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August 28, 2020

Sergey Kovalev TKO11 Anthony Yarde: Vindication

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was originally published on on August 27th, 2019:

Sergey Kovalev, defending in his hometown against undefeated English upstart Anthony Yarde, was an intriguing match-up on paper and one that brought out the full spectrum of predictions. Some asserted assuredly that Yarde, at 18-0 but with few recognizable names on his record, had no business in the ring with the seasoned Russian and would be badly exposed. Others, swayed perhaps by a mixture of Yarde’s obvious athletic potential, his team’s immense confidence, and various personal and pugilistic chinks apparent in the Russian’s armour, insisted the Englishman would pull off one of the great British upsets on away soil.

With punters confidently banking on either extreme – the championship pedigree of the Russian vs. the unknown limits of Yarde’s potential – a chorus of smug “I-told-you-sos” was likely to follow regardless of the outcome. In the end, those who had boldly placed their faith in Yarde’s combination of talent and power being enough to overcome his lack of experience, and those who had banked against it, were in a sense both vindicated. Kovalev’s superior skills and ring savvy was decisive when all was said and done, but anyone claiming they made easy money on his victory is lying if they told you their heartrate didn’t go through the roof in the eighth round.

The action started fairly quietly, with both men jockeying for position and control in the centre of the ring. Yarde stood in his distinctive “Mayweather-esque” stance, left hand dangling low by his side, and sought to counter with fast left hooks. Kovalev was simply more effective with his higher guard and busier, accurate jabs, though Yarde did get through with a right hand to the body towards the end of the first round, indicating what could be one of his most promising avenues to victory.

In the second Kovalev continued to edge forward and found further success with his jab, as Yarde mostly missed the target with counter left hooks and neglected his right hand. “Get your rhythm, don’t force the right hand,” urged Buddy McGirt, Kovalev’s trainer, between rounds.

The action heated up a notch in the third and fourth. Yarde came with a bit more intent in the third and began letting the right hand go now and again, adding a few combinations into his work. The challenger was keeping things competitive, and despite never pulling ahead, he displayed glimpses of the speed and athleticism that had led many to predict an upset. In the fourth, Kovalev also began to let his right hand go more, unleashing some impressive two-fisted salvos, and though he hadn’t established a truly dominant position to this point, the champion’s accuracy and work rate was doing the scoring in every round.

Between the fourth and fifth McGirt again advised Kovalev to focus on his most effective weapon, the jab, cleverly reminding him to make full use of the target area, aiming for arms, shoulders, the chest – whatever was available. “Hit him anywhere [with the jab] … don’t worry about the head.”

Yarde finally began to make more use of the right hand early in the fifth, landing a couple of decent shots and pressing the action, and the first tell-tale signs of fatigue appeared as both men began widening their mouths to suck up extra oxygen. Yarde was determined and found limited success again towards the end, throwing out some snappy body shots and right hands, but Kovalev, taking McGirt’s astute advice, had worked the left up and down beautifully to control the majority of the round. In the sixth the champion really started to find his groove, timing more and more shots and dictating the range as the challenger’s movements became more lethargic. Yarde just couldn’t do anything to get out of the way of Kovalev’s jab and ended the session 6-0 down.

Needing to re-assert himself in the contest, the Englishman started positively in the seventh, landing a good counter left. In his best round so far, the Brit continued to push forward, still catching some on the way, but being busier with the right hand and finding a home for some strong, eye-catching hooks to the body. For the first time in the fight Kovalev exhibited subtle signs of distress and looked the more tired of the two.

Then came a wild, pivotal eighth round. Just under a minute in, Yarde landed a thudding left hook to the body that got the champ’s attention. Pushing Kovalev back, the challenger suddenly found some pep in his step, rolling and ripping home left hooks and right hands. Two minutes into the round Yarde cracked home a big right, and Kovalev was badly hurt. Yarde sensed his moment and unloaded a volley of left and right hooks as the champion swayed and rocked around the ring, surviving rather than fighting back with any meaningful counters. With 20 seconds left Yarde threw a huge left hook, missed, and almost tumbled over the top rope under the weight of his own momentum – an indication of just how much energy he’d expended in the attack. Seconds later the bell to end the round would’ve sounded like a symphony to Kovalev’s ears, and Buddy McGirt left no room for doubt about the seriousness of the crisis unfolding during the interval: “If you take more shots like that this round, I’m stopping it.”

Kovalev had faced this kind of crises before against Andre Ward and Eleider Alvarez, but on both occasions, had failed to regroup and lost via stoppage. In Yarde’s case, he had never been beyond seven rounds, and every other opponent he’d had in such dire straits had been finished off. Here was the single most critical moment then, not just in this contest, but very possibly both men’s careers. Their own ring experience coupled with the guidance offered from their corners was therefore vital, and the contrast was stark. “The ninth round I said ‘just go out there and empty the tank’… it wasn’t a thing where you start thinking of a game plan midway through the fight. You revise for the exam, you take the exam, and then it is what it is,” stated Yarde’s trainer, Tunde Ajayi, in the aftermath of the fight.

Tired from the onslaught unleashed in the eighth and probably a little bit too drunk on his own success, Yarde came out in the ninth and seemed to forget he still had a live world-class boxer in front of him. Following Kovalev around the ring and looking for single shots rather than probing intelligently for more gaps and luring Kovalev onto punches, he neglected the body work that had created the openings so effectively in the previous round as he struggled to get a second wind. On the other hand, Kovalev appeared to have learned some crucial survival lessons from the Ward and Alvarez fights and once again benefitted hugely from Buddy McGirt’s precise instructions in the corner. Staying on the outside, moving and boxing to a game plan, soon Kovalev couldn’t miss again with the jab, tattooing Yarde with fast combos and boxing masterfully to regain the ascendancy. One sensed Yarde’s big opportunity had passed him by.

In the tenth, you could almost see Yarde’s legs growing more leaden by the minute. Still following Kovalev around the ring, there was no finesse to his work anymore and Kovalev, though clearly fighting the effects of exhaustion himself, at least managed to keep sight of the tactics he needed to win the fight. With his head snapping back almost every time Kovalev threw a shot and his tank running on fumes, this time it was Yarde saved by the bell as a resurgent Krusher pummelled him in a corner.

There’s a good argument that Yarde should have been pulled out at this juncture. He was clearly exhausted and shipping punishment, but then again, in fairness to his corner, having had Kovalev so badly hurt and on the brink of defeat, it was not in the realm of the impossible that another good shot would turn the tide back in their favour. Sadly, for Yarde and the away fans, it was not to be though.

As the fighters mauled on the inside in the eleventh, Kovalev pushed and Yarde fell over, heavily. He rose, eyes swollen and lungs burning, but by now he was completely drained and Kovalev was finding him with virtually everything he threw. Bouncing up and down in attempt to summon some life into his weary legs again, Yarde went to throw a wide left hook, but it was too slow and predictable and he was easily beaten to the punch. Perhaps fittingly, it was Kovalev’s straight left jab – the same punch that had caused so many problems throughout the fight – that crashed into Yarde’s jaw and sent him onto his back, more from sheer exhaustion than from the weight of the shot itself. Referee Luis Pabon began to issue a count, but the challenger was completely spent. Kovalev walked away and raised his arms in a mixture of celebration and relief.

This victory was especially satisfying for Kovalev and his team, given the legitimate concerns that his previous defeats were precipitated by a “bully” mentality lurking underneath the Krusher’s mean persona. Given Kovalev’s history, how close he came to defeat here, and his apparent vulnerability to the body again, it’s hard to deny there is at least some truth to the idea that he doesn’t take punishment nearly as well as he dishes it out. That said, this performance surely dispelled the notion that he lacks heart in the ring. On this night, both men showed real mettle, but the Krusher’s combination of will to win, educated aggression and ring generalship came out on top.

“Experience played a big part, I feel like he paced himself a lot better,” admitted Yarde, in his post-fight interview. A gracious Kovalev interjected and congratulated the challenger on a great performance, praising his ring IQ and his heart. “You have a great future, believe me,” proffered the winner. “I won by experience, and because I’m Sergey Kovalev, ‘Krusher’, you know. I can’t lose anymore. Enough! Right now I [have] got the right training camps, right life, right everything what I do, every day right now.”

In the end, both fighters received a form of vindication here. Kovalev demonstrated the kind of character in the heat of battle he’d previously lacked when the going got tough, whereas Yarde was competitive against a bona fide world champion and showed that he is capable of much more than fancy pad work. Kovalev’s superb, piercing jab, an astute game plan facilitated by Buddy McGirt, and his overall experience may have won him the fight; Yarde’s inability to deal with the jab, lack of a precise game plan and overall inexperience may have cost him a memorable victory. All in all though, this could be considered each man’s most impressive feat in the ring to date, as both came away with their reputations enhanced.


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