Cruiserweight Richard Riakporhe to (almost) fulfill childhood dream

Richard Riakporhe wanted to play soccer for Crystal Palace, but instead, he will be fighting in the team stadium for his first world title. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Richard Riakporhe will fulfill a childhood dream Saturday in London when he performs at Selhurst Park, home of the English Premier League's Crystal Palace.

But instead of playing for Palace, Riakporhe will attempt to win his first world title as he boxes Chris Billam-Smith for his WBO cruiserweight belt.

"I grew up in southeast London, and my dream as a kid was to be a footballer and play for Palace," Riakporhe told ESPN. "I used to play centre-back and centre-forward. I was hoping to get into Palace, and my friend got trials. But when I was 16 or 17, I was told I was not good enough. It broke my heart, and I fell out of love with the game for a while. I stopped following it, stopped playing it, and that's when I got into boxing. I just followed boxing then, and it was only when I was older that I started to follow football again."

Riakporhe (17-0, 13 KOs), 34, hopes some of the Palace players will be at the fight to support him as he seeks to end his English rival's reign in a second title defense.

"I've been involved with Palace for a while now and know a few of the players like Joel Ward, Will Hughes, Ebere Eze, Michael Olise, Dean Henderson and others," Riakporhe said. "Some have said they will be at my fight if they're not at the European Championships." Four Crystal Palace players were recently named to England's squad for Euro 2024, which begins June 14.

Riakporhe said that the energy from fighting at the stadium will be unreal, and that the momentum and all the support will be on his side.

"The fight is in the area I grew up in, and I will have people watching me who want me to win," Riakporhe said. "You feel that energy when you are in the ring, and Chris knows that because he won this title at Bournemouth's ground [Vitality Stadium] in front of his own fans. This will be different for him."

Riakporhe, who started boxing at age 19, is a heavy puncher who has stopped his past five opponents and beat Billam-Smith (19-1, 13 KOs), 33, by split decision in 2019. Billam-Smith won the WBO belt with a majority decision over Lawrence Okolie a year ago, then defeated Mateusz Masternak in eight rounds in December.

"His last two fights were tough for him, but it's not going to be easy at this level," Riakporhe said. "He found a way to get through, but he took some shots and that might be a negative thing. I think he will be very tight against me because he knows I'm a big puncher.

"Punch power is going to be very important. It's a massive mountain for him to climb because he will have to take risks and it only takes one shot from me, and I will be going into this fight with mean intentions."

But outside of the ring, Riakporhe is a different person. He has a marketing communications degree and campaigns against the dangers of knife crime after he was stabbed in the chest as a teenager.

"Growing up in southeast London and not having any positive role models, no opportunities and no silver spoons, it was difficult," Riakporhe said. "Most people around the area ended up in jail or on drugs; not many people made it out because there was not much hope. Reiss Nelson, who plays for Arsenal, and Jason Euell, who played for Charlton, and Rio Ferdinand, who lived a bit further away in Peckham, were ones that did well. But most people become products of their own environment, and it was a battle for me to avoid getting into certain things."

As Riakporhe enters his biggest fight yet, he knows bigger opportunities lie ahead if he can beat Billam-Smith for a second time. Undisputed heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk has recently said he plans on returning to cruiserweight because he finds keeping weight on too much of a burden.

"I would love to fight Oleksandr Usyk. I want to take on the best, and he is a super fighter," Riakporhe said. "Once you lose a lot of weight and fluid, it will affect your power and strength, and I definitely give myself a chance to beat him.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he goes to bridgerweight [201-224 pounds, a new division between cruiserweight and heavyweight] first, and I would consider going up to bridgerweight because I've always said I want to be multiweight world champion."