James Cook MBE on the transformation of Anthony Yarde, his relationship with Tunde Ajayi, the boost their triumph has given to his beloved Pedro Youth Club and his advice for Lyndon Arthur. By Melanie Lloyd
AS the opening bell rang to kick off the eagerly anticipated rematch between Anthony Yarde and Lyndon Arthur at the Copper Box Arena on December 4, Yarde was the ever-so-slight betting favourite, although the general consensus among the boxing fraternity swayed ever-so-slightly in favour of Arthur. While very few of those in the know predicted anything like the ruthless demolition that the Londoner inflicted upon the man from Manchester, there was blanket agreement before the fight that the addition of James Cook MBE to Yarde’s young crew could only be a good thing.
During the post-fight ringside interview, Tunde Ajayi, Yarde’s longstanding and sometimes criticised head trainer, wasted no time in shining the limelight onto Cook, stating, “We were really a ship without a rudder, and James Cook has been the cement that has solidified our team.” Those well-chosen words perfectly summed up the unanimous sentiment that immediately began to resonate all over social media and various boxing platforms, that it was the steadying presence of Cook in the corner that had made the difference. So it would seem that, at the age of 62 and having been involved in boxing for over half a century, James Cook looks set to enjoy yet another well-deserved spell in the sun.
The following morning when Cook strolled casually through the door of the London Ex Boxers’ Association meeting, the sincere congratulations soon gave way to jovial suggestions that the highly popular former British and European super-middleweight champion should now be known as James ‘The Difference’ Cook, which rapidly became abbreviated to simply ‘The Difference’ – for example, “Hey, ‘The Difference’, do you fancy another pint of Guiness?” When quizzed as to how he felt about his newfound status, Jamaican-born Cook cheerfully replied, “So long as they’re gonna buy me a pint of Guiness, they can call me whatever they want!”
On a more profound note, when surrounded by a knowledgeable cluster of LEBA members who earnestly took turns to proffer various suppositions as to how Cook had succeeded in bringing out the beast in Yarde, the characteristically modest Cook gently confirmed that, yes, he believed his input had calmed things down in the camp and, yes, he had unlocked something in Yarde’s mind, but he was also quick to praise Ajayi. “Tunde has done a marvellous job with Anthony so far, both as a coach and as a manager. I mean, let’s face it, Anthony is only 30 years old and he is doing great financially, so how can anybody criticise that? For such a young team, they’ve all done brilliant, and it’s great that Tunde can come to me and say ‘Look, we’ve reached the point where we need that little bit of experience.’ As far as I’m concerned, the people who have been trying to crucify Tunde on the internet and all of this rubbish don’t even know a damn thing about boxing.”
As is inevitably the case after a big fight, the talk soon turned into a wistful inquest based on who had betted how much on whom, what the odds were and which rounds had been picked. It transpired that nobody had got it right, including Cook. “One of my daughters is very angry with me this morning. She asked me what rounds she should bet on and I told her between six and eight! We knew that Anthony was gonna do it, but we just didn’t know he was going to do it so blasted quickly. He set out to make a statement, and that statement was four rounds. Fair play to the boy, last night he really came of age.”
Cook long ago lost count of all the fighters he has handled and he has left his mark on each and every one of them, but boxing is a transient sport and people tend to lose touch as time goes by. However, there is a staunch, ever-growing army of protégés and pals, challengers and champions alike, who remain firmly fixed in Cook’s orbit. They are brothers in arms who recognise the value of Cook’s old-school principles, a fistic family prepared to back Cook in his perpetual battle against crime and deprivation on the streets of Hackney. In fact, the title of this article was inspired by one of Cook’s besties, former Forrest Hill middleweight and font of boxing knowledge, Spencer Fearon, who hosts The Fight Is Right podcast alongside Tunde Ajayi; that is when the duo are not on the phone at 5 o’clock in the morning, as Fearon gleefully puts it, “working out plans to mash up the system.”
During the week following the fight, Spencer and Tunde naturally had James on the podcast as a guest, and it came to light that it was during one of their chinwags at the crack of dawn that Tunde had initially broached the subject of inviting Cook to come onboard. It is endearing to behold how genuinely pleased Fearon obviously feels about the union, describing the transformation in Yarde as “a mad joy to watch”. What comes across clearly is the relaxed bond between Ajayi and Cook, a subtle balance of apprentice and master underpinned by mutual respect. Ajayi, who had five pro fights at welterweight in 2001 and retired undefeated, has never come across as the type of individual to lack confidence, so it is revealing and disturbing to learn how acutely lonely and isolated he has felt in his capacity as Yarde’s main man thus far. Consequently, it is enough to warm the hardest of hearts to witness how plainly delighted he is to have James alongside him on the road ahead, excitedly describing the new setup as “a rebirth”.
At 6ft 2ins, Cook tends to tower above most of us at LEBA and, on the Sunday morning after the night before, there seemed to be an aura emanating from his lean frame, the unmistakable glow of serene success. His big smile radiated warmth as he enthused, “I’m really loving working with these guys. To be honest, at first, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure that their way of working would suit me and I wasn’t certain that my way of working would suit them. I didn’t know how I would fit into the situation. I thought I’ll probably be the blasted pussycat in the camp, but I’m so glad that they decided to call me.
“One man who I must mention is the assistant coach, Ade Olayinka. Ade is great because he is the one who takes all of Anthony’s body punches! He was a footballer at one time, and he’s such a lovely, humble guy. Ade is a great motivator and he is the one who starts all the singing in the gym. They all sing different verses, so I call them the Jackson Three! They keep saying that they’re gonna bring me in for the bass, but the thing is I don’t want to mess up their song because they sound too good.”
Cook’s voice softened considerably as he spared a thought for Lyndon Arthur. “I understand the way Lyndon is feeling, because Lyndon now is probably thinking he’s let his people down and he’s let his camp down, just like how I felt when I went to Shefield to fight Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. I felt that I didn’t perform and I felt rotten. But, as you go along experiencing boxing, you realise this is boxing. So Lyndon shouldn’t beat up himself about what Anthony done. To me, Lyndon is like a quiet James Cook. There’s no hype about him. He’s just calm and relaxed. But sometimes you have to make noise and, when you fight, you’ve got to fight rugged. My personal opinion of Lyndon is that he is a nice, pleasant young man and he’ll come again. Believe me, he’ll definitely come again.”
Prior to the fight, one of the recurring phrases utilised by those who were putting their money on Arthur was the forecast that history would repeat itself. Technically speaking, these predictions were accurate, albeit in a completely unintended context. In a similar fashion to the way that Cook has seamlessly merged with the Yarde team, Anthony is quietly and respectfully following in the footsteps of Cook’s band of brothers and, these days, he can often be found at James’ beloved Pedro Youth Club in Lower Clapton, Hackney.
Cook is not a man who is prone to pride, but his chest expanded ever so slightly as he declared “I am a very lucky man. There are so many fighters that have stuck with me, doing whatever I ask of them to help me improve the situation in the local area and, yeah, Anthony is coming down the club now which is wonderful for the young people. They’re getting to spend time with this young man who has come from the same place as they come from and he’s achieving what he’s achieving. It gives the kids a different mindset. So it’s all good and, on top of that, Anthony and Tunde came round to see me the other day and they brought me some African Guinness. Mind you, knowing those two, that’s probably because they want me to go back to bloody sleep!”