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Yarde takes leap into the unknown against Kovalev

Anthony Yarde
Action Images
Britain's Anthony Yarde has yet to fight a single world-class opponent en route to a world title shot against Sergey Kovalev this Saturday (August 31)

TO date Anthony Yarde’s pro career has been aided by stabilisers beneath his feet and caring hands on his shoulders, just to make sure. One hand belongs to his promoter, Frank Warren, the other to his trainer, Tunde Ajayi, and together they have guided him, these hands, as Yarde begs to be released and wonders how it feels to go fast. There to protect, they have ensured Yarde has yet to go beyond the end of the street. They have supported his growth. Some will say stunted it, too.

On Saturday, they come off – these stabilisers, these hands – and we find out. On Saturday, at the Traktor Sport Palace in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Yarde, rather than ease into things, will instead be shoved into the road, a road unfamiliar, and expected to navigate his way around Sergey Kovalev, the WBO light-heavyweight champion, with not even a test run to his name. It’s then, with Yarde in danger, we will discover whether he’s world-class or roadkill.

At 28, Yarde is clearly mature enough, in life terms, to make the step up. Moreover, with 18 fights to his name, he is experienced enough, in pro boxing terms, to make the step up. But what confuses and concerns some is the idea of Yarde going from fighting overmatched opponents in Britain to now fighting Kovalev in Russia. From reticent to reckless, Yarde has pulled a career about-turn so dramatic few believed the fight was going to happen even when it was confirmed and just a week away.

It is happening, though. And whether it turns out to be a move desperate or inspired, we should first respect the fact Yarde, somehow the WBO’s mandatory challenger, has seen an opportunity and gone for it. Unshackled, he now has it all to prove, of course, but has at least proved one thing already: he backs himself.

“They offered me life-changing money to step aside and let him (Kovalev) fight Canelo (Alvarez). First of all, it was under what I’m getting to fight Kovalev and I laughed at it. Then they offered me the same amount that I’m getting for the fight and I laughed at it again,” Yarde told Sportsmail.

“I said, ‘You better be doubling or tripling it to get me to step aside because this is a world title fight.’ Yes, it’s to do with money but I wanted to be a world champion. I feel like they were just gobsmacked I’m actually up for going to Russia. A lot of people are.”

Anthony Yarde
Fearless Yarde sees no issue with going to Russia (Action Images)

It would be hard enough fighting Kovalev in Britain, let alone Russia. Ask Nathan Cleverly. He tried beating Kovalev in Wales in 2013, back when the Welshman was WBO light-heavyweight champion, but he was out of his depth and stopped in four rounds. That was a gamble, a bad one. It seemed ill-judged from the moment the first bell sounded. The Russian was never invited back.

Kovalev, admittedly, was a different Kovalev that night. Younger, fresher and more ambitious, he had still to encounter Eleider Alvarez, never mind Andre Ward.

Yet Cleverly had perks of his own going in. He had home comforts. He had the momentum and confidence of a champion. He was cheered on by his people and backed by his promoter. He was, believe it or not, expected to win.

Anthony Yarde, on Saturday, will be afforded no such luxuries.

“Nobody has really gone out to Russia to fight somebody like Kovalev,” said Yarde. “A lot of people are paying attention to it and can’t believe what I’m doing. Some people think I’m going to pull out. I’ve seen comments saying, ‘Oh this is a good publicity stunt,’ and I was just laughing.

“They don’t understand. I have been offered a lot of money to not fight this guy. Ninety per cent of people would have snapped their hands off. They would have got on their knees and thanked them. But this is my world title and I want it now.”

sergey kovalev
Kovalev remains on top at 36 (Stacey Verbeek)

For Kovalev, Saturday’s fight represents something of a homecoming. His past eight bouts have taken place in the USA and the last time he appeared in Russia – in July 2016 – he laboured to a unanimous decision win over Isaac Chilemba. He will aim to do better next this weekend.

“Fighting at home there is pressure and the press,” Kovalev conceded. “It’s an additional responsibility that doesn’t make the event any easier. I have to control myself, psychologically first of all.

“I want to confirm my status as a world champion. It is necessary to win with dignity and spectacularly. I want my countrymen to see this fight. And I, as a resident of my native Chelyabinsk, want this fight to be memorable for years to come for those who will come to see it live.”

There is extra weight to this fight, too, coming as it does just a month after Kovalev’s countryman, Maxim Dadashev, passed away from injuries sustained in a bout against Subriel Matias. More than just countrymen, Dadashev was a friend of Kovalev and Kovalev, on learning of the 28-year-old’s death, urged fans to donate to a crowdfunding page set up to support the boxer’s widow and son.

It was a matter close to Kovalev’s heart and not the first ring tragedy to have left an indelible mark on him. Eight years ago, in fact, Roman Simakov failed to regain consciousness following a bout against Kovalev and died three days later. That tragedy hit Kovalev hard and the demons that lingered weren’t exorcised until he returned to the venue – the DIVS in Ekaterinburg – to box Chilemba in 2016.

Even so, the wounds likely remain, and the scabs will have been ripped open when Dadashev passed in similar fashion. The reminders are unavoidable. In Kovalev’s mind he wrestles with images he wishes he could erase, while in his corner on Saturday he will see Buddy McGirt, also Dadashev’s trainer, who will be tasked with protecting him if protection is required.

Maxim Dadashev
The late Maxim Dadashev was a friend of Sergey Kovalev (Mikey Williams/Top Rank)

Certainly, in light of all this, there might be no better time for Yarde to challenge Kovalev – which is to say, have a go. It is a step up, no doubt, and his preparation, opponent-wise, is far from ideal, yet he’s facing a 36-year-old who is 3-3 in his last six fights, albeit against quality opposition, for whom motivation nowadays has more to do with defending his title and making money to support his family than wrecking all who stand in his way.

Unlikely though it is Kovalev has mellowed, it would be unusual for a man of his age, who has experienced what he has experienced, to retain the ferocity of youth when signs around him highlight the importance of slowing down, taking care and eyeing up the perfect swansong.

Yarde, in contrast, still has his mode set to seek and destroy. He is fierce and violent, unapologetically so, and ambitious, too. With no recognised titles around his waist, and no recognisable names on his record, he still has scalps to take and a legacy to create. His is a mission fuelled by an air of invincibility and the jibes of those who say he can’t. It’s a mission long delayed. A mission still waiting for its launch.

“It would be the number one (British boxing upset) in history,” Yarde said. “This is why it’s so exciting for me.

“My tunnel vision has been this: go to Russia and win by KO. It’s very simple and plain. I haven’t complicated it.

“I haven’t said I’ll go out there and throw a 25-punch combination or predicted what round it will happen. But Anthony Yarde is going to go out to Russia and win by KO. That’s it.”

Based on Yarde’s form against subpar opposition, it’s hard to make a case for this dream becoming a reality. Yet it’s just as hard to dispute the Londoner’s talent. Quick and composed, and cool under pressure, Yarde possesses eye-catching combinations when allowed to tee off and can clearly punch, as 17 stoppages from 18 wins testify. He is physically imposing and in his athletic prime. He seems fit enough, even if yet to go 10 or 12 rounds, and by all accounts lives the life. The raw ingredients are seemingly there. If only he had been tested.

Alas, Yarde’s last opponent was Travis Reeves, a 38-year-old American whose career-best win was a 10-round decision over Lanell Bellows. The one prior to that was Walter Gabriel Sequeira, an Argentine with not a single notable victory. Yarde’s best opponent, meanwhile, might be either Dariusz Sek, beaten by Robert Krasniqi in 2014, or Nikola Sjekloca, thrashed by Callum Smith that same year. These men were swatted impressively by Yarde but that doesn’t change the fact his 18-fight career record makes for grim reading and becomes all the more alarming in the context of him now going to Russia to fight Sergey Kovalev.

After all, though in the final phase of his career, Kovalev has at least been thriving of late and stubbornly refusing the advances of Father Time. Stoppage defeats to Andre Ward and Eleider Alvarez took something out of him, no question, yet the way Kovalev responded in the Alvarez rematch, when comfortably outboxing the Colombian for 12 rounds, showed he still has what it takes to make adjustments and use his punch power to control a fight’s flow.

That night in February may have been his last stand. Who knows? The next time he goes to the well, it might be dry. But, make no mistake, Yarde isn’t challenging a champion whose frailties were exposed in his last fight nor an old man softened up six months ago by a young buck he would have eaten alive in his prime. No, this is a different kind of scenario. Here, you have an ageing champion in Kovalev some feel is there for the taking, but has not yet been taken, opposing an unproven upstart in Yarde who deserves huge credit if he becomes the one to do the taking.

To pick a Yarde victory, though, would be to gamble everything on potential. Not only that, backing Yarde almost undermines what it means to correctly build a fighter, with the right kind of learning fights, and makes light of the importance of gruelling championship fights. And education. And experience. And the age-old process.

Yarde, the underdog, might be an A-grade student in the gym. He might be dedicated and a fine listener and in Tunde Ajayi he might have the ideal professor. Yet there can be no denying his development has been restricted to the classroom – all revision, no exam – and that he has for some reason been held back.

Now, as he approaches his first proper test, this becomes a worry. With no prior test results of any relevance, Yarde must, at this stage, be regarded as little more than an extremely gifted prospect making both a huge and delayed step up in class. It’s for this reason Kovalev, a champion whose experience trumps any need to revise, should be favoured to retain his belt late or on the cards.

On the undercard, there are a couple of well-matched WBC silver title fights featuring undefeated prospects going up against proven contenders.

At cruiserweight, Aleksei Papin puts his 11-fight undefeated record on the line against champion Ilunga Makabu, 25-2 (24), a former Tony Bellew victim last seen prevailing in a five-round war against Dmitry Kudryashov. At super-middleweight, meanwhile, Russia’s Andrey Sirotkin, 16-1 (5), challenges unbeaten Uzbek Azizbek Abdugofurov, 12-0 (4), for his silver belt.

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