Opinion | Aug 22 2019

A picture of Sergey Kovalev

Terry Dooley considers the intangible factors that could favour Anthony Yarde against Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev can box as well as brawl Mikey Williams/Top Rank

IN Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray the beautiful title character looks at a portrait of himself and wonders what it would be like if the image aged and decayed instead of him. Wish granted, Gray pursues a libertine life of hedonism, crime and corruption, with the figure in the painting eroding over time while he remains agelessly handsome.

By the end (and spoiler alert here for a book that was written in the late-1800s), Gray becomes unhappy with the murderous (Spoiler alert: he kills someone) path that his vanity led him down so he decides to destroy the now grotesque image portrayed in the painting. Once he has done this his sins collapse in on him as he ages rapidly and dies — the rings on his fingers are the only means of identifying the body.

It is a metaphor for many things — Victorian-era pursuit of illicit pleasures while maintaining a certain moral public standing, for starters — but could also perhaps be used as a metaphor for the careers of fighters who failed to live the life between fights.

A lot of fighters live it up between fights, we cannot expect them to live like monks when many of us don’t, yet a 12 week training camp can wash away a lot of sins. You detox, get fit again, and before too long the Christmas tree is back on your back. 

For example, Ricky Hatton enjoyed himself between fights then showed phenomenal dedication to training once he was back in the gym. Miguel Cotto was rumoured to enjoy some epic refuelling sessions between contests. The same has been said of Sergey Kovalev (33-3-1, 28 KOs), who meets London’s Anthony Yarde (18-0, 17 KOs) in a WBO light-heavyweight defence in Chelyabinsk, Russia on Saturday night.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the fight is that on paper there is no real reason why people should be fascinated by it. Yarde is well out of his depth, trained by either an eccentric or a fanatic in Tunde Ajayi, and should be a fairly routine opponent for a man of Kovalev’s experience, power, and talent. This is exactly how a lot of people see it. 

Those who do not see it this way and/or are picking Yarde for the win — I admit to being one of them — are resting their opinion, there is not enough to go by for it to be a prediction, on a lot of intangibles. Or one big one to be precise: Kovalev is going to come apart at the age of 36 and his body will let him down. 

It is even stranger when you take into account the fact that “Krusher” looked rejuvenated in his rematch with Eleider Alvarez in February, even showcasing the skills that some people had forgotten he possessed en route to a wide decision win.

A lot, if not all, of the pro-Yarde thinking, as opposed to the picks made on blind faith, stretches back to Kovalev’s stoppage loss to Andre Ward in their rematch in June 2017. Their first fight had been too close to call, with the second seemingly heading the same way with the main difference being the emphasis Ward placed on landing to the body and Kovalev’s reaction to it.

It is easy to say the American low blowed his way to a controversial win. Wrong, but easy. The reality was that he deliberately targeted Kovalev’s body to the point that he ran a real risk of losing points, which would have been crucial if it had gone the distance again, or getting disqualified for straying low. 

In reality, he picked out some great, legal body shots and with each one you could see the quit creeping into Kovalev. It was no real surprise, then, when the fight ended in round eight. Ward landed a great right to the head and further shots left Kovalev creased and looking sorry enough for himself to prompt referee Tony Weeks to jump in. 

Those who believe it was a controversial ending argue that Weeks should have offered Kovalev more protection. Others contended that Kovalev should have protected himself by fighting fire with fire, as Hatton did in round nine against Kostya Tszyu. Whatever your take, it appeared clear that Kovalev had lost something that night and was going to cop another bad loss in a fight or two, and he did when losing by seventh-round KO to Alvarez just over a year later.

Ward is a clever fighter. Is it more likely that he just decided to wing to the body a bit more on spec or that he saw and felt something in Kovalev during the course of the first fight? I believe it is the latter, and that what he sussed out was that his opponent does not live the life between fights and that this could be exploited. Ward is too calculating to leave things to chance. 

Sergey Kovalev
Kovalev struggles with Andre Ward Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Roc Nation Sports

Fighters like Kovalev rely on their aura, engine, and the ability to bring a high-intensity, skilful edge when in their prime. Like Hatton, it is a young man’s style as well as one that should go hand-in-hand with a steadier life outside of the ropes, although Hatton always argued that enjoying his life away from boxing helped him apply himself when he got back in the gym. It also earned him a lot of fans. They both have major differences while having fundamental things in common.

Towards the end, Hatton lacked the intensity of his prime and despite burning brightly one last time against Paulie Malignaggi he was blown away by Manny Pacquiao (and yes, Manny’s name itself is a massive asterix over that statement as he blew most people away at his best). A comeback a few years later against Vyacheslav Senchenko ended badly as “The Hitman” looked the part physically only to be taken out in nine with the type of body shot he would have been proud of himself. 

Glenn McCrory said it best when it became clear that Mike Tyson was going to be dismantled by Lennox Lewis in June 2002. The former cruiserweight IBF titlist stated that you cannot wipe away years of bad living with one good training camp. Kovalev isn’t on a younger Tyson’s lifestyle level, but there are rumours that he does enjoy, and earns the right to enjoy, a few too many drinks between fights. The problem is that it does end up catching up with you, in boxing and in life.

Most truly great fighters peak twice. Their first is that mercurial physical peak when you can overcome mistakes with athleticism or dexterity. Then, like a fine wine, they settle and refine over time and learn to cope with the effects of age. It is a bit like life. We all probably made loads of mistakes in our 20s only to brush them aside. In our 30s and 40s it isn’t quite as easy to do this.

Returning to Kovalev, it could be the case that Ward spotted something and exploited it, and you cannot unring that bell if that is the case, or there are huge question marks over the wins and that the loss to Alvarez was a blip. It is what makes what should be a cakewalk against Yarde a lot more interesting than it should be.

On paper, a dominant win is expected, and it would be even better for Kovalev’s fans if he boxes his way to it. A lot of questions have been thrown up in the air by this fight, waiting for the answers to come through is what makes it a must-watch event.

With talk of Saul Alvarez as a future opponent, the big hope for Kovalev fans must be that he is entering that second prime we mentioned earlier. That he still has it physically, mentally, and tactically. If he shows this on Saturday night it will make the Alvarez fight much more of an interesting prospect, even though he will get hammered at the negotiating table by the Mexican. 

For Yarde, and I have to acknowledge and thank Ant AKA @captheadboard for this one, it would be an immense win, not to mention fairly ironic if he were to travel to Russia and rise to prominence by beating Kovalev, which would be the opposite of Kovalev bursting onto the scene by beating Nathan Cleverly in Wales in 2013. 

All will be revealed. 

(Insert generic Rocky IV reference, pun or joke here.)

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