AS revealing as the performance itself, the look on Anthony Yarde’s face in the aftermath of defeat to Artur Beterbiev said it all, both in terms of how close he had come and the competitive nature of his mindset.
For despite having pushed Beterbiev close, and despite being ahead on two of the three scorecards at the time he was stopped in round eight, Yarde was clearly not content with just doing well; nearly, but not quite. Instead, such is his confidence and faith in his own ability, and indeed so heroic was his performance tonight (January 28), Yarde left Wembley Arena feeling both proud to have enhanced his reputation, even in defeat, yet crestfallen to have ultimately failed in his mission.
That, forget the performance itself, is an example of elite mentality. That, as far as attitude is concerned, probably goes some way to explaining, too, why Yarde, against the odds, was able to do to Artur Beterbiev what nobody else has been able to do in the Russian’s 19-fight professional career.
He had said he would, but nobody believed him, as tends to be the case in such matters. Yarde, after all, was not only a significant underdog going into his light-heavyweight title challenge against Beterbiev tonight but was also someone who had already come up short against a Russian destroyer in 2019, when bravely venturing to that part of the world only to succumb to Sergey Kovalev inside 11 rounds. Since that night Yarde, 23-3 (22), had no doubt improved and matured, and yet nothing on his record, or for that matter in his performances, suggested he had what it would take to unsettle, much less defeat, someone in Beterbiev who is considered one of the hardest punchers in the world right now.
Still, though, Yarde remained confident in his own ability and, based on the evidence he produced in round one at Wembley, it was more than just pre-fight talk. For as early as the opening round, though he appeared full of nervous energy and at times frantic, Yarde was punching with Beterbiev, therefore not yet scared into his shell, and was even managing to highlight the Russian’s predictable movements by catching him often with a clever check hook.
This pattern then continued in the second, albeit this time Beterbiev got a little closer to Yarde, as he knew he needed to, and pinned him in the corner at one stage before cracking Yarde with a right hand which appeared to stun him. Nevertheless, Yarde came back immediately with a solid left hook and left uppercut of his own, readdressing the balance and preventing Beterbiev, someone unaccustomed to an opponent biting back, from ramping up the ferocity of his own onslaught.
By round three, meanwhile, it was clear both that Yarde was looking to utilise speed and tame Beterbiev with left hook counters and that Beterbiev knew the key to hurting Yarde would lie in his ability to trap him in corners.
Both, of course, went about executing these respective game plans in the third, just as they had done in rounds one and two, and it was Beterbiev who now got the better of things. The economy of his punches – always wasting very little – allowed him to forever be in position to pull the trigger with maximum power whenever he sensed the opportunity had arrived and one body short, in particular, backed Yarde up in the third.
Yarde, for his part, realised the key to remaining in the fight in these moments was to not cower, as so many naturally do, but instead show Beterbiev that he could not simply walk in unopposed and do to Yarde whatever he so wished. In other words, every time Beterbiev would rev his engine and start to move, Yarde would go with him and offer something back, crucial as far as gaining respect from his opponent.
It was a risky, ballsy strategy, too. For every time Yarde responded in this way he would obviously leave himself vulnerable to anything Beterbiev may have been throwing at the same time. This, in fact, would become apparent throughout, never more so than in the fifth round, arguably the best of the fight.
It was in that round Yarde made the first dent in his opponent, forcing him back with a heavy right, and continued to then apply the pressure through much of it. Suddenly in his presence Beterbiev appeared reluctant, hesitant, and found himself moving a lot, typically on the back foot. There were more Yarde punches to follow, too: a counter hook as Beterbiev came in; another right which had the crowd rising in their seats.
Then, of course, Beterbiev just as soon landed something heavy of his own and the roles were quickly reversed, as was common frequently during the fight. In this round, for instance, Beterbiev pinned Yarde in a corner, where he unloaded with a number of thudding punches, and for a few seconds it seemed as though Yarde would never escape; fated to end the fight there, smothered until he was stopped. But even then, with Yarde under fire, he responded admirably, catching Beterbiev with something strong enough to make him think and cut him some slack just as he started to get excited.
That was not the end of it, either. So compelling was that fifth round, in fact, there was still one more momentum swing left in it, with Yarde once again going after Beterbiev with the finish in mind and Beterbiev once again turning him on the ropes and landing a monstrous uppercut just before the bell.
It was, needless to say, about as good as it gets in boxing, that round. It also represented the perfect microcosm of the fight itself: two men giving as good as they got, both with the power to hurt the other and both knowing that to surrender momentum – or simply back down – was to effectively wave the white flag.
Knowledge of this, a shared knowledge, made for a brutal next few rounds, no different than the previous five. Come the sixth, both were by now marked up: Yarde was cut under the right eye; Beterbiev under the left. Moreover, as they touched these wounds with their gloves, both dabbing at them, they knew that to have a slower round, as the sixth proved to be, was in some ways every bit as dangerous as instigating yet another barbaric one. After all, unless it is mutual – that is, unless both have agreed to take a round off – there is always the possibility that one man’s patience is another man’s opportunity, especially in a fight in which one punch could change everything and every punch thrown had the potential to do exactly that.
In the seventh, with the fight now level on my card, Yarde started fast, targeting the Beterbiev body as soon as he was released from his corner. He also showed impressive speed with his jab, an important punch throughout, and appeared to be getting more and more confident, perhaps buoyed by the fact he was not only landing shots freely in the fight but that he had also, it seemed, taken some of Beterbiev’s best for six rounds. Beating his chest now, hungry for more, he duly received it, too, swallowing a Beterbiev uppercut as they traded and finding himself once more surrounded in a corner with apparently nowhere to go.
As usual, though, Yarde found a way. He found a way to shock Beterbiev with shots of his own – this time a right hand and some body shots, as well as, a little later, a nasty uppercut – and he found a way to escape, doing so only when the time was right and he could make a clean break. This left Beterbiev, again, largely unfulfilled as he returned to his corner ahead of reloading for the eighth.
It is perhaps a mark of Yarde’s performance tonight that the finish, which did indeed arrive in the eighth, came as a shock despite our knowledge of Beterbiev’s incredible one-punch power and, furthermore, the gruelling nature of the previous seven rounds we had witnessed. It was shocking, on the one hand, because Yarde, up to that point, had shown no signs of wilting or regression and was still very much in the fight; leading, in fact, on two of the three scorecards. Also, so shocking and damaging is Beterbiev’s power, the first thought when it finally makes a breakthrough is not one that pertains to winning and losing anymore but instead is a thought more concerned with the health of the man on the receiving end, both in the fight and beyond that.
It was maybe for this reason Tunde Ajayi, Yarde’s compassionate coach, readied his white towel upon seeing his fighter, this man he has known since he was boy, get struck by a Beterbiev right and find himself spiralling towards the canvas in round eight. It was maybe for this reason, too, Ajayi, despite Yarde’s willingness to continue and the referee Steve Gray’s willingness to let him, took matters into his hands in order to guarantee his fighter wouldn’t have to take further punishment.
By then, it’s true, he had taken enough. More importantly, though, Yarde had given enough. He had given more than anyone expected him to give and he had given more than anyone before him had ever given Artur Beterbiev, 19-0 (19), in pursuit of both victory and his belts.
Emptied now, seemingly in an instant, it was at the two minutes and one second mark of the eighth round that Anthony Yarde’s second gallant title challenge would eventually end. And yet, in so many ways, it was at that exact same moment the 31-year-old Londoner’s career as a legitimate, world-class light-heavyweight truly began.