This evening (Russian time), an evening still in the future in Britain and the U.S., Sergey Kovalev turned the trick on the game and promising Anthony Yarde in a terrific back and forth clash between youth and experience. One of the iconic conventions of professional boxing are those inevitable crossroads battles between long standing, established champions, and fresher, younger fighters on the rise. This matchup had all of those elements in surplus, as well as a stark contrast of personality and culture.
Kovalev, fighting in front of an excited hometown crowd in Chelyabinsk Russia, had an extra incentive, a “money-shot” against the biggest draw in the sport, Middleweight Champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, hanging in the balance. It’s no secret that Kovalev is Alvarez’s opponent of choice. For the Russian, near the end of his career, an Alvarez fight represents the prizefighting equivalent of holding a winning lottery ticket. Kovalev-Alvarez would mean an eight-figure pay-day for Kovalev, by far the biggest of his career. In his way, however, was a cocky, talented, hard-hitting kid from London, Anthony Yarde, who wanted the Kovalev fight and refused to accept step-aside money to allow the Kovalev-Alvarez showdown. The stage was set.
Kovalev and Yarde started the fight carefully, both aware of the other’s punching power. Early on, the pattern was set, Yarde, inexperienced, but quicker. Kovalev’s jab, a punch he throws in a variety of ways, would be the dominant weapon from either man. The Russian didn’t rush in the early rounds, taking care not to run, chin first, into an errant bomb from the British fighter. For his part, Yarde fought competitively, but without the strategic assertiveness of an experienced pro. By the end of round 6, the heavily muscled Yarde, was starting to tire and Sergey Kovalev had begun to build a solid points lead. Going into round 7, the Russian seemed to be poised to roll. Yarde had different plans.
Yarde, who had never gone past round 7, and with the fight beginning to slip away, caught a bit of a second wind, simultaneously remembering that Kovalev had a body to punch–and a reputation for not liking to be punched there. In one of the two best rounds of the bout, Yarde turned the momentum around by coming forward and digging hard to the body. His body punches seemed to have an immediate effect on the champion and Kovalev went back to his corner having lost a round, clearly, for the first time in the fight. The Russian appeared to be the more fatigued of the two. Yarde, inspired by his success, opened round 8 determined to capitalize on his momentum. By the late part of the round, affected by Yarde’s body attack, the Russian looked like a balloon with the air rushing out. Yarde hurt Kovalev badly in the last minute of round 8 and battered him. Kovalev staggered around the ring, nearly going down–one punch away– and wobbled back to his corner at the bell, hurt, exhausted.
Anybody who’s followed boxing over the last 5 years, and is familiar with Sergey Kovalev, had every reason to expect that the fight was, essentially, over. Kovalev has been, at times, scary, devastating, more highly skilled than given credit for, etc., but has also developed, earned, a reputation as a front-runner. He did avenge his defeat to Eleider Alvarez, showing some measure of resolve, but he was on top all the way through the return affair. As a practical matter, both times that Kovalev has faced adversity, stern resistance and/or a stiff body attack, he has folded. Against both Ward and Alvarez, once he wasn’t on top, he was done. The book on Kovalev has been that he doesn’t come from behind, he packs it in. Following the 8th round, Anthony Yarde had Kovalev strapped in, seat in the layback position, ready to go. Fold City, here we come.
But the most unlikely thing happened. Whether it was pride, being in front of his hometown crowd, his family, the 10 million+ motivational reasons an Alvarez bout represented, or all of the above, Sergey Kovalev sucked it up. He came out for round 9, once again, flashing that superb, hurtful jab, throwing combinations and keeping Yarde on the outside. Kovalev won round 9 big and it was clear that the young, somewhat musclebound Yarde, was thoroughly gassed, completely spent from the effort expended in his round 7 and 8 assaults. Round 8 looked like the end for Kovalev, instead it turned out to be Yarde’s last stand.
The champion, blood grimly smeared across his white gloves, kept the pressure on Yarde through the 10th frame and into the 11th, always lancing him with that magnificent jab, until suddenly it was over. In the 11th, Yarde pivoted out of a corner while Kovalev threw a combination in pursuit, ending with, again, that jab. This time thrown as a straight-armed power punch, a move signature to Kovalev, and that was it. Yarde’s head snapped and he went down on his back, un-moving, no count was necessary. By knocking Anthony Yarde out with a jab, the same punch he’d dominated most of the fight with, Kovalev, bloody and battered himself, had a glorious, epic late career moment in front of his Chelyabinsk home crowd. This win had to be sweeter for Kovalev because he’d done what he wasn’t supposed to be able to do, come back from the brink of defeat, hurt, and exhausted, to turn back a younger, quicker and stronger opponent. For Sergey Kovalev, the contest with Yarde showed he did have at least some intestinal fortitude. Some grit. On the other side of the ring, Anthony Yarde had proven himself to be courageous, and a world class fighter, but one not ready for the top of his division. Kovalev dominated most of the fight, but Yarde acquitted himself well.
As for the future, and Kovalev, the potential showdown with Canelo Alvarez is still alive. Maybe even more likely. After watching Kovalev go life and death with Yarde, Alvarez probably wants the fight more than ever. Kovalev and Main Events want it, too. In a way, it is unfortunate that Kovalev showed his grit this late in his career. It’s clear now that Kovalev is a fighter in decline. He is not as quick as he once was. He is just as vulnerable to a body attack and tiring towards the middle rounds. He does still have that all-time great jab, but he relies on it much more because his fastball has lost some velocity. I think, at this point, he’d be the underdog against the other three 175 champions. And against Alvarez. I wouldn’t have given Alvarez a chance against the Sergey Kovalev of three years ago–too big, good and powerful, but right now, it’s a good fight for Canelo. Dangerous–Kovalev is still a very hard puncher, the bigger man and that jab is a tremendous weapon–but a good fight for Alvarez who is an elite body-puncher. There is every chance that tonight, was Kovalev’s last big moment.
For Yarde, the picture is less clear. The Londoner has obvious athletic ability, power and some potential. He’s plucky and showed heart. It isn’t easy to go into the heart of Russia to face Sergey Kovalev as your first world class opponent. He is also extremely raw. A lot was said about his trainer, and their practice of not sparring while training. I don’t claim to know that he needs a new trainer, but something needs tweaked. Off of tonight’s performance, I’d put him in the bottom half of the top ten at 175, and I think had he faced Beterbiev, Gvozdyk, Bivol or a Kovalev with a little more in the tank, he’d have lost worse than he did. Additionally, Yarde is musclebound for a fighter and endurance might always be an issue for him. He may develop, but he’s not close yet. Only time will tell.
In Chelyabinsk, it was bloody, at times brutal, back and forth, and for Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev it turned out to be a glorious homecoming. Bring on Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. That’s a fight anybody who follows the sport of boxing would like to see.