WHEN it comes to rising to a challenge you’ve just got to hand it to Southern Area light-heavyweight champion Chris Hobbs. In times when a champion can be forgiven for making a first defence against untroubling opposition – and is even tacitly expected to do so – the serving soldier from Southampton has instead chosen to take on the feared, big-punching Anthony Yarde, the justifiably hyped Londoner who has unceremoniously stopped nine of his ten opponents since turning pro in May 2015. The two collide on the undercard of Gervonta Davis v Liam Walsh at the Copper Box Arena on May 20. With Yarde the overwhelming favourite there are many who give little for Hobb’s chances. Yet there is plenty in the ice-cold resolution of the champion to suggest this one may not go quite according to the script. A win for Hobbs will see him propelled towards the British title and silence doubters, while for Yarde a first professional title would see him ordained as one of the best prospects in British boxing. The stakes are high indeed, and graciously both fighters took time out from their last days of training to talk to Boxing News.
Refreshingly, neither boxer has any time for insults or trash-talk instead choosing to let their actions between the ropes speak for themselves. The intense but articulate Hobbs (6-1-1) points to his championship winning fight against Jordan Joseph in March as sufficient evidence of his ability to overturn the odds, while Yarde can barely leave a ring without first having to step over the prostrate figure of an opponent. With both boxers brimming with confidence, Hobbs explains his decision to take on such a dangerous opponent:
“The best fighting the best, that’s the way it should be, not devaluing belts. I’m not one for fighting journeymen constantly, I’d rather have real fights that mean something. You’re not really achieving anything otherwise. I really wanted a decent fight in my first defence and Yarde was the highest ranked. I’ve made a point of saying I wouldn’t take on someone I knew I could beat easily and while I could have got myself an easy win I’m not about that. To my mind once you become a champion you should never have an easy fight, you should be looking either for the next championship which is harder, or preparing for a challenger who’s training as hard as you were when you wanted to be the champion. You should always be stepping it up so each opponent is the best so far.
‘It’s a champion’s responsibility to act like a champion, because kids look up to you so you have to set a good example. You’ve got to be a good role model for them but also for other boxers. I’d rather people follow my path and do it the way I’m doing with harder fights than box 20 nobodies and end up getting hurt when they’re stepped up.” The 29-year-old refuses to resort to the baser personal insults that often proliferate in the game: “The old fighters never used to trash-talk. I respect everyone who gets in the ring because they have to do what I have to do. We all have to sacrifice and commit a lot to it and I can’t naturally just start hating people for no reason. There’s no need to be like that, it’s a sport and that‘s how I treat it.” He credits Yarde with having the same sportsmanlike approach: “He is respectful towards opponents too, and it’s nice to see. If you’ve got two good fighters you don’t need all the talk. Sometimes it may be needed if the fighters aren’t that popular and a little hype can help, but Yarde is already a popular fighter so the fight’s already sold and with me being the champion, we don’t need the trash talk.”
It’s a worthy view shared by the softly-spoken Yarde, whom, despite his moniker of ’The Beast’ is as nice a man as you could ever meet. Humble and seemingly untouched by the hype surrounding his fledgling career, after ten minutes of talking to him you want to take him home to meet your mum: “In my opinion no professional should be disrespected. I understand that boxing is about entertainment so sometimes trash-talking is seen as being needed to build an event but in terms of disrespecting someone or talking about their family I don’t agree with it. I know it’s a sport but my main thing is always being myself, and I think that attribute comes from me understanding that I am the way I am and if I truly believe in myself then I don’t need to talk trash.” Coming off a KO win against Darren Snow in April, the Londoner went straight back into training: “I live in the gym anyway. I believe that a boxer is an athlete who can’t really take time off or take boxing lightly. Even before I turned professional I lived in the gym so going from one fight straight back into training hasn’t hindered me in any way, my body still feels the same. It’s about knowing your body, me and my team don’t train to anyone else’s schedule and after each session my trainer Tunde will ask me how I feel. He knows I’m so determined to succeed he’ll see me overdoing it sometimes, but my mind is telling me ‘push, push, push’ and that’s where he comes in and says ’Ant, trust me today’s enough!’. That’s how we go hand in hand.”
With the media falling over themselves to get to him, one wonders how the 25-year-old manages to stay so obviously unaffected and, well, normal: “I’ve always been myself and in life you can’t please everyone, it’s about being yourself and making yourself happy. When you worry about what everyone thinks it can really hinder you. I don’t see being touted as a big thing in boxing as a pressure, I’ve wanted something and worked towards it so it seems stupid to moan when you get it! It comes with the territory and you have to just deal with it. You’re always going to get pressures in life but at the end of the day just do your job and have fun.
“When I went into boxing I had a main goal and while I knew there was stages you go through I told myself that at the minimum I want to be world champion. That’s why you’ve got to have trust in your trainer, manager and promoter. I’d like to win the British title too, but what route I take to get to the end goal depends on what opportunities come up so it‘s difficult to plan that far ahead. I see the end goal and I’ll get there step by step.”
The Michael Ballingall managed Hobbs, whose only career loss came via a dislocated shoulder against Swindon’s Kelvin Young, is relishing his hard-won championship status and is determined to leverage it into bigger and better opportunities: “Things are brilliant at the moment, I’m getting loads of media exposure and no stress about tickets! I’ve strived to get to this position and now I’m living the dream. Working with my trainers Glenn Smith and Warren Smith at Red Corner in Coventry has been brilliant, I’ve learnt so much and everything is improving. I’m using my boxing brain a lot more and not just relying on my toughness.”
Yarde has his own drive: “My motivation when it gets tough is providing for my family now and for my future family. I’ve lived a certain way and I don’t want to bring anyone into the world and have them living the way that I’ve lived in the past. My mother looked after me 100% and provided for me. Where I grew up, and circumstances I found myself in … I don’t want my future family to be in that kind of situation. I’ve also been in a nine to five working environment, and that experience almost more than anything drives me to not only be my own boss but to be financially free. Not all but some nine to five jobs you feel like you’re still at school constantly being told what to do, and those are the reasons that motivate me.”
As for the fight itself, Yarde is naturally excited to be boxing for the Southern Area strap: “It would definitely mean a lot to win my first pro title. The first accomplishment was winning my pro debut and ever seen then it’s been a blur! It will be a good experience for me. When I fought in America that was also very special, and right now I’m just absorbing all the positive energy around my career.” Trained and managed by former pro Tunde Ajayi, Yarde has a high regard for the man who’s steered him to ten straight wins: “For me, Tunde is the best possible trainer. Often it’s not about going with what you hear and somehow we ended up together. We connect on a level outside of boxing too, and for me his training methods are the best. This will be my first fight at the light-heavy limit but I’ve fought within a pound of it so it won’t be a problem. With 100% honesty I feel that at this level in boxing I shouldn’t be worrying about any opponent so I haven’t really looked at Chris Hobbs apart from sort of highlights, and even from looking at that I feel I’ve got him in my pocket. Not only that, but I train for so many different styles so worrying about what he’ll bring to the table is just putting pressure on myself. You’ve got to be able to adapt to what anyone brings to the ring. It’s more of a trainer’s job to sit there and study opponents I think.
“He’s got a couple of options in there. He could try and take me into the later rounds which I think will be a mistake, or he could try and counter me which I think will be an even bigger mistake, or he can try and rush at me which would be an even bigger mistake! I’m not being cocky either, I’m just 100% confident in my abilities. As with all my opponents I wish Chris good health and I’ll see him on May 20.”
As you may expect from a career soldier with a tour of war-torn Afghanistan behind him, Hobbs is not a man vulnerable to intimidation and remains convinced he has the beating of the rising star: “I haven’t seen Yarde really have to box in his fights. He’s clearly powerful and quite fast but in a strictly boxing sense he hasn’t proved himself yet. No-one has seen if he can really take a shot, or if he can handle it going backwards. He’s trying to adapt a sort of Mayweather style but there are a lot of fighters who’ve tried to do that and not been successful. He’s going to be tough and he’s going to be fit, but there’s boxing fit and he’s not done the rounds in an actual contest so he doesn’t know what that’s going to be like. All the little problems you face, the questions that he’s not had to answer yet… I’ve been asked and I’ve come through.
“I see flaws in him and capitalising on those flaws is what will win me the fight. I’m 100% certain I’m going to beat him but I‘d like to wish him the best of luck. I hope we both come out unharmed – but with me the winner! I can‘t wait.” Both men deserve credit for their sportsmanlike qualities, but on Saturday night both men will put that respect to one side as they clash for the title and the supremacy of each other.
Perhaps only one thing can be guaranteed about this fight: fireworks.
(Yarde v Hobbs features on the Gervonta Davis v Liam Walsh at the Copper Box Arena on May 20)