IT WOULD seem glib and perhaps cruel to define Anthony Yarde’s past 12 months as a comeback story when the story sadly involves so much loss – and total loss at that. Yet, even in boxing, this sweatshop of redemption tales, there have been few as compelling in recent years.
In 2020, while preparing to fight British light-heavyweight rival Lyndon Arthur, Yarde contemplated withdrawing from the fight on account of pain he experienced during training. It was with him in the gym, it was with him on the roads, and it was also with him at home, when at rest. Unlike pain of old, it was pervasive, this pain. It could not be soothed with painkillers or days off, nor could it be treated by medical experts and given some sort of prognosis or time by which it may pass.
Worst of all, it was not boxer’s pain but instead human pain. It was something other, something foreign. It was the kind of pain not only new to Yarde but the kind of pain for which there would be no sick note or even a clear way of articulating it, at least not to those unable to understand or relate to it. This, alas, meant that Yarde, though feeling more pain than he had ever felt, would fight his fight nonetheless.
For his pain, after all, was nothing physical. The death of four loved ones, including his father, due to COVID 19 would not, in theory, stop Yarde punching someone or competing for something. All it did was make him human – a fate far worse for any boxer about to fight.
“Rather than feeling physical pain, it was emotional pain,” he explained. “But I told myself, ‘You know what, you’ve got to be professional.’ Where I come from, some people didn’t make it to see their 18th birthday. I’m in a position where I’ve got this opportunity. We’re in a pandemic, I’ve lost family members, and I have this chance to fight. That was my mindset. But as soon as the fight finished, I said to myself, ‘I should never have been in the ring.’”
There are few scarier propositions for a boxer during fight week than that of feeling anything close to human emotion. Typically, it is at that point they are seeking the complete opposite. They are, if anything, looking to dehumanise or, in other words, strip themselves of any compassion or sentiment or even love. They need to be as far away from those emotions as possible in order to fight. They need to be cold, detached, more machine than man.
For Yarde, 22-2 (21), this is ordinarily no problem. Yet last year, owing to the trauma he experienced throughout a global pandemic, his mind was not something he could easily control, much less trick.
“I’ve always separated my boxing career from anything that’s emotional,” Yarde said. “I have boxing as my happy place. I feel like you learn better when you’re having fun. That’s just something I’ve analysed from my childhood. When you are playing football in the park, everyone’s Ronaldinho. But when you are put in a professional situation, you don’t perform as well.
“I’ve always tried to make my boxing fun because I think you digest things better that way. So when I was doing runs and stuff like that it would cross my mind and I just had to separate the two.
“My motivation for boxing comes from what I want to accomplish in life: putting my family in a position where they don’t have to work too hard; when I have kids, make sure they don’t have to struggle. That’s my motivation. I don’t attach anything negative, or any depressing emotions, to my boxing.
“During lockdown I kept myself occupied with training, then had my fight against Dec Spelman [in September 2020]. I was feeling a bit weird. I stopped him and even went on the top rope and screamed but there was no crowd. It was like an outpouring of emotion for me. Finally, I thought, something good has come from this year.”
He continued: “I had a very short-lived celebration and then a death happened just after that. Then there was another one shortly after that.
“Going into the Lyndon fight I remember during fight week telling myself the reason I was feeling emotional was because I was making weight and not eating the food I wanted to eat. I was ignoring it. But usually when I’m making weight I want to eat more. This time I was like, ‘I’m not even hungry.’ My mum’s saying to me, ‘Do you want to eat?’ But I didn’t. I’d go days without eating and then when I did eat it was just a little bit of food. So I was losing weight easily but not in a healthy way.
“I’m then sitting in the hotel room during fight week and looking at old pictures. Usually, I don’t do that. On fight week I’m very focused, I’m watching war movies, and I’m getting ready to fight. That fight week was so hard for me, but I kept it to myself. Then, when I was in the ring, there’s no crowd to cheer or get me in my mode. I’m hearing my sister’s voice. I’m hearing Lyndon Arthur’s cheerleaders. It turned into a different thing. I didn’t even feel I was in a fight that night.”
To see an unsurprisingly passive Anthony Yarde that night was to see a bear without claws or a shark without teeth. No matter what he planned, there was a sense that he was overthinking it first and talking himself out of it. He was, at times, stuck, bemused, wallowing. It was, in many ways, not so much a display of boxing as a display of grieving, with Yarde battling through its various stages from one round to the next.
“It’s something I’m still trying to get over now,” Yarde, 30, said of his grief. “When I put it out there for the public, I knew what it would come with. But my mindset at the time was that I was in lockdown, I was, you could say, borderline depressed, and I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I be an inspiration for some people? Let me show that you can go through things like tragedies and still be a professional.’
“I put it out there because I knew a lot of people were going through a similar thing but it was probably the worst thing I could have done. It brought so much attention to the situation. It made it harder for me to get over it because whenever I saw someone on the street they would shout from the bus, ‘Anthony Yarde, condolences for the loss of your dad!’
“Every time they would say that it was like a reminder. Oh yeah, s**t, my dad’s dead. Or, oh s**t, my grandad’s dead. Or, oh s**t, my nan’s dead. Or, oh s**t, my other nan’s dead. I’d be in a good mood and then I’d see somebody who would remind me. I did what I did for the right reason, and they’re saying what they’re saying for the right reason, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
“When the other two deaths happened in my family, I didn’t say anything. My other nan passed and then my grandad passed as well. But I didn’t want to let people know and have everyone tell me they felt sorry for me. I said, ‘Let me just deal with these ones in private.’
“Some people don’t understand it’s a sensitive situation. Some people will just be blunt and say, ‘I’m sorry your dad’s dead.’ One time a guy actually said that to me. He didn’t mean it in a bad way but I was literally laughing about it as I walked off.”
To say the past 12 months represented a period of growth for Yarde would be as much of an understatement as saying they were difficult. But it is true nonetheless. He has learnt plenty during what has been an awful time in his life and he speaks now with a maturity that belies his age and a sensitivity that belies the nature of his profession.
He has also felt changes all around him, not least of all in his long-time coach, Tunde Ajayi, one of the more unique and divisive characters on the UK boxing scene. Fiercely loyal and passionate to some, merely delusional to others, Ajayi has been a key part of Yarde’s team and progression since 2012 but nevertheless came in for criticism when Yarde was outpointed by Arthur last December. That night, according to some, the motivational talks and boasts became the platitudes of an imposter out of his depth. That night, people began to wonder if Yarde needed and deserved better.
“I feel like he’s very misunderstood,” Yarde said of Ajayi, “and it’s his fault as well. I’m one of the people in the background shaking my head when he’s saying things about himself. I’m saying to him, ‘If you didn’t know this person, do you think this person put their point across in the right way?’ He’ll then say, ‘See, this is why I love this guy. He teaches me just as I teach him.’
“Sometimes it’s how you grow up. Tunde grew up in Peckham and didn’t have either of his parents in his life. He’s grown a certain type of way. Peckham back in the day, it was hard to get by, and he’s got short man syndrome.” Yarde stopped to laugh. “That’s why he’s so defensive. Whenever anyone attacks him, or questions him, he feels like he has to defend himself.
“But I’ve seen a difference in Tunde these last 12 months and I think other people have seen it, too. They see it as him being humbled but I just think he’s re-evaluated himself. He hasn’t been at this level before, where he is growing with a fighter towards the world stage.
“When we got to the [Sergey] Kovalev fight [in 2019], that’s when people started not liking him because he was talking a lot. He said, ‘Anthony is better than Andre Ward,’ and he said things which were confident but at the same time arrogant due to the way he was saying them. But he analysed that and analysed how social media turned against him.
“In this camp I saw the old Tunde, or I should say a brand-new Tunde. I feel like he’s grown. Tunde is misunderstood but he has a heart of gold and does a lot for other people.”
It could be argued Yarde’s so-called comeback story, punctuated by a return fight with Lyndon Arthur on December 4, was as redemptive for Ajayi, his misunderstood mentor, as it was for Yarde himself.
However, long before either man had the last laugh, Yarde was forced to face some home truths, the likes of which plenty felt Ajayi and Yarde’s team were unable to deliver.
“Watching it [the first fight] back with my team, we said we should have seen what everyone was seeing, but we just thought it was comfortable at the time,” Yarde said. “Everyone in the team learnt from it. [Former European super-middleweight champion] James Cook came along and he’s a bit more harsh. He’s no bulls**t. It’s all needed. Everyone on my team has levelled up and we have the same mentality now: dominate the opponent each round.”
As for the rewatch experience, Yarde said: “It was frustrating. When you lose conclusively, you can work harder and work towards improving. You can accept that the other guy was better. But I genuinely believe that Lyndon is not better than me at anything and I believed that after the first fight.
“When I watched it back, I just kept sighing. I was so frustrated. This guy is not on my level, yet now, for the rest of my life, on my record it shows that he has beaten me in a boxing match. It should never have happened. My mind was not there and I was making the wrong decisions. I was thinking about the wrong things.”
The defeat to Arthur was not Yarde’s first, of course. Back in August 2019, he put up a gallant losing effort against Russian light-heavyweight Sergey Kovalev in a WBO title challenge many believed Yarde would not take, never mind win. Yarde was stopped in 11 rounds that night, having been on the brink of an upset in the eighth, yet came away with only a fraction of the frustration he would experience in the aftermath of defeat number two.
“With the Kovalev fight, I knew the risk,” he said. “I’d never been to Russia before and I heard all these horror stories and Kovalev was one of the two most dangerous light-heavyweights at the time. I didn’t make a fool of myself. I went for it. The way it ended, I said, ‘Right, I went at the wrong time, I exerted myself, the occasion got to me, and I put too much into that eighth round.’ But I learnt from it. I was happy with the way it ended. I wouldn’t have wanted it to go to points.”
In a sport infamous for its grey areas, duplicity and confusion, all an honest fighter like Anthony Yarde wants is something solid. He wants defeat to feel like defeat and victory to feel like victory. He wants to feel, moreover, like a fighter when fighting, and not like a human being.
To his relief, these feelings returned earlier this month.
“I was supremely confident,” Yarde said about the Arthur rematch. “The only nerves I had were the normal nerves you get when you know you’re going into battle.
“It wasn’t cockiness or arrogance or anything like that. I think the confidence came from how I’ve been training and also getting my mind back.
“I know you shouldn’t say 100 per cent but I was like 98 per cent sure I was going to stop him. Because I’d been in with him before, I knew what I could do. Even if he switched up his game plan, I’d felt his power and I’d felt his jab. None of his jabs hurt me and I’d sparred better jabbers than him in America and even in England. I knew exactly how the rematch was going to play out.”
If Yarde knew, few others did. Most, in fact, seemed split going into the Arthur return, with some figuring Arthur’s jab and ring savvy would secure him a repeat victory, and others, those convinced Yarde had underperformed last year, expecting Yarde to build on the success he had in the final round of the first fight.
“All I said to myself was be sharp and respect the game,” the Londoner recalled. “Don’t respect him but respect the game. Understand that we’ve got 10-ounce gloves on and I can’t go out there and just be reckless.
“But I knew when I landed on this guy, he would be all over the place. I know what energy I bring. This was literally round 13 for me.
“It was my first rematch and it was cool because I knew exactly what I needed to do from the get-go. If he’s banking on me getting tired, he’s in for a long night. Despite all the speculation about my stamina, I don’t feel like I’ve seen a light-heavyweight in recent years fight at that pace. I could have honestly done that for 12 rounds.
“I had in my mind that I was going to hit this guy, he would feel something different, and then I would stop him. He was holding me a lot, which is probably why it lasted a bit longer than I thought it would, but I basically beat him up and roughed him up.
“He’s a good fighter, though. He was better than I thought he would be. He frustrated me in the second round, which was close, and that was why I came out firing again in the third.
“Once he was on the ropes and had stopped moving, I gave him my head. He was talking to me. He was saying, ‘I’m still here.’ I knew I had him then. I hit him with a body shot and saw his legs buckle.”
Yarde suspects Arthur’s demise, confirmed by a fourth-round stoppage, owed as much to “cockiness” as anything else. He also suspects his rival underestimated the impact Yarde’s circumstances had on him first time around.
“He really didn’t believe the fact my mind wasn’t there,” Yarde said. “His trainer [Pat Barrett] knew more about me in the first fight. He came into the changing room afterwards and said, ‘We were lucky there to get you at the right time. I’m going to do everything in my power to make this rematch not happen because I know how you are going to come for the next fight.’
“Lyndon and [his promoter] Frank Warren ended up falling out because of that rematch. He didn’t want it and that’s why he’s out of contract now. He knew what was going to happen if we fought again.”
In the end, what transpired across two fights between Anthony Yarde and Lyndon Arthur was, for anyone who has suffered any kind of loss, Arthur included, a lesson. In fight one, we watched Yarde’s suffering and we saw his pain, pain he suspected nobody would understand, much less see. Then, some 12 months later, having gone through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, we watched a fighter at last start to heal.