Tucked away under the Newham Way overpass, around a mile from Canning Town tube station, two workers in overalls stand outside a storage unit that promises on-the-spot payments for precious metals interchanging between pulls of their cigarettes and bites of their lunch.
Almost immediately opposite is the quaint but rough and ready Peacock Gym. It stands prominent amid the drab brick and stained shutters of a spate of MOT garages. It was here that the likes of Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno traded leather and sowed the seeds of greatness. And it is in these humble surroundings where Anthony Yarde has evolved into a fighter ready to follow in their footpaths.
The Peacock gym is a peculiar but amiable place where part-time gym enthusiasts and people who come here simply for the café’s soup of the day cross paths with some of the best boxing talent in the country. Yarde walked through these doors for the first time six years ago as a raw 21-year-old who had only been boxing for two years. Last week he was here applying the finishing touches to his preparations for his world title fight in Russia against Sergey Kovalev.
Anthony Yarde’s only been boxing for eight years but challenges for a world title on Saturday
‘It’s mad isn’t it. When I told people I could get this far, they laughed at me and why wouldn’t they?’ Yarde tells Sportsmail. ‘If a 19-year-old came in here now and said: “I’ve only just started boxing, but I’m going to be a world champion in eight years” I would call them crazy as well.’
But in that space of time and just 30 competitive fights – 18 as a professional and 12 as an amateur – Yarde finds himself on the cusp of fulfilling that inconceivable fantasy. Only a vicious puncher ominously known as the ‘Krusher’ stands in the way of it becoming a reality.
Kovalev has reigned supreme in the light-heavyweight land since 2013 and will go down as possibly the best 175lb fighter of his era. Andre Ward, a two-weight unified world champion, has been the only man to ever outclass the Russian inside the ring. Ward achieved this not once, but twice before hanging up the gloves as an undefeated great two years ago. Eleider Alvarez, who caught Kovalev on an off night, is the only other man to beat him, though he couldn’t repeat the feat in their rematch, losing a wide unanimous decision the second time around.
Yarde spoke about some of the harrowing things he saw growing up in East London
Yarde, who had barely been boxing 24 months by the time Kovalev first won a world title, is under no illusions about the scale of this task. ‘It’s almost mission impossible,’ he says frankly. ‘But I love proving people wrong. I thrive off it. And when I do, I will be the most talked about fighter in Britain because no one has done what I’m about to do. I’m going to Russia to fight someone who has been No 1 for a long time, a pound-for-pound great, and I’m going to win, full stop.’
He is already a prized commodity on these shores but victory on Saturday would see him become one of Britain’s biggest boxing stars overnight. In his short four years as a professional, Yarde has established himself as one of the most compelling and explosive fighters in Britain. He models himself on his idol Mike Tyson and shares that same devastating power he had in his fists – 17 of Yarde’s 18 victims have not stayed upright to hear the final bell.
But for someone so assuredly talented, he remains divisive. His critics will argue that this opportunity has come way too soon, that Yarde has not fought anybody remotely close to the calibre of Kovalev. Put that to him, though, and he bristles at the suggestion he has been spoon-fed uncompetitive opponents. ‘I just always look at the facts,’ he says.
‘Nikola Sjekloca has only lost at world level and I’m the only one to knock him out. I don’t listen to people who doubt me. One minute they are with you and the next they are against you. There are people who love me. They say: “Anthony Yarde is the guy. Anthony Yarde is a knockout specialist.” There is always going to be balance.’
Yarde believes he will fulfill his destiny by beating Kovalev in Russia on Saturday
He spoke about how it took time for his relationship with Tunde Ajayi (2nd Left) to blossom
For a man so young, he takes everything in his stride. In his 27 years, Yarde has seen enough for a life time though. ‘I’ve been in situations where I’ve been approached with knives, I’ve had a gun put to me and been in fights where shots have been going off. I’ve had mates that have been stabbed, done stabbings. I remember being in fights and being tremendously outnumbered and it escalating into something much worse. That’s why I laughed when people asked if I was scared of going to Russia. If only they knew about some of the things I’ve seen.’
Yarde’s tale is like many in the sport. He grew up on the tough working-class streets of Stratford in East London and then Forest Gate. He was heading down the wrong path in life, hanging out with people involved in gangs and robbing shops to get by. He recalls days of jumping over train barriers because he couldn’t afford to pay £2.50. He has come a long way since those trying times having made a conscious decision as a teenager to cut ties with the bad influences in his life and now stands to earn in the region of £1million from Saturday’s fight.
He admits it is surreal looking back on his past life, but Yarde was never in any doubt that he’d make something of himself. ‘I’m a strong believer in destiny. I believe you are born to do certain things. I never feared for my life when I had that gun put up to me because I feel like I was chosen. Like I was meant to be a star and this was meant to happen. I always saw myself going down the path of success.
‘Losing – I don’t even like using that word – for me it’s not an option. It’s only winning. That is just my reality. I’m going to win. To some people it might seem cocky, arrogant or unrealistic but that’s just how I am.’
Yarde said facing Kovalev is like mission impossible but is adamant he’s going to pull it off
Kovalev and Yarde both weighed in on Friday ahead of their clash for the WBO world title
Yarde is not a man lacking in self-belief, that much is clear. Spend an afternoon in the gym with him and it’s not hard to see why. His trainer Tunde Ajayi, a vociferous man known simply as ‘uncle’ to him, grows effusive with praise just at the mere mention of Yarde’s name. The two first began working together when Yarde was an amateur in 2013 after the East Londoner approached him via a mutual friend. Ajayi wasn’t sold straight away.
But there’s a story about how Yarde forced a man to retire from boxing at the age of 28 after knocking him out in the amateurs. Yarde’s opponent had been hit by a car a few years earlier, but still to this day, persists he has never been hit as hard as when Yarde hit him. ‘I take real pride in that,’ the Brit says with a cheeky glint. It was that kind of innate power that forced Ajayi to take notice and he has been spreading the word like it’s gospel ever since. The pair have built up a strong rapport with each other over the years, but they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.
‘Everyone thinks he’s crazy. I tell him he’s crazy sometimes. He used to be very angry. Whenever Tunde got angry, I used to always laugh at him,’ Yarde says. ‘On Saturday’s he used to come to our houses to pick us up to do a run. He used to tell everyone what time he was getting there and if you weren’t outside your house at that time, he used to just drive past. One of the lads in the car texted me one morning saying “We’re five minutes away, uncle’s in one of his moods”. He messaged me again saying we are here and then I heard the horn. It’s 5am in the morning and Tunde is outside my house beeping the horn loud with no care for the neighbours or anyone that’s sleeping. I came out and shouted: “My mum’s sleeping, what’s wrong with you?” and he looked back at the boys in the back as if I was mad.
Victory would see Yarde become one of the biggest names in British boxing overnight
The 27-year-old has knocked out 17 of his 18 opponents during his professional career
‘I deliberately took ages to get ready. I left my door open and went to make a cup of tea. I made my tea and as I’ve come outside, I’ve stopped to take a sip of it and when I got in the car, Tunde sat there for five minutes with a face on and wouldn’t drive. I said “What’s wrong, we not leaving?” and he said “You see you, you’re disrespectful, you haven’t even said good morning. And you take that long. You’re not coming.” I was like “I’ve not gotten up this early not to train” and Tunde sat there for another 10-15 minutes not driving. We were all sat there in awkward silence and then he decided to drive off. We were all in the back laughing. We had these kind of problems for years but over time he lightened up and we had some fun.’
Under Ajayi’s tutelage, Yarde has scaled up the WBO rankings to put himself in this position to challenge for Kovalev’s world title. His resume is nothing to write home about, but he has no concerns about if he’s ready.
‘People will say I should have had a few harder fights before this, but why? That doesn’t make sense. Mike Tyson didn’t have a couple of harder fights before he fought Trevor Berbick and he knocked him out in the second round and then went on to do great things. I just believe that if you’re going pass the test, you’re going to pass it and if you’re not going to then you’re not going to. I’ve passed all my tests thus far and I will pass this one. People have said me and Tunde are delusional but just wait and see. After I win this, I’ll go on to achieve even more.
This, Yarde believes, has already been written in the stars.