By Richard Hubbard
“I feel you reap the benefits of your hard work and it is starting to show for me”
If a well-intentioned former schoolteacher had got his wish, Anthony Yarde would be swapping passes for a living, rather than punches – rucking and mauling instead of jabbing and moving.
Not that the 24-year-old new banger on the block has had to call on his jab to any great extent in his six outings and 11 rounds of professional experience so far, with Yarde’s weapon of choice being of the more concussive variety. Five clubbing KOs to date provide compelling evidence of his destructive nature.
But it could have panned out very differently had Yarde trodden the path laid out for him by the kindly teacher, his bludgeoning force could have been practiced at the Twickenham Stoop, home of Rugby Union powerhouse Harlequins.
Potential was spotted in the sporting all-rounder – basketball, football and athletics were also his forte – and Quins were keen to work with a youngster who had beefed himself up from being a skinny kid who wanted to be big.
It was not to be, however, egg-chasing did not push the buttons of a boy from Forest Gate, although he didn’t realise at the time he was being presented with a career opportunity. It did switch him on to the possibilities of making a living via his sporting prowess.
“From when I was in school I was an all rounder in sport,” said the 5ft 9” light heavy. “I hated not being good at something and at first I wasn’t very good at football. I used to play basketball and when I joined in at football I used to get nutmegged, so I wanted to get good at football.
“One of my friends was Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (former Arsenal and current QPR professional), who was the best in my school, and I used to play at lunchtimes with him and eventually I got good and played in the school football team and started taking it seriously.
“Then there was my Year 9 sports day and people couldn’t believe how fast I was running as it was around the time I was getting big. My teacher said he was going to take me for rugby trials because I was strong and fast.
“He wanted me to get into rugby and he took me to Harlequins and, because of my age, they said to wait another year and they would be interested in working with me.
“I didn’t go back because I wasn’t interested in rugby. I think everything happens for a reason and, later on my teacher found out I wasn’t going after he took me there in his own time on about three occasions and they said how much they liked me and should keep on going.
“I started lying to him, saying I was still going when he asked, then he found out I wasn’t going there. He came and took me out of one of my lessons and was shouting at me and we had a proper argument about it. He said ‘listen, there are a lot of people in this school who are not going to do anything with their life’ before naming a few people, like Jay, who were going somewhere.
“He then told me how it goes, when I would’ve started earning money etc, and I started to regret it and didn’t really know it was that serious. I didn’t know who Harlequins were and didn’t realise they are such a big team.
“From that day I started to take things seriously. I was going round in circles, so I started to take football seriously and played for Tunbridge Wells, from there I had a trial for QPR.”
Yarde’s reference to ‘around the time I was getting big’ was his concerted effort to bulk up, inspired by watching WWE wrestling on TV. It was also, he freely admits, a defence mechanism for occasions when he ventured into hostile territory around his locality.
Aside from piling on the muscle to attract the local females, his motivation was to encourage those with bad intentions to give him a wide berth and not draw him into threatening situations.
“It is probably one of my secrets, when I was proper young at say 12 or 13, I used to watch a lot of wrestling, the WWF then WWE, and I wanted to be big! So I started going to the gym and doing a lot of press ups in my house. I didn’t do a lot of weights because I was told it stunts your growth so I was doing 2kilos and started to get shape, but I wasn’t really big.
“I was relatively skinny, but had muscle when I went to secondary school. When I got to year 9/10, at lunchtimes I was in the gym or playing football, then when I went home I was seeing how many press ups I could do each night. So I have always been into pushing myself and bettering myself.
“It was a vanity thing, I wanted to have a nice body with a six pack. Another big thing to do with it was I didn’t want anyone to be able to intimidate me.
“Where I grew up in East London, in Forest Gate you saw fights every single day and then it got into people getting stabbed with knives and all that stuff. For me sometimes it was like, depending on your presence and how you carry yourself, it will be harder for people to challenge you.”
Yarde reports that he largely managed to steer clear of serious trouble as he smartly developed a sixth sense of when bother was brewing, something he is keen to pass on to the younger generation.
“Exactly and it is good to learn it as well so you can teach your children as well. Even if it is not your child, teach someone that you care about, someone that is young and growing up. Teach them and show them a better way, how to not get into certain situations.
“I was always a peacemaker and I was cool with a lot of people. It was usually grown men I had problems with, usually because I was out late and people were coming home from partying or whatever, but there was always trouble late at night.
“With most of the situations I got into, I always say I got myself into them because I didn’t have to be in those places, I didn’t have to stay around in them – you see the trouble happening or building up, but you stay there. Everyone has got a decision to make at the end of the day, I think.”
His decision to bulk up as a form of self-preservation ultimately served him well when a bid to extract his possessions with menaces was attempted.
“If the time did come, I wanted to be able to handle myself. Always, from when I was young, I’ve been able to punch. The first ever fight I had was with two boys, who went to my primary school, I saw them again when I was in I think Year 8 and they were together and I was by myself.
“In East London they call it ‘Jacking’, where you go to rob someone, and they tried to take my phone and my money. I lost my temper completely, I was thinking to myself ‘are you crazy’ and, obviously, everyone gets the nerves and I was scared. The boy headbutted me and when he did that I just saw red and I went crazy. I punched one of them and he fell on the floor and the other one I was fighting with I was on top of him just punching.
“I was like the bad one, all these adults came over and were like ‘call the police, blah, blah, blah’, so it looked like I was the bad one until they found my phone and stuff in his pockets.
“So I learned from being young to keep myself out of trouble because then I knew what I was capable of and later on at 16 I was hitting full-grown men of around 30 and knocking them out.
“I’ve never been a troublemaker though, if my friends were doing anything silly I’d always be the one to say leave it.”
The evidence was clearly mounting that all avenues were leading to a future in the fight game and the marauding style of Mike Tyson was enticing him to try his luck in the ring. An early apprenticeship was ruled out by mum having the final word and mimicking Iron Mike became a mirror image.
Four years ago, a visit to the TKO gym proved the tipping point and, under coach Tony Cesay, he forged an amateur career that was both brief and brutal.
“I would say the first time I had an interest in boxing was when I wanted to learn how to fight. I used to watch Mike Tyson, although I never did box or go to a gym because my mum wouldn’t let me! I used to watch Tyson and then stand in the mirror and copy it.
“Then, just before my 20th birthday, I went to the TKO and thought ‘this is real’, I saw a lot of pros in the gym and saw how they were sparring. It was daunting as well seeing people getting punched in the face and getting dropped. Even the smell of the gym was different and I loved it.
“I started training properly and after three months I was signed up to the amateurs. I trained solid for six months and was put into a fight and won it by stoppage. After a few fights Tony kept on saying to me that he couldn’t get me any fights and to try not to stop these guys. I said I wasn’t playing with nobody, either they fight me and I knock them out or they don’t fight me.”
The scarcity of willing opponents prompted a switch to the professional ranks after making a request to renowned coach Tunde Ajayi to train him. Ajayi, inundated with such applications from amateur hopefuls, said his services would only be forthcoming if silverware was added to his ring CV. And then it would only be for the early shift.
“I went to Tunde and asked if I could train with him. He told me to win something and then he would train me, so I won the Haringey Box Cup and went back to him.
“He used to make me come to the gym at five in the morning every day to get my session in, I’ll never forget this.
“In boxing terms I started relatively late and I have taken it really seriously. I learned straight away that training and fighting are completely different, so people who say I should be fighting for this and that I don’t take notice of.
“I’m not in no rush because once you go to a certain level there is no turning back. I don’t want to go back, but I want a progression. I feel now I am going at a steady pace and I have just got to keep working.”
His exploits are catching the eye – and not just those of his opponents – with his promoter Frank Warren recently commenting that there are shades of a young Nigel Benn in the explosive early chapters of Yarde’s story.
They are words that did not escape the attention of the Peacock Gym prodigy, who will be hoping for another quick night’s work at the York Hall on June 10, when he is one of the support acts to Enzo Maccarinelli’s challenge for the EBU cruiserweight title.
“Oh yeah! That is a very uplifting thing to hear because Frank Warren, he is a legend at promoting and managing fighters. It is a big privilege to hear that he has said that about myself.
“Sometimes I feel you reap the benefits of your hard work and it is starting to show for me. In the amateurs I had 12 fights and 11 stoppages and I believe things happen for a reason. In my second or third amateur fight, I don’t like to use this word, but I did get robbed and I have seen it happen quite a lot. I was on an away show and I was motivated so much from that day not to play around with anyone.
“You are told that if you keep knocking people out it will be hard to match you, then that is how it has to be, I am not going to mess with someone and put in a D performance and come up short when I could put on an A performance. This is my career at the end of the day, this is my life.”
The story continues at the York Hall. Just don’t blink or you might miss the punchline.