Alan Hubbard

As sporting comebacks go, the return of another heavyweight giant could put even the remarkable renaissance of world boxing champion Tyson Fury in the shade. Former karate king Geoff Thompson is back training in a bid for a place at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics next year - at 62.

It is 34 years since the five-time world heavyweight karate champion last competed. But he has now entered a multi-national tournament to be held in London in October and believes he has an outstanding chance of winning and earning a wild card for the Games.

Thompson, Britain’s first leading black sports administrator as chairman of the Youth Charter for Sport which he helped found in Manchester 27 years ago, has kept in shape and is only a few pounds over his original fighting weight.

He is being coached for his comeback by his wife Janice, also a former world champion, to whom he has been married for 29 years. Because no gymnasiums are available during the current coronavirus situation he is training in a converted garage at his new home in Ashford in Kent, where they moved from Manchester recently and are now self-isolating of course.

"I am quite serious about this," he tells insidethegames. "I have always maintained my fitness and practice the sport regularly. And apart from my determination to make the Olympics I am doing this to raise awareness that COVID-19 is not the only national crisis facing this country. 

"Youth crime on the streets is also a pandemic. Kids are still killing each other with knives and guns and I believe that once the virus has gone this will get worse.

"At the moment many youngsters seem to think they are immune from COVID-19 but they are certainly not immune from violence on the streets. And just like this virus, the loss of life is unacceptable.

"Since I was 18 I have waited for karate to become an Olympic sport and despite my age I feel I have a chance to realise my dream of winning gold. I do not wish to deny any other British competitor of a place which is why I am going for a wild card which I believe I can obtain from the World Karate Federation if I win this tournament and make the qualifying standard during the coming year. That is my aim."

Geoff Thompson trains in his converted garage ©Geoff Thompson
Geoff Thompson trains in his converted garage ©Geoff Thompson

Thompson, who was awarded an MBE in 1995 for services to sport, heads a remarkable mixed-race family. Apart from his delightful wife Janice, 59, whom he met during the World Championships in Taiwan in 1983 and married nine years later, younger son Luke, 24, works as a research sales analyst on New York’s Wall Street. Daughter Francesca, 22, is a trained ballerina and is now with the touring version of the Lion King in Edinburgh, while eldest son Jordan, 26, a former youth tennis champion, has embarked on a successful professional boxing career at cruiserweight, with a 10-0 record including eight knockouts.

He was Fury’s principal sparring partner as the 'Gypsy King' prepared for his successful bid to win back the world heavyweight title, stopping Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas recently. He is next booked to fight on Frank Warren’s rescheduled bill featuring the British and European heavyweight title clash between Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce at London’s O2 this summer.

"Like me Jordan is 6’6” and already one of the hardest hitters in boxing and I believe we have will have another world champion in the family in the near future - first at cruiserweight then hopefully at heavyweight," says Thompson.

Jordan is also part of his training team via Skype from his flat in London. "His advice is very useful. A lot of things that you do in boxing also apply to the martial arts."

He adds: "When I was fighting I was the lightest heavyweight ever as a heavyweight but now I am a full-blown heavyweight which I believe will give me a greater advantage on the square. Speed and explosiveness is still there and so is the commitment."

He says he and his wife have relocated south because so much of his charity work with Youth Charter now centres around London.

The 10K karate tournament in which he is participating - 10K represents the £10,000 ($12,400/€11,300) prize money - takes place at the long-established Troxy event centre in Stepney in London’s East End on a date to be determined in October and will feature elite male and female competitors from around the world.

"Jan is the best coach I’ve ever had," Thompson says. "We have been training together for over 30 years. I first coached her and now she is coaching me. She is fantastic. If she felt this was a stupid move by me, an ego trip as opposed to my ability and potential, she would be the first one to tell me to stop. But this is not just a fanciful revisiting past glories by an old man. I can really do it."

Pictured in 2002, Geoff Thompson founded Youth Charter ©Getty Images
Pictured in 2002, Geoff Thompson founded Youth Charter ©Getty Images

Apart from a brief spell with Sport England a few years ago, Thompson has been strangely overlooked for more senior posts in sports administration, despite his obvious qualifications. Perhaps this is because he is too visible and voluble, always speaking his mind.

Yet he has done more than anyone in Britain to make sport an antidote to the culture of guns and gangs in troubled areas such as Moss Side in Manchester and Liverpool's Toxteth, where they labelled him "Mr Heineken" because he gets to the parts others cannot reach.

For many years Thompson has done admirable work in taking sport into communities that are often the exclusive domain of the underprivileged and unruly.

He began in 1993 when he started the Youth Charter following the gunning down in Moss Side of a 14-year-old Afro-Caribbean kid. "I can accept losing medals but I cannot accept losing lives," he says.

Thompson has always believed sport is an intrinsic part of the rehabilitation process, helping to set up sports programmes in a dozen prisons and young offenders' institutions.

As a Londoner of West Indian descent born and bred in London’s Olympic heartland of Hackney, he is eminently suited to driving home the message of Olympic legacy.

He was the original Karate Kid. Apart from his five world titles he captained the Great Britain team during an illustrious period when they won 30 gold medals. Few people in sport have a better idea of the real score. 

"I came off the streets myself too. I was bullied at school and took up karate to protect myself. I soon found it was a different pathway to opportunity. My temper was legendary. I was looking at a very short-term existence but karate provided me with the focus, target, goals and discipline I needed. It was the vaccine which probably saved my life."

Now, just three years short of becoming an old-age pensioner, he is living for kicks again hoping his astonishing comeback bid can be a life-saver.