James Cook is one of the good ones.
The former British and European super-middleweight champion is a straight talker with an admirable reputation for turning around young lives and inspiring the youth of London.
Much of his work has centred in and around the Pedro Youth Club in Hackney, an institution that was founded in 1928 and which James saved from closure in 2003.
Now the 62-year-old is relishing a new mission – having been invited to join light-heavyweight contender Anthony Yarde’s team, alongside manager and trainer Tunde Ajayi.
“I’ve known the young man for a while,” Cook says of Yarde. “Don’t forget he was born in Hackney, and also I know Tunde from back when Tunde was boxing [Both Cook and Ajayi are alumni of the Lynn AC boxing club in Camberwell].”
The 29-year-old Yarde is now 20-2 (19 KOs), having been stopped in 11 in a gallant challenge for Sergey Kovalev’s WBO light-heavyweight title in August 2019. He then dropped a split decision to Lyndon Arthur in December for the Commonwealth title.
Cook argues that the criticism hurled in Yarde and Ajayi’s direction in the wake of those contests has been unjust.
“When things are going well no one says nothing but when they don’t go well the first person people blame is the coach,” he explains. “Someone always gets the blame, but they deserve credit. People have crucified Tunde. But they’re a young team, they want to learn and you have to give them credit for that.
“If Anthony had left Tunde I’d have been annoyed. They’re young though so maybe I can add some experience. Two fights lost haven’t made the man a bad fighter overnight. He just needs a little more experience to get over the line and they admit that. Maybe I can help with some extra knowledge to get them over the line.”
To back up his point, Cook speaks about the Kovalev fight, when Yarde came close to stopping the Russian in round eight.
“He was so close against Kovalev, but he’ll learn from that fight. When he had him in trouble he didn’t quite pick his shots right.
“He said it himself afterwards. A man like Kovalev is dangerous if you hit him and then try and rush to finish him – that’s what happens when you rush your shots rather than pick your shots. But that’s just experience.”
Cook’s exact role in the set-up is yet to be defined, after Yarde’s planned return to the ring in April was called off due to a tooth abscess. But it is clear that he is ready and willing to slot in where needed.
“I can’t say too much about it. Anthony Yarde is his own man. He’s called me up and asked me to be the third man. I used to play cricket and I know what a third man does in cricket but we’ll see what a third man does in boxing! He can tell me what he wants me to do. We’ll see what happens for the next fight.”
One the main reasons Cook is willing to work with Yarde is his positive view of ‘The Beast’s personality.
“He’s a very level-headed guy,” he emphasises. “A very nice guy. He’s not a flash guy who jumps up and down and does a lot of talking. He’s a humble guy, he speaks well. People don’t always look at the full picture – where he’s come from and what he’s done.
“But people who know me know that I want people to be level-headed and to be humble you know? Anthony is that guy. People like that I can get on with. My motto is: we’re all here together, so we have to help each other and be normal human beings. That’s the way to go.
“Anthony has lost four people in his family during the pandemic but boxing has given him a steady head. He could easily have gone off the rails but he’s doing the right thing. That’s why boxing is so important, you learn discipline and good manners.”
Cook’s passionate belief in building a better society and helping to mould youngsters into good citizens and role models like Anthony Yarde underpins everything he does. Indeed, such has been the impact of Cook’s youth work that he was rewarded with an MBE in 2007.
But he is the first to admit that his job is not yet done.
As the country begins its first tentative steps out of lockdown, Cook is concerned about vaccine hesitancy among other issues. He has ensured his elderly father has had his jabs, and is also spreading the message among the rest of the community.
“I’ve been saying to people: ‘Look, really and truly, take the jab, the government don’t want to kill people … they want your taxes!” he laughs.
A further concern to Cook is the devastating impact the pandemic has had on inner-city youngsters.
“To be honest it’s been hard,” he reflects. “In lockdown the youth have been so much on computers and social media, so coming out of that now there’s been a lot of arguments on social media, a lot of youngsters have become more violent because of what they’ve been watching.
“You’ve got 14-year-old kids killing each other. It’s crazy. Social media has gone mad. They don’t realise the dangers. They feel trapped. And the lockdown hasn’t helped. We had to have it obviously for the good of the country but for those youngsters without a support network it’s not been good.”
Despite the challenges, Cook’s commitment will not waver, and he can’t wait to get back into his unofficial role as ‘guardian of the streets’ in Hackney.
“I’ve been doing stuff out the back of the youth club and I can’t wait to get back to doing stuff properly. There’s more danger for young people on the streets now. That’s the challenge we face. I try to discuss social media and its dangers with youngsters every day. You can’t control that, but you have to try and guide them. We’re always looking at ways to help.”
Tireless, principled and relentlessly optimistic, in James Cook, Anthony Yarde couldn’t have anyone better in his corner.
Main image: Sky Sports.