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Sergey Kovalev vs Anthony Yarde: Why Russian hostility holds no fear for Brit ahead of world title tilt

Declan Taylor

Before Anthony Yarde had ever set foot in a boxing gym, a teenage life of ducking and weaving through the back streets of east London had already lead him into significant danger.

Guns and knives underpinned much of his adolescence but, now 28, Yarde says those memories will serve him well this week in Russia.

The undefeated puncher worked his way into the mandatory position for Sergey Kovalev’s WBO light heavyweight title via a perfect 18-0 record (17 KOs). He gets his shot at the belt on Saturday night but he has had to trek to Chelyabinsk to do so.

Victory in the Russian city, made famous by a meteor which exploded above it in 2013, would go down as one of the greatest victories by a Brit abroad in the country’s boxing history, but Yarde is not sure what all the fuss is about. ‘Hostile environments’, he insists, are his thing.

“I was born in Hackney,” he says. “One of the most dangerous moments of my life happened right there. That day guns were pulled out on us by elder guys.

“The same thing happened to me in south London, I shouldn’t have been there, but then the car just came out of nowhere.

“Sometimes you found yourself in conflict or within an area where there’s conflict. Some days you just find yourself in danger. Sometimes these things mould you and that’s what I mean about hostile environments.

“For me, hostile environments was going to the youth club where there were different gangs and you know people have got knives and people are looking to do damage. Or, it’s something as simple as someone wants your phone.

“They are the situations where you start to feel the nerves building because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“How it’s going to go when I’m out there in Russia? I don’t know but I know I’ll just adapt.”

Yarde was a relative late-comer to the sport and joins an exhaustive list of boxers who can safely confirm that his life was saved by the controlled violence on offer inside the gym.

Anthony Yarde faces his biggest test yet against Sergey Kovalev (Getty)

Although he was intrigued by a Mike Tyson documentary he saw when he was 14, Yarde says he only started boxing at 19. A short amateur career comprising 12 fights with 11 inside the distance followed before he turned professional in 2015.

He has not gone the distance inside the ring since June of that year when Stanislavs Makarenko managed to hang tough for all four rounds. It means he has only ever heard the final bell on two occasions - be it amateur of pro. In total he has had just 30 fights in his life.

What’s more, few of those opponents are anywhere near fit to lace the well-worn boots of Kovalev, who is one of his generation’s most fearsome light heavyweights. In fact Yarde was only six when the Russian made his amateur debut back in 1997. It has been suggested, however, that the self-styled ‘Krusher’, who did just that to Welshman Nathan Cleverly six years ago this month, might just be a spent force.

“Are his best days behind him? I don’t think like that,” adds Yarde. “From what I see, in his last fight he looked sharp. He looked sharper than he has looked in recent years. I feel like he’s still there, I don’t feel like 36 is old at all.

“He’s probably going to want to put on a show on home soil so I’m not underestimating him thinking, ‘he’s on his way out’, or, ‘this is some retirement fight’. I feel like he’s going to prepare himself properly.

“The vibration I’m getting is that he doesn’t really want to fight me. He’s thinking, ‘this guy has only had 18 professional fights, he only had 12 amateur fights and I’m a future Hall of Famer, I can’t let this kid come and beat me’. But that’s what’s going to happen.

“I feel like that’s what’s going to make him nervous. He’s been in with big names before like Andre Ward but there’s no embarrassment if you lose those kinds of fights. But I’m just a kid from east London who started boxing at 19 years old and worked his way through the rankings.”

Given the lack of world-level opponents on his record, the jury remains out on Yarde as a genuine elite force but he has promised that the prospect of facing Kovalev will not produce even an ounce of fear.

He says: “I’ve got a tattoo on my arm that says: ‘In life we go through different struggles, but how we deal with them makes us who we are.’ So how you challenge your struggles determines your character.

Yarde hopes to shock the Russian and become a world champion (Getty)

“I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen by people I know and to people I know – but it’s very multicultural in east London; I’ve been chased by a group of young black boys, I’ve been chased by a group of young Somalian boys, I’ve been chased by a group of elderly white guys.

“But I found myself attracting negative things because I was in a negative environment. I was pre-determining this stuff before it happened. You’re always looking over your shoulder and thinking about what might happen. You’re attracting it towards you.

“But now, I’m on a straight path and when you think about positive things, positive things follow you. When you think negative, that’s what you get.”

Yarde takes on Kovalev for the WBO light heavyweight title, on BT Sport 2, Saturday 24 August 5-9pm.