By Alan Hubbard
It is some five years since, at one of Frank Warren’s charity boxing nights, I introduced boxing newby Anthony Yarde to fellow light-heavyweight John Conteh and told him: If you turn out to be half as good as this fella you will be a world champion.
Well, three years later Yarde followed the Liverpudlian as a world championship challenger to fight WBO belt holder Sergey Kovalev, engaging him in an outstandingly brave but finally abortive battle in the Russian’s backyard. Whereas back in 1974 Conteh had been successful in his own first time bid at Wembley, brilliantly defeating tough Argentinian Jorge Ahumada on points for the WBC title.
When Conteh had shaken hands with Yarde they seemed to strike up an instant rapport and Conteh, now a sprightly 70 and an MBE, said he had been deeply impressed by what he had seen and heard of the equally personable east Londoner.
He has not changed his view despite Yarde’s loss to Kovalev and his subsequent shock split decision defeat to fellow Brit Lyndon Arthur two fights later. “Anthony can still be a world champion providing he has the determination to learn from these losses,” Conteh told me. “He has the ability and physically is one of the strongest in the division. But he must apply himself mentally too, now more than ever.”
I agree. In some ways they are alike in terms of temperament and talent and, like the Conteh of old, Yarde can box and bang. But he must prove he has not gone off the boil, starting with his appearance on the packed Queensberry bill in Birmingham on Saturday night, where he faces US-based Colombian Alex Theran, a southpaw whose 23-5 record with 15 ko’s, but all five defeats by stoppage, suggesting he can hit and be hit.
Yarde must look lively but if he is back to his best it could be an early night.
Conteh surely ranks alongside Ken Buchanan and Joe Calzaghe as one of the classiest boxers ever produced in this country, and Yarde can take heart from his backing.
But should he need further encouragement it is from the achievement of another British world light heavyweight champion, the inimitable Freddie Mills. Undoubtedly one of the most popular ringmasters in the nation’s boxing history, even more so than Conteh. Fearless Freddie should be Anthony’s yardstick, so to speak.
For he too lost at his first attempt to win the world title. In May 1946, just two months after being demoted from the RAF following World War II, which had interrupted his blossoming career, he was matched with the American slugger Gus Lesnevich at Haringey.
In one of the most brutal and bloody wars seen in a British ring Mills, just like Yarde against Kovalev, fought courageously and even seemed on the brink of winning when he was caught and clobbered, knocked down twice and stopped in the 10th round.
In another parallel with Yarde, Mills lost two more contests before, in 1948, he was given a second shot. It was again against old foe Lesnevich, this time at London’s White City before a crowd of 46,000, Mills was again knocked down but then fought vigorously and once more with valour, flooring the American in the 12th and 13th rounds before having his hand raised as a points winner by referee Teddy Waltham, later to become the general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control.
Those of a certain vintage will recall what tremendous fighters Conteh and Mills were. Currently there are some 17 weight divisions with around a hundred fighters claiming titles plus a myriad of sanctioning bodies and three ringside judges.
In their days there were just eleven divisions each represented by a single single champion and they fought over 15 rounds with the referee the sole arbiter.
I have liked 30-year-old Yarde from the off. He is a muscular fitness fanatic, a talented footballer and athlete who had trials at QPR and was a sub-11 second 100 metres runner. Now, if he is to emulate his famous forerunners, he must get his act together and become his old indomitable self again. Saturday’s excursion to Birmingham may not seem a daunting outing but it might well be one of the most crucial of his 23-fight career.
A COUPLE of tales about Jarvis Astaire, who has died a month short of his 97th birthday. The entrepreneur who was so influential in boxing as the man who bankrolled and masterminded the so-called cartel which dominated boxing In 60s and 70s, once felt my collar!
I was a cub reporter on the local newspaper in Tooting, South London where in his early life Astaire ran a menswear shop with his brother and personally measured my neck when I purchased a shirt.
I also love the story of how when he became a multimillionaire he remained a staunch socialist. During a civic lunch given for business moguls at London’s Guildhall he found himself seated next to a Thatcherite high priestess of the Tory party, to whom he imparted his own strong political views. As they left the gathering she waited on the steps with him as his chauffeur-driven limo purred up to collect him. “Good God, Mr Astaire,” she remarked. “For a couple of hours you have regaled me with your left wing dogma and here you are being driven in a Rolls-Royce.”
“Nothing’s too good for the workers ma’am ,“ he rejoined as he jumped into the back seat.
MY MATE Colin Hart, the veteran columnist of The Sun, who is also a good friend of Frank Warren and Queensberry, is currently in hospital recovering from Covid, despite having had two vaccinations. Fortunately the Hall of Famer, for many years this country’s outstanding boxing journalist, is on the mend after his own toughest fight. I am sure all in boxing will wish him a full and speedy recovery.