The 12 days of BM Christmas: Master genius? Tunde Ajayi interview
Photo: Twitter @tundeajayi999
As we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas we will be bringing you 12 of the best pieces of writing from Boxing Monthly magazine over the last 12 months. On the twelfth day of Christmas we bring to you... Mick Gill's interview with Tunde Ajayi from our November issue...
For a dozen years, east London gym rat Tunde Ajayi suffered derision as a deluded “Mayweather clone” whilst struggling to carve a reputation as a trainer. Lately, however, mocking comments are seldom heard.
Championing his maverick “System 9, Stamina for Sale” coaching concept, the former undefeated pro welterweight has groomed Anthony Yarde from an eight-bout amateur novice to the cusp of world title contention.
Yarde has barely lost a minute — let alone a round — in cruising to a 16-0 (15 KOs) record and top six world light-heavyweight rankings with both the WBO and IBF. And coach Ajayi is not shy about taking some of the credit.
“Some know, but Tunde Ajayi knows how!’ declares the always engaging but shamelessly boastful 44-year-old, who operates out of the Peacock Gym in Canning Town.
“It’s my goal to become number one trainer and manager of the number one fighter in the world. If I’m the first trainer to put myself on a pedestal, so be it.
“At 21, Floyd Mayweather Jr said he’d retire undefeated and in the Hall of Fame. Floyd Mayweather Sr always boasted: ‘I’m the best. North, south, east, west.’
“When I wrote to the Board to apply for my licence in 2005, I signed the letter: ‘Tunde Ajayi, the future number one trainer in the world.’ At the start of Anthony Yarde’s career, I declared that he was ‘Roy Jones, Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson rolled into one’ because I saw something. Like the Mayweathers, I’m just saying it before it happens.
“I’m a leader, a creator, a master genius. Making bold statements challenges me to go home and study boxing and science until my body literally can’t hold up.”
Ajayi’s innovative “System 9” coaching code is short on sparring and roadwork but long on the speed-pad drills previously popularised by the late Enzo Calzaghe and Team Mayweather.
“The ‘9’ represents the nine years it took to write the system,” Ajayi said by way of clarification. He has just released the first 12 months of his programme as an app.
“Sprinters don’t box for training so why should boxers run, other than perhaps to lose weight?” he asked. “It’s my strong belief that boxing is an art rather than a battle of strength and fitness.
“And Yarde don’t spar no prospects in his weight class or the ones above or below. Once a top prospect came to spar — no name — but he came to put it on us. The first jab he threw was like a right hand. Ant parried it. Next thing, Ant’s knocked him cold. We don’t want that.
“Pad combinations are my USP [unique selling point]. Through repetition, it enhances concentration, improves condition. My system can buttress and support any style. It doesn’t matter if you’re an amateur, a professional or you work in an office, with my system you’ll keep getting better from day one until the end of your career.
“Over time, I can make a slow fella fast, a non-puncher punch, even increase durability.
“It’s deeper than making your neck muscles stronger. It’s developing a mindset, which my system encapsulates. It’s cerebral. How can the martial artist punch through bricks?
“It’s a relatively easy system — anything complicated is bullshit — but it’s based upon the quality of the teaching and sacrificing. When you go to university, the syllabus is already set out but does everybody pass? No. The ones who do are the ones prepared to sacrifice.
“On YouTube, there’s dozens trying to replicate my pad thing but they don’t understand the science. I’m the only place fighters do the same combination for 35 minutes non-stop and that’s impossible unless the mental and physical capacity has been built up within you.
“I’m very against people talking to me about ‘natural talent’. Few would dispute Floyd is the best fighter of the modern era but he didn’t wake up [as] the best.
“Us teachers need to give ourselves more credit. Manny Pacquiao became great through Freddie Roach, Lennox Lewis became great through Emanuel Steward.
“If my system didn’t work, how come Anthony is getting so good without doing any meaningful sparring?”
Ajayi, who is of Nigerian ancestry, was born in Lambeth and raised in Dulwich, south London. “I was a street fighter,” he said. “I didn’t have any involvement in boxing until I was in my mid 20s.
“I started boxing in 1997 at Alan Mortlake’s gym in east London. His son, Sean, runs the IBA unlicensed shows and I had two fights on those, winning both by first-round knockout. They nicknamed me ‘The Dentist’. I was approached to turn pro, but I knew nothing about boxing, just how to swing.
“So I joined the Lynn boxing club, had five amateur fights, losing just one to an Army guy. I then had five pro fights and won them all without a trainer. But I got injured and was already in my late 20s, going up against kids who’d been boxing since they were nine, 10 years old, whereas I had no teacher.”
Pastime quickly moved to passion, then obsession. “I come from an educated family — I’ve got GCSEs and went to the London School of Accountancy myself — and, even as a novice amateur, I started to question traditional training methods,” he said.
“Firstly, I didn’t like getting punched in the face ’cause I was a good-looking boy [laughs]! Yet so-called trainers were encouraging kids to punch each other hard in the face in sparring, just to get fit.
“In martial arts, the sensei always taught techniques before allowing free fighting. Traditionally, you’re taught, you revise, then you sit the exam. You don’t sit the exam, then go back and revise. It didn’t make sense.
‘So I started studying the science required and I’d spend up to 19 hours a day analysing tapes of top world champions — Chavez, Hopkins, Cotto.
“My dad was a partner in an accountancy firm and he employed me. But, as soon as I got to work, I’d switch the computer on and study boxing. One day, dad burst into my office, caught me and delivered an ultimatum. That same day, I left the firm. Dad allowed me to go in my direction, funded my idea.
“At the start of my dream, others warned: ‘Only one per cent of boxing trainers make money.’ I replied: ‘Then I will be that one per cent.’ The goal that you choose in life has to be something you’re passionate about. Then money should follow.”
While Yarde’s meteoric rise has significantly heightened Ajayi’s standing, closer scrutiny of his resume over the past 12 years confirms he is no one-hit wonder.
“From nothing, I took Junior MacDonald, a tech guy from Hewlett Packard, to the ABA final where he was outpointed by Tony Bellew,” he said. “After the ABAs, Junior wanted to go pro but insisted I train him, so I took out a professional licence and started building the system.
“I took Kevin Mitchell to 16-0 and on the way to being something special. Under me, he never got hit. Akaash Bhatia, Grant Skehill [who both had winning pro records], Ohara Davies all came through me but left because jealous people whispered: ‘You’ll never become champion just doing pad work.’ Perhaps doubt crept in — but why doubt yourself when you never lost a fight with me? If you leave, it’s because you’re weak. You’ve let someone break your will.
“The low spot was when [prospect] Junior Saba left. I was effectively his ‘dad’ from the age of 11. After, I was so upset I applied to Uber to be a minicab driver — only for Yarde to walk into our gym.
“Today, I will only train a fighter I manage. At one time, I had about 16 in the gym — good guys like Romeo Romaeo, Craig Richards, Daniel Dubois, Ahmet Patterson — but I gave them an ultimatum: Sign a manager’s contract with me or leave. I wasn’t going to build them only for them to go elsewhere later for more money. Only Anthony stayed.”
Detractors whisper that, far from being innovative, Ajayi merely mimics the mitt routines made fashionable by Team Mayweather over the past 20 years.
Since befriending The Money Team during a UK tour in 2009, Ajayi has made annual pilgrimages to their Las Vegas base.
However, he is adamant that he does things his way.
“In Vegas, I meticulously studied Floyd Sr and Roger but I follow nobody,” he said. “The visits to Vegas simply validated what I already knew.
“One time, after earlier being wobbled, Ohara stopped [current WBO junior welter champion] Maurice Hooker in a spar when their gym was packed. Later, Anthony Yarde dominated Andrew Tabiti [now 16-0] at Floyd’s gym and Junior Saba bossed [lightweight prospect] Ladarius Miller. My system was dominating the Mayweather system!
“But we did get a good business education from the Money Team. I turned my ‘Stamina for Sale, System 9’ brand into a limited company and now we merchandise tracksuits, T-shirts, caps. Supplements are in the pipeline. People still haven’t accepted yet what I bring to the sport. But there’s something inside me, inherited from my dad, whereby I can’t be moved. Criticism is like an itch on my foot.
“Early on, I’d spend hours on Facebook and Instagram trying to convince people I had something others didn’t and occasionally, the street in me would surface and I’d say: ‘Fuck you!’ Now I keep quiet. Floyd broke all records in boxing and business yet still some downplay his achievements?
“Others’ perception of me is irrelevant. Validation can only come from myself. When I close my eyes for the final time, I want it to be with a positive affirmation that I went down as the best.
“Anthony is the golden child who will validate me. All he has to do is win a world title. I built him from scratch. Then, they’ll have to give me credit."
Today, “The Beast” from Ilford serves as Ajayi’s sole project. While Yarde is unquestionably blessed with the genetic speed and explosive power of a thoroughbred athlete — he had trials at QPR and was a sub-11-second 100m sprinter — it can’t be coincidental that Ajayi has navigated him to the higher echelons of both the WBO and IBF rankings after just 42 pro rounds.
“Through his hard work and success, Anthony has earned the right to have me alone,” Ajayi said. ‘Besides, an A level teacher doesn’t teach GCSE kids. Ant is so far advanced into my system that others couldn’t keep up with us physically or mentally. They’d become ill.
“Anyone under ‘System 9’ for a certain period will become a puncher, but Anthony could already switch opponents off when he first came.
“However, there’s a misconception that he’s just a monster puncher and all the other contenders have more skills than him. That’s only because Anthony hasn’t come out of first gear yet. Down the road, against elite opposition, you’ll see the best skills ever from him.
“When Anthony first started with me, he had this Mike Tyson ‘destroy’ mindset, but was very vulnerable to a left hook. Today, you ain’t catching Anthony with nothing.
“We’re already the best fighter in Britain. I see Anthony Yarde going down as the best fighter pound-for-pound from anywhere.
“When it happens, there’s gonna be an awful lot of egg on an awful lot of faces!”