Anthony Yarde: Inspired By Mike Tyson, The Boxer Fighting To Change Lives
Anthony Yarde is telling a disturbing story about a US police officer reaching for his gun to threaten the boxer.
As he finishes his story, Yarde is laughing openly. This might be the best example of what his trainer and manager, Tunde Ajayi, refers to as Yarde's incredible ability to take a positive from any negative situation. But it wasn't always this way.
"My life could have gone in the complete opposite direction," the British light-heavyweight tells SPORTbible. "My thought processes were negative, because I grew up in a negative environment. I grew up in Stratford, Forest Gate, and everyone around me was just nervous. Because of the things that were happening in that environment: poverty, people want money, people want jewellery, people want cars.
"That brings on an animalistic mentality. So people want to go and get what they want by any means necessary, that ends up causing conflict. And then people want to defend themselves. So it ends up causing gangs."
Yarde was inspired to want to box as a 14-year-old by watching Mike Tyson. "I didn't know about weight classes then, I just saw someone who was small, knocking out these big guys," he recalls.
"I asked my mum, could I go to a boxing club? Because the area I grew up in was rough and you were always seeing fights or people getting robbed for their phones, so I wanted to be able to defend myself. But my mum turned it down: 'No, it's too dangerous.'
Yarde excelled in rugby, football and athletics, but boxing kept calling him. Eventually, he was allowed to visit a family friend's boxing club. "And the reports my mum got back were astounding. 'Your son's got very quick hands, he shapes up well, are you sure he's never boxed before? He hits so hard!' etc."
The east Londoner learned his craft under amateur coach Tony Cesay, but getting fights at that level was problematic. On several occasions, when Yarde took his top off for a weigh-in, his opponents decided to do a pre-fight runner rather than trade punches with the sculpted youngster. "It happened twice early on in my amateur career," he recalls. "After that, I tried to weigh in with my vest on! But it didn't work."
His entire amateur career consisted of only 12 fights, which is why Yarde claims: "My professional career has been an apprenticeship in front of the world."
His 21 pro fights have yielded 20 wins, 19 inside the distance, testament to his remarkable fight-ending power. But the resulting lack of rounds, both as an amateur and a pro, mean Yarde is still learning and improving, even given his status as a headline act for Frank Warren's promotional stable on BT Sport.
His unusual path into the pro game is mirrored by that of his coach, Ajayi. The larger-than life south Londoner sums up his training background as: "No formal GB experience, no reading from a book or script. I've taught myself. I watched boxing intently - and I continue that today."
:speaking_head:DREAM IT BELIEVE IT BECOME IT
Tunde Ajayi :mortar_board: pic.twitter.com/nZmLgDgVXW
- Tunde Ajayi (@tundeajayi999) May 27, 2020
What Tunde does have is a gift for the pads. It's a skill honed on a trip to the Mayweather gym where he watched the late Roger Mayweather work with his famous nephew, going through their dazzling routines.
"When everyone was disrespecting the pads - and they were disrespected - they would say: 'Nah, Floyd don't do that, it's just for the cameras,'" he says.
"I don't believe that. I'm a person that needs to find out for myself. And I went there, I kept going there, I kept learning and having conversations with Roger Mayweather. And then I developed my own system."
Watching Tunde and his fighter train together is like being in a hectic kitchen with a chef barking out instructions. "Ox tail! Jamaican patty! Amala and stew!" yells the trainer, shouting nicknames they've given various combinations. Yarde hammers his fists against the moving pads with increasing force, the noise bouncing off the gym walls.
Three minutes pass, five minutes, 15 minutes, towards half an hour; the ferocious pace only increases. Yarde, who looks younger than his 29 years, is wide-eyed with concentration as a sheen of sweat builds on his forehead. Sometimes, Ajayi swings back with the pads to test his charge's defence. "I'm gonna get you one day," the trainer warns. "One in 500," comes the reply.
A fight against unbeaten Brit Lyndon Arthur is set to be announced for late 2020, but the pair train like this every week. Both dismiss the trap some boxers fall into when they get towards the top of the sport; that of only going into training camp when a specific fight date is set.
Yarde's sole defeat came against then light-heavyweight world champion, Sergey Kovalev, in 2019. It was a huge leap up in class and although Yarde appeared close to victory when he hurt the Russian badly in the eighth round, the main takeaway he has from the contest now is a vast amount of experience to draw on.
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"I was in Russia, fighting a Russian, and fighting a champion... So I said before the fight: the only way I was going to win was by knockout," Yarde explains. "So that played a part in how I fought; that played a part in so many things. But the experience you get from being part of an occasion like that was priceless."
Despite being largely positive about how he was treated in Russia, with Kovalev labelling him "a world champion in the future" post-fight, Yarde still got to understand what it was like being an underdog challenger away from home.
"Going out to Russia, our baggage - me and Tunde's - only our luggage went missing," he says. "Nobody else's! So, the first day there we couldn't train. Actually, we did; we trained in our same clothes, then we had to wash them."
However those experiences have nothing on the brutal personal setbacks Yarde has encountered in 2020. His resilience has been tested by the tragic deaths of several close family members due to coronavirus.
"My mindset is not like anybody else's," he says lightly. "And I'm not saying that bragging or boasting, it's just that people ain't been through what I've been through.
"Even in this whole pandemic, I lost four family members to this Covid thing - and I still went and fought. And I managed to put on a fantastic performance [stopping Dec Spelman in six rounds].
With all that's happened this year there's many reasons why this victory meant so much to me.
- Anthony Yarde (@mranthonyyarde) September 18, 2020
"A lot of people couldn't do that. And it wasn't like distant family members; it was my dad, my nan... Even recently, after the fight, I had another family member lost. But it's about how you deal with things, how you bounce back. You can't give up just because of the hardships you face."
Global challenges as well as personal ones have also been a central theme for Yarde's year. The boxer has been incredibly articulate on Black Lives Matter, the campaign sparked into life by horrific incidents that have taken place in the US but resonate worldwide.
"The Black Lives Matter movement really skyrocketed over the George Floyd murder by a police officer," recounts Yarde. "He was meant to be there to protect and serve. And these things happen over and over again. Black people, even in this country, sometimes we're scared of police, because we don't feel protected by them...
"And in America, it could be worse. In America, I went to the Floyd Mayweather fight and a police officer told me to move from where I was. And I was like: 'Ah wait, can I move after this round?' I was being so polite, because I was so excited to be there.
"He held his gun and said: 'Do you hear what I said, boy?' And I was like, why? Why?! But I moved. But again, I thank that person because I ended up getting a better seat... I went down to the front and I got a fantastic seat."
Yarde laughs, as he's clearly made a decision not to carry the bitterness from his experience. But he does explain, in language anyone can follow, why the BLM movement is both vitally important and long overdue.
"The reason it's 'Black' Lives Matter is because it goes in motion with what's happening currently - and what's been happening for hundreds of years," he says. "It's not black versus white, it's not black versus any other colour - it's good versus evil.
"It's not about: 'I'm better because I'm this skin colour.' No one's better than anybody. Because we all bleed the same, we all get hurt the same, we all love the same - well, we don't all love the same, but we all have that emotion within us. So it's just about getting rid of the nonsense.
"I've had some black people say it as well: 'all lives matter'. Yes, all lives matter - but that's not what we're putting emphasis on. We're putting emphasis on black lives that are being taken due to negativity and just pure foolishness; racism."
Ajayi concurs, explaining simply: "I think the time has come now where, if you've got a conscience, then you will say: what's happened to black people and the way black people have been treated - that can't go on no more. It's got to be an even playing field.
"And I'm happy that white people now are in this. You see white people on social media, in their description: Black Lives Matter. You see boxing promoters at their events: Black Lives Matter signs. Football? Black Lives Matter.
"This has never happened before in the history of humanity. And that's only a positive thing."
Taking positivity from negativity abounds, even extending to the gym Yarde uses to train in Ilford, east London. The fighter finishes our interview by explaining what the sport of boxing means to him; simply, a way of giving something vital to someone who might have absolutely nothing in their lives.
"The gym we're in now, it's named Box Up Crime," he says. "This is a gym that gives free boxing, free mentoring and free opportunities to kids under 19 years old.
"A lot of kids are mentally drained, mentally depleted. They only think one way, you know? They're all in their hoods, got their balaclavas up, saying: 'Ah yeah, I'm banging from my area and my postcode.' But their parents don't own the house. They don't own the land. So it's not really yours. Police come and tell you: 'move' and you have to move.
"So I'm trying to drill this into them. To make them understand that you're in a certain situation, but you have an opportunity to change it. Make the most of that."
Imagery: PA Images
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