When Anthony Yarde was 19, he told everyone he was going to fight for a world title.
Even his closest friends were bewildered; at that time he had never fought – as an amateur or professional.
‘Very well, look'”, he remembers answering.
Yarde had learned to defend himself from an early age. His mother was his greatest ally, his “teacher and provider” and introduced him to all that East London had to offer. Good or bad, the mistakes were his.
“Belief is one of the key elements to any form of success,” he says. “You have to believe that you can do something and if you don’t, you have to look for it.”
Yarde’s search led him to the boxing ring.
He is seated a few feet away from one as we speak. His gymnasium in Ilford is filled with some of boxing’s most famous faces, including Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather. It’s not far from where he grew up, on the carpenters’ estate in Stratford.
“Lions in Camp” – Yarde’s mantra – is displayed in gold above the ring.
Yarde is now 31 and preparing for the biggest fight of his life. Unified light-heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev travels to London on Saturday to defend his three world titles, unbeaten record and formidable reputation.
The home fighter is a huge underdog but has spent his life upsetting the odds. He left fear behind him decades ago.
“If fear keeps me from following something, who am I?” he asks.
“I’ve been faced with certain situations, knives have been drawn at me, guns have been drawn at me. It’s fear. It’s something to be afraid of.”
From the streets of Stratford to the ring
Yarde grew up with her two sisters and her mother; his father was mostly irrelevant by the time Yarde was seven. They lived in one of the estate’s main blocks – Dennison Point.
He was friends with everyone – “much like his mother”, as he puts it. But her community – though tight-knit and caring – was chaos. His friends were stabbed, sent to prison and even killed.
“Somewhere inside me there was a bad mood; my environment brought it out,” he says.
“You start relying on it because it’s your defense mechanism.”
Yarde first went to the boxing gym at age 14. Her mother was against it. But Yarde wanted to learn how to protect himself.
His temper got him in and out of trouble.
He was never part of a gang or a ‘troublemaker’, but his life fell apart when his promising football career was derailed after he missed out on a place at Queens Park Rangers due to a wound.
Yarde took the “wrong path” – and his mother told him the life he was leading would end with one of two outcomes – prison or death. At 19, he listens.
“Good people know when they’re doing something wrong,” he says. “It’s a hunch.
“I was trying. I was not a person who didn’t try.
“When things started to go wrong, I had to remind myself when things were going well. I wasn’t even giving 100 per cent to football and things blossomed.
“So I said I would do boxing, but this time I would give 100 per cent.”
“Regrets hurt more”
Yarde turned pro after 12 amateur fights and three unlicensed fights. His trainer, Tunde Ajayi, convinced veteran promoter Frank Warren to take a chance on the 23-year-old who is making a name for himself.
He had just won the Haringey Box Cup – a prestigious amateur tournament – by knocking out everyone.
“When there’s a knockout performer, everyone goes back to their place,” he says.
“So I said, ‘I’m going to be a knockout artist. “”
Yarde was an instant hit – going 18-0 with 17 knockouts. Then, in 2019, he had the chance to fight WBO light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev — his first world title fight — in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
The dream has become a nightmare. His bags were lost, he was advised not to drink the water provided for fear of sabotage, and he had an armed escort wherever he went.
He lost the fight – his level of fitness was insufficient as he tried to keep pace with the champion. But he has “no regrets” taking the fight.
“They say you don’t know what you’re made of until you have a loss,” he says.
“I’d rather have those opportunities than not. That’s my personality.
“There’s nothing worse than regret. It hurts more.”
“I did not like the feeling of being present”
Yarde returned home nursing the wounds of his first defeat.
But its reconstruction was halted by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. Then, in the the space of seven months, he lost his father, his grandparents and his aunt.
He chose to fight twice at the end of 2020, losing the second – a big domestic encounter with Lyndon Arthur.
“You can prepare for a fight, but you can’t prepare for emotion or heartbreak,” he says.
Yarde recalls that before the fight he spent all his energy putting on a good face. He hid his tears looking at his mother and his little niece.
One day he took the bus to visit a friend.
“I had all my jewelry and I knew all the dangers, but I didn’t care,” he says.
“Some boys approached me and in my mind it was a relief. ‘Go then!’ You know how those boys are, they’ll stab you, but I wanted to.
“I know it sounds crazy but I just charged them. Luckily they got away.
“When I looked back it could easily have taken another direction. I was inviting danger. I was not accepting the reality of what had happened.
“I didn’t like the feeling of being present.”
As so often in her life, her mother intervened.
“Let’s go together,” she told him.
He went to Mexico with his family and close friends and stayed away from boxing while he cried properly for the first time.
“Slowly but surely I started to get back to being myself,” he says. Twelve months after being beaten by Arthur on points, he dismantled the same opponent in four rounds.
Shortly after, Beterbiev came calling.
The 38-year-old is the only reigning world boxing champion with a 100% knockout rate.
He stopped fellow champion Joe Smith in two rounds to add the WBO title to his IBF and WBC belts last June.
Nobody came up with the plan to beat Beterbiev as a professional – and the Russian has only lost five times in 300 amateur fights.
Yarde, however, is unaffected. His self-confidence remains as strong as when he was a teenager, announcing to his friends that he would one day be world champion.
“I know I’m going to surprise Beterbiev,” he said. “There is a difference between thinking and knowing.
“Fireworks, explosion and pure entertainment, as long as it lasts.”