When you think of the cruiserweights who have dominated throughout the last 40 years, it’s easy to see why promoter Ben Shalom called on his fighters to showcase their personalities, as much as their boxing abilities, ahead of their next card at Wembley Arena.
There are few Evander Holyfields, David Hayes or Johnny Nelsons on the current circuit, but Oleksandr Usyk’s move up to heavyweight has left an opening in a division that feels ripe for its next superstar.
If he successfully overcomes Fabio Turchi in his world title eliminator, Richard Riakporhe could be next – but first comes another man tipped as a future contender in Viddal Riley: rapper, social media personality, and as a fighting man, unbeaten at 5-0.
You can try and understand Riley’s varied career through his music, but it all comes back to boxing in the end. “Like LeBron and Kobe with the rings; I will run a ring around you when I’m in the ring… What’s the point of playing, you ain’t playing for the win?” One of his mixtapes bears a boxing ring on the cover, a theme that has followed the 24-year-old since he first stepped into one in a West Ham gym at the age of six. Fights in Mexico and Dubai have followed, but this – a showdown with professional soldier Jone Volau – is his homecoming from him – the first time he has returned to the capital as a professional.
“London is my home; it’s going to be good to put on a show for the people – this is what I’m built for,” Riley tells Yo. “I only get the opportunities I’m deserving of getting. I haven’t sweet-talked my way into this position. The people over there [his promoters and publicists] who are in control of my career, they think I deserve it, and the only way to repay them is to show what I can do.”
Born in Hackney but moving to Tottenham aged eight, he was raised in the shadow of White Hart Lane, just 12 miles from Wembley. To draw a footballing comparison with his own career from him, he picks Son Heung-min – because he considers him “the best”. He credits Northumberland Park, where he did his growing up, with “a lot of my development”.
The moment when he turned professional in 2018 should have been the turning point after an impressive amateur career which included a European silver medal at junior level. Injuries and Covid then interfered, with back problems and travel restrictions leading to a two-year hiatus that only ended when he fought on the undercard of Kell Brook and Amir Khan’s grudge match back in February.
There was more than just the result on the line too, with a £10,000 bonus promised by his associate Olajide William Olatunji, better known as “KSI” – the YouTuber who fought fellow social media star Logan Paul – if he knocked out Willbeforce Shihepo. Instead he won on points, but there is another secret agreement in place this time around.
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“I can’t speak on it [the nature of the bet this time]. But that was a good little incentive in my return to the ring,” Riley says. “I don’t need those anyway, I get paid enough.”
YouTube crossovers are not for everyone. Riley trained KSI for the first major spectacle in 2018, but he knows there are those within boxing who remain cynical. “It’s pointless [complaining], it’s one of those things where it’s a new world – let’s just get on with it,” he adds. “The only people that will say it are people that are not part of it and are being bitter. We haven’t got time for that.”
Crucially, Shalom stresses that while Riley may be “respected across multiple industries” and attracts an “incredible” amount of interest, “the main thing people have to remember is that he’s a serious, serious fighter as well”.
That much is clear from the way he has adapted, happier to box around the ring and no longer hunting for the knockout quickly. Behind him is a core of people who ensure he can focus on his sport, away from the noise. “It’s the team; everyone holds down their responsibilities, from my physio to S and C [strength and conditioning]to boxing – everyone does their role and it just allows me to chill”.
The “team” has changed noticeably since the launch of his pro career, when he signed with Mayweather Promotions and trained with Jeff Mayweather (uncle of Floyd Jr). That almost led to him fighting on a lucrative Mayweather exhibition card, though the pandemic saw that arrangement fall through.
“One thing I’ve missed is consistency in building that momentum in my career,” he concedes. “I’m going to win this one and then fight two or more times this year. This is my homecoming.”
If Riakporhe is anything to go by, then Boxxer will keep him busy; the “Midnight Train” is about to fight for the fourth time in nine months as he eyes WBO champion Lawrence Okolie.
First, Riley must escape unscathed against Volau, a 38-year-old with a fascinating backstory of his own. Originally from Fiji, where boxing is little known, he stepped through the ropes relatively late after moving to the UK to pursue his career as a bombardier with the Royal Artillery. He came close to an amateur bout with Anthony Joshua and later caused a considerable upset when he beat Burak Sahin.
Riley, at least, is better prepared for him after his outing before Brook’s victory in Manchester. “I had to channel all that and still perform well,” he says. “But I’m glad I was thrown in at the deep end, because this now feels like a breeze.”
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