Sergey Kovalev has always had tremendous boxing ability but, until recently, it has been largely masked behind his persona as the “Krusher” and a fearsome reputation built on a foundation of vicious punching power and an openly stated desire to punish his opponents. But since joining forces with Buddy McGirt last year, Kovalev has shed all illusions about where he now stands in a stacked light heavyweight division. He clearly understands that he’s the older, battle-worn warrior in a younger man’s division, a boxer now particularly vulnerable to close-range, physical scraps. Thus, with McGirt’s guidance, he’s transcended his “Krusher” persona, in its place adopting a more tactical and risk-averse style that emphasizes solid fundamentals and technical ability.
After all, this is the undeniable narrative that came out of his unexpectedly virtuoso performance against Eleider Alvarez in January, as Kovalev turned the tables on the fighter who had appeared to put an end to the “Krusher” in August of 2018. However, many critics were not completely sold on the notion of Kovalev’s resurrection based on the 35-year-old Alvarez’s less-than-inspired effort to retain his title, and so questions remained about a 36-year-old Kovalev’s viability as a shop-worn veteran in a division newly populated with fresh faces such as Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Dmitry Bivol.
So who better to take on in order to put the lie to such sentiments than Anthony Yarde, the unbeaten mandatory contender who had stopped 17 of his 18 opponents and whose buff upper body reminded fight fans of a prime Ken Norton? How Yarde can even make 175 pounds is an open question, but what wasn’t questionable was his sheer physical strength, or the 28-year-old’s confident nature, as his oozing bravado clearly resonated with his British fans via the power of social media. There was no reason a young prospect like Yarde, who had never faced a quality opponent, should come into a veteran champion’s home country less than a two-to-one underdog, but nonetheless Yarde did, and even some serious boxing experts entertained the idea of an upset.
But for Yarde to prevail, he had to find a way inside Kovalev’s spearing jab to bring his muscular frame into play and rough up the veteran long enough to win a war of attrition. But despite Yarde’s physical talents and polished boxing skills, it wasn’t clear whether the Brit could carry the fight to Kovalev down the stretch, especially considering that Yarde had yet to compete past seven rounds. While Kovalev shouldered his share of doubts and concerns over both his late-round ability and his resilience to body punches, he had showed in the Alvarez rematch that he was comfortable pacing himself by boxing with discipline and taking fewer risks.
Even so, Yarde got off to a promising start early, surprising many by connecting at range with quick-handed counter shots that found their way around the the Russian’s left hand. But it didn’t take long for Kovalev’s superb timing to nullify that success, as the champion’s vaunted jab began to offset Yarde’s attempts to potshot and counter, giving Kovalev a lead early on.
In fact, Yarde’s key mistake in the bout was his attempt to beat the champion at his own game and engage in a chess match he wasn’t qualified to be in. Remember, besting Kovalev in a war of wits was something Andre Ward couldn’t even manage to do, as the “Krusher” is simply too crafty, awkward and dangerous to subdue at long range. But working inside of Kovalev’s defenses was just not in Yarde’s playbook, as the Briton’s trainer, Tunde Ajayi, had tutored him in the Floyd Mayweather mode, as opposed to letting his inexperienced charge develop a style of his own, not to mention one more suited to his imposing physicality. Even worse was that Ajayi failed to instill a sense of urgency into Yarde between rounds, appearing content with his man surrendering a solid points lead, presumably in the hope that the older man would eventually tire and cave to the younger man’s superior athleticism.
In short, Yarde’s corner was a mess, and by the middle rounds both trainer and fighter appeared to have no answers to the question of an aging but crafty veteran who, instead of tiring and crumbling, was building momentum with each passing minute. Yarde’s proclivity towards single shot counters and potshots just wasn’t enough as the champion began to widen the aperture and incorporate hard straight rights into his offense in addition to piercing jabs.
But then, unexpectedly, Yarde began to find success in round seven by walking down Kovalev and attacking the body, forcing Sergey to hold on and suspend his prolific left lead. And in round eight the tables turned dramatically as it was Yarde letting his hands go and landing big shots while Kovalev’s hourglass looked to be running out again. It was an all-too-familiar scene as “Krusher” appeared on the verge of being crushed for the third time in three years. Yarde pressed, letting his hands go and looking for the kill, but fatigue was now a factor for the bigger man as he was forced to give up on his best chance to humble Kovalev in front of his fellow Russians and score a career-defining victory.
Between rounds, trainer McGirt, clearly alarmed by the sight of his fighter taking so many clean blows, told Kovalev that if he didn’t return to form in round nine, he would stop the fight. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise for anyone who followed Maxim Dadashev’s recent tragedy, as McGirt unfortunately waved the white flag in that match when it was too late to save the fallen Russian warrior.
Whether it was McGirt’s words, or the extra grit that perhaps comes from giving up all those shaky pretenses about being a “Krusher” and now knowing who you really are, who can say, but, amazingly, in round nine Kovalev looked sharper and fresher as he got back on his toes and tattooed Yarde from a distance, that long left jab back in the younger man’s face. And late in round ten, Kovalev the boxer transitioned back into Kovalev the “Krusher,” as the champion cornered Yarde, pounding away with a fusillade of heavy punches before the challenger — clearly exhausted after eating so many clean shots in the longest fight of his career — was saved by the bell.
At this point only the most ardent of Yarde’s fans couldn’t see that it was just a matter of time before Sergey closed the show, but before the bell for round eleven McGirt urged the champion to pursue with caution. The former champion knew that wounded tigers are often dangerous, and just as Buddy predicted, Yarde came out at the bell with a desperate attack, a final attempt to land a knockout blow. But Kovalev, while badly fatigued, maintained his composure and didn’t allow the roar of the crowd to force him back into the reckless habits that had cost him heavily in the past. He waited Yarde out, touched him up at range, and ultimately produced a poetic ending to the fight with his most reliable weapon: the jab.
It took boxing pundits a little while to think of the last time they saw a jab end a fight by knockout, especially in a high-profile title match. Kovalev has scored knockdowns with the jab, which in his case could better be described as a straight left given how he often throws it. But to take out a gritty, strong lion like Yarde with boxing’s most fundamental punch was still a very impressive way to close the show.
The win reinforced the narrative of Kovalev’s rejuvenation under McGirt’s tutelage, the aging boxer putting away old habits and distractions to give fans two of his most complete performances in years, back-to-back. The question now looms as to how the new, more cerebral and inspired version of Kovalev will fare against his fellow titlists at 175, all of whom make up one of the most dangerous divisions in the sport. But before he does, Sergey will likely find himself squaring off against boxing’s cash cow in Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. It will be an extremely risky match for both men, but with Canelo moving up two weight classes to challenge for Kovalev’s belt, the “Krusher” clearly has more to lose.
Meanwhile, for Yarde, just getting in the ring with Kovalev at this stage in his development speaks volumes for his confidence and determination. And despite taking on one of boxing’s most accomplished fighters in his home country, Yarde put on the kind of gutsy, courageous effort that will resonate with fans for years to come. That said, Yarde will definitely be doing himself a disservice if he doesn’t seek out a new trainer, especially given how talent-rich the training pool is in the UK.
“You have a great future, believe me,” Kovalev stated to Yarde before telling Steve Bunce that his young opponent will, without a doubt, go on to become a world champion. But then his next words weren’t about Yarde or anyone else, but about himself and his awareness of what he must do to take full advantage of the time he has left, as he admitted that he can’t afford to “lose anymore.”
“Right now, I got the right training camp, right life, right everything that I do,” he declared. It was enough to make some of us wonder if, despite being 36-years-old with two recent stoppage losses, Sergey Kovalev is everything but an old man in a young man’s sport. Maybe, just maybe, he is, once again, the man to beat in one of boxing’s best weight classes. —Alden Chodash