WHILE the prospect of sharing a ring with fearsome Russian light-heavyweight Artur Beterbiev would drive most men to an entirely different country, London’s Anthony Yarde is not most men.
In fact, having shown his ambition in a 2019 challenge against Sergey Kovalev in Russia, Yarde stands out – not only as someone different from most men but someone different from most other light-heavyweight boxers, too. He is also someone who, on October 22 at London’s O2 Arena, will try to do to Beterbiev what no other light-heavyweight has so far been able to do: stop him.
“This is not a pursuit of a world title,” said Yarde’s trainer, Tunde Ajayi, “this is the pursuit of greatness. There’s a difference.
“The fight’s good to go, October 22 at the O2, and we both want this so much.
“Even in the embryonic stage of his career, we went to Russia and reached the top of the mountain. Three years later, we’re going back again. The motivation is crazy. We relish the challenge. It’s really a Cinderella story. Neither of us come from any kind of boxing background. We’re literally just two guys who had a dream. This doesn’t happen every day.”
To prepare for what is a monumental challenge, Yarde and Ajayi recently visited New York to witness Beterbiev’s two-round demolition of Joe Smith Jnr at Madison Square Garden. There, from ringside, they got to see both what all the fuss is about and what Yarde, 22-2 (21), will be up against later this year.
“His record speaks for itself, and there are some good names on there, but I was expecting more speed,” said Ajayi. “I knew he wasn’t quick, and that he was more power and precision, but he wasn’t even as quick as I thought.
“After the fight, I went back to the hotel and really studied him. He’s a good boxer as well as a puncher and it was the foot movement that unsettled Smith. He just didn’t know what to do when Beterbiev moved.
“We know Beterbiev’s a noted puncher but Anthony Yarde is three times faster than him. Speed is a big variable in this fight, and so is power. Let’s not forget that Anthony has got 21 knockouts from 22 wins. They’re not at the same level as Beterbiev, but don’t forget, either, that Anthony had 12 amateur fights whereas Beterbiev had over 300.
“Because he’s got that amateur pedigree, we’re always going to be up against it. But, at 37, the wheels can come off at any time. He’s going to be dealing with a young and hungry opponent who has the speed of a welterweight. I just feel the time is right.”
In truth, the idea of fighting Beterbiev, 18-0 (18), has been bubbling away in the back of Yarde’s mind for more than just a month. Indeed, his coach has had the heavy-handed Russian on his radar for as long as four years.
“On August 19, 2018, at three o’clock in the morning, I got a message from the trainer of Artur Beterbiev asking if we wanted to go spar Beterbiev,” Ajayi explained. “But I was like, ‘Why would we spar you when one day we’re going to fight you?’
“Again, it all goes back to this sparring thing. It’s not that we don’t spar. I just look at everything as competition. I was confident that Anthony would reach this level, even back then. I’d never have him spar guys he could potentially fight.”
Now, as planned, Yarde will challenge Beterbiev with the mystery surrounding him one of his biggest weapons. All potential, even at 31, still nobody quite knows what Yarde is capable of, both against Beterbiev and in more general terms. Nobody except for Ajayi, that is.
“I don’t mind humbling myself and giving Beterbiev all the credit he deserves, but he hasn’t been in the ring with someone as skilled as Anthony Yarde,” said Ajayi. “Callum Johnson is a solid puncher, but he can’t punch like Anthony Yarde.
“Check Beterbiev’s record and there isn’t a known puncher on it. Joe Smith can hit a bit, but he isn’t a known puncher like that. Anthony hits harder.”
Over the years Ajayi’s belief in his man has been described as anything from sycophantic and arrogant to delusional and damaging. Yet, to Ajayi’s credit, there has been a clear shift in attitude and approach of late, one detected by those who still listen to him.
“First time round (against Kovalev) there was a bit of cockiness and arrogance,” he conceded. “I felt I had created a system of boxing and didn’t need to really study these boxers.
“But the Lyndon Arthur fight, the second one (in 2021), made me sit up and pay much more attention to the opponents. Actually, it was before that. It was the Dec Spelman fight (in 2020). He was the first opponent I ever studied.
“Going into this fight, I’ve noticed Beterbiev throws clubbing hammer shots. He seems like he targets the back of the head and knocks fighters off their equilibrium. I’ll be highlighting that beforehand, as well as his protector being too high. We have to get everything right. We have to make sure drug-testing is in place and I have to do all I can to protect my fighter and make sure it’s a level playing field.”
After studying Beterbiev, and then seeing him up close, there will, Ajayi claims, be no fear of him on the night of October 22. In fact, given how their paths have crisscrossed, their meeting seems a natural part of the Anthony Yarde journey.
“Beterbiev came over to the UK when Ant was an amateur and they sparred, apparently,” said Ajayi. “Tony Cesay, his old amateur coach, has got the picture, which I remember Ant showing me on his phone. There’s a lot of history there. It’s almost like serendipity; like it was meant to happen at this time.”