’s when I started to think about what I was doing.”

Riakporhe is 14 and 0 and hopes to become world cruiserweight champion (Photo: Getty)

Riakporhe took up boxing at 19 to learn basic self-defense and discovered he had a talent for combat. Within a year he was boxing competitively as an amateur.

He had a purpose, a place to be. The vacuum that claims so many aimless souls in Britain’s inner cities was suddenly filled. He re-entered full-time education and took a marketing degree at Kingston University. The experience was empowering. “After school I fell into a certain lifestyle. But I was always weighing the odds. The odds were not in my favor living that type of life. I needed to change things.

“With education everything changed. That led me on a completely different path. Before that there was no purpose. If a mate knocked on my door we would go out. Don’t plan. Let’s see how the day goes. That’s dangerous. You can end up in a really bad place living like that. Kids from my background, if you put somebody in a certain place and they need to survive, and there is economic challenges, what you do to get through is going to be different. I understand the importance of environment. It’s that simple.”

Riakporhe devotes much of his free time to his own Richard Riakporhe Foundation, which he runs with his brother Patrick. They deliver outreach programs in inner city schools to help under-privileged children seek positive outcomes. “It’s about giving back, trying to show the youth that there are people who care about their well-being and want them to succeed. This is what I’m passionate about. When I was young I felt like I was one of those kids that people just didn’t care about. They couldn’t care whether I died tomorrow. If I had someone to tell me I had gifts and give me a push, who knows what I might have achieved back then.”

Riakporhe has been working with the charity Street Child as well as his own foundation in London (Photo: Nelson Owoicho/Sightsaver)

A boxer with a big heart usually means something else. How does Riakporhe reconcile the desire to knock an opponent’s block off with his giving nature and sense of social responsibility? “Being successful brings power. More power brings influence. With more influence I can send a message that hits home harder. That is my motivation. I have to win. Tengo que. This is what I stand for. I think of the people who are suffering. We have to be human beings and help each other. People need help, plain and simple.

“It doesn’t have to be money. The children in Nigeria have no books. You can’t imagine what it would mean were you to send pens, paper, books etc. It is the little things that have an impact and help build communities.”

Riakporhe was late to the sport. At 32, he is one of promotion company Boxxer’s most valued properties. Informed by a life of sharply contrasting textures, he brings a real sense of perspective. It is hard not to pull for a boxer fighting for those dealt a bad hand by providence as much as himself.

You never know, they might make a movie about him one day: King Richard II, starring Will Smith. Well, the latter has got form.

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