IN the end Anthony Yarde had nothing left and after 32 minutes of boxing he took one last desperate breath and started to launch his final punch when he was caught, dropped and beaten. Sergey Kovalev is still the WBO light-heavyweight champion.
The first part of Yarde’s “dream-believe” mantra was dismantled in Chelyabinsk by Kovalev long before the last punch; the hometown hero – his picture hangs in every building – was vicious, focused and calculating in equal measure from the first bell.
Did Yarde freeze in the first three or four rounds? Was the winner of 18 previous professional fights, each victory falling his way without having to break sweat, suddenly confronted with a man who refused to fall for his feints? Kovalev refused to sit on the ropes like a fat, battered duck in a target at a travelling fair and instead put together one, two and three jabs in rapid sequences. Sure, Yarde never panicked, that showed composure, but by the end of round four that is a strange badge of honour to consider an accomplishment. The fighting would come later, we just expected it sooner.
Up close and at ringside for this fight – I was given one of those rare positions in the modern boxing business and actually had my elbows on the edge of the fight canvas – it was clear how hard Kovalev was having to work to win some of the first six rounds clearly, and to nick a couple of the others. “He put me under a lot of pressure early in the fight,” Kovalev said. That is odd, because Yarde was moving into positions, letting a few shots go, but not really letting too many punches flow. Tunde Ajayi, in Yarde’s corner, broke his silence after a few rounds, but the pair seemed to lack the urgency they needed. They were calm, they expected Kovalev to fold, to panic, to gas. It looked like a bold, arrogant and foolish wish at the end of six rounds.
Tunde had been outspoken for months, confrontational, zealous in his belief in both Yarde and his training system. There were many in the game praying for a loss, a vindication for the old-school methods and a way to send Tunde back to gym obscurity, his training system in ruins. The hate in our business has always been a pitiful negative, but over the last few years the open jealousy has become truly toxic. However, at the end of six rounds, Yarde needed a kick-up the arse and not another neat soundbite.
The man in the other corner knew it.
“The jab is beautiful – double, triple it. Stay smart, Sergey,” said Buddy McGirt in Kovalev’s corner at the end of round six. That, my friend, is a sixth sense; in round seven a very different Yarde emerged, the Yarde many had expected and wanted a few rounds earlier.
Kovalev was breathing quite heavy in the seventh, not gassing, but just having to think a little bit more about his feet, his punches; he was sparing with any rights and shorter left hooks. Yarde was quick to sense a shorter shot, quick to pounce on a right that was lazy. Yarde put Kovalev under pressure in that last minute with punches that were mostly blocked. I thought it was Yarde’s first clear round. Kovalev had lost his composure worryingly. I never heard what McGirt said at the bell to end round seven, but I’m guessing it was not pleasant.
The fight so nearly ended in round eight and that is not hype. It was a round for the ages, a round to silence the impeccably behaved 7,500 inside the Traktor Palace Arena.
Kovalev, using the referee’s blind side, hit Yarde perfectly low, so low it echoed, and Yarde took a breath, refused a longer break. Kovalev wanted the break. Yarde then put the pressure on, took the risks, let his hands go, unwound his arms from the shoulder-roll position, gained some necessary freedom and had Kovalev out on his feet a couple of times in the last 65 seconds of the round. The referee, Luis Pabon, was poised to intervene right above my head at one point in what could have been the last seconds of Kovalev’s third reign as WBO champion. Kovalev was taking shots, rolling with some, getting whacked – the right word – to the body and the bell was a relief. Yarde had actually slowed in the last 10 seconds, he had thrown so many punches. There were screams at ringside from Yarde’s tiny crew, including Frank Warren. Another Yarde round, but more than that the fight had changed. However, Yarde, we now know, had nothing left.
McGirt was a dreaded mix of fury and fear in Kovalev’s corner and for good reason. In July he pulled out his fighter Maxim Dadashev after 11 rounds of a brawl with Subriel Matias. Dadashev was on his feet, but reeling, not responding. McGirt put his hand on Dadashev’s face and shook his own head. “It’s over, Maxim.” It was – Dadashev died four days later from injuries sustained in that fight. McGirt nearly saved his life. In Chelyabinsk he must have looked at Kovalev and had the darkest of boxing’s thoughts. He told Kovalev that one more round or punch and it would be over: “I will stop this fight,” McGirt assured him. Kovalev was brilliantly alert during that chilling 60 seconds of pure drama and grit. Yarde was exhausted, but McGirt and Kovalev and everybody at ringside in the Kovalev business had no idea. Yarde’s fists had so nearly taken the planned 20-million-dollar extravaganza against Saul Alvarez to the very edge of extinction.
It was world championship boxing at its finest.
In round nine, Kovalev boxed like a champion. Brain, movement, accuracy and Yarde’s title ambitions were over. He still came forward, he still tried, but his legs were so heavy that they arrived in position after the punches had gone. Kovalev pinged away with jabs and McGirt’s words were clearly ringing in his ears. Kovalev needed three risk-free minutes to recover and he got it. Yarde, his mouth gaping open, barely landed a punch in the ninth. There was nothing wrong with his heart or chin or desire – he just had nothing left, the moment was gone.
At the end of round 10 the bell sounded eight seconds early and that error saved Yarde. That is simple. Yarde was out on his feet, still going forward but a willing target and his face was starting to bruise. Kovalev had put him under pressure for three minutes. At the bell, I sensed movement behind me in the front row and Warren was up and shaking hands with Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager. They quickly realised that they were premature in their mutual respect. Klimas had looked shell-shocked at the end of the eighth.
Should Yarde have been saved the final two minutes in the 11th? It is always easy in the aftermath. He was exhausted, Kovalev was tired and there is no blame for sending him out. Yarde wins the first 30 seconds of round 11 and then he is totally finished. That was an ideal moment for a towel.
The end was horrible to witness: It might have looked like a jab, it might have looked like it was too light a punch to drop a man in a world title fight and it might have looked like all the other lefts that Kovalev landed, but it was not the same. Yarde could have been saved at the end of the 10th round by the referee, could have been spared the 11th by his corner, could have tried to move his heavy legs and hold in the final seconds – he decided instead to try a left hook. Kovalev slotted home the final shot inside the hoped for arc of that punch. Fatigue was behind the knockdown.
It was over. The misery and the joy in that ring was total.
Kovalev embraced Yarde a few minutes after the end. “You will be a champion,” he told him. Kovalev was ecstatic, joyful at the finish; he had survived the eighth round, boxed like a true champion and had also salvaged his retirement plan, the fight with Canelo.
Yarde and Tunde looked stunned as they stood in their corner. They watched replays on the big screen in silence, I edged closer, careful not to invade their distress. Yarde’s eyes and voice were clear – the knockdown could have come, as they say, from a wayward feather; the debate about how heavy the jab that finished the fight is mute, trust me. “It was inexperience,” Yarde admitted. That is enough really. The kid silenced the doubters. The Tunde enigma is harder to solve.
Kovalev dedicated the fight to Dadashev. Yarde left Russia after a brief stop at hospital for a routine check. He arrived a boy in the concrete city, he left a man after a brutal fight. It was his first, it will not be his last.
The Verdict Immense display of bravery from Yarde who shows flashes of a very bright future against an old master of prizefighting.
* Reporters' star ratings for main events and undercards are based on in-ring entertainment, competitiveness and whether overall expectation was met.