Sunday, August 25, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Kovalev-Yarde

The Sergey Kovalev-Anthony Yarde light heavyweight title bout swung on one simple factor: a fighter who had never been past seven rounds gassed. Yarde was actually a victim of his own success. Hurting Kovalev with uppercuts and short right hands on the inside, he went for the finish in the eighth round, but Kovalev, using all of his veteran savvy, was able to survive.

After the round, Kovalev's trainer, Buddy McGirt, warned that he was ready to stop the fight. However, when the two boxers started the ninth, it was Yarde who was suddenly running on empty. The fight would end in the 11th when Kovalev knocked down Yarde with a well-placed jab. Yarde was too exhausted to get to his feet. It was a stunning reversal of fortune and Kovalev, the fighter formerly accused of having no heart, of being a front runner, of quitting, was the victorious one, showing resolve and the refusal to succumb to defeat. 

Photo Courtesy of Pavel Tarbachuk

In the professional ranks the margins between winning and losing can be paper thin. It could be a matter of inches, seconds or a last-minute adjustment. After the eighth, Yarde had Kovalev in serious trouble, but he could offer no more. That burst of a second-wind, that sense of pacing never materialized, and that one attribute ultimately was the difference. 

By some standards Yarde exceeded expectations on Saturday. The cards were stacked against him going into the fight. He lacked world-level experience and a high-level amateur background, his development slate of opponents was poor, he didn't spar during his training camp and he had to go to Russia, never an easy trip. That he competed so well against Kovalev, still one of the top light heavyweights in the world, speaks highly of Yarde's aptitude and self-belief. 

Yarde flashed a solid counter left hook in the early rounds of the fight and if he didn't win many of the first six frames, his hooks were enough for Kovalev to holster most of his own power shots. And once Yarde was able to get past Kovalev's jab, he started to batter Kovalev with the success of a far more seasoned in-fighter. His left uppercut to the breadbasket and short right to the chest completely turned the action of the fight. 

In the aftermath of the defeat, the decisions of Team Yarde leading up to the title fight could certainly be questioned. His trainer, Tunde Ajayi, didn't believe in sparring. His promoter, Frank Warren (who certainly knows how to develop fighters), didn't challenge Yarde sufficiently in his development bouts. There were also opportunities to take step-aside money, to get another camp or two before rushing headlong into Yarde's first title shot. And these considerations are not second-guesses. All of these factors were pointed out well before Yarde entered the ring on Saturday. 

Warren and the rest of Team Yarde played their cards instead of folding. In poker parlance, they were always behind in the hand, but they had several outs (i.e., ways to win). It's clear that at 36 Kovalev is a vulnerable champ. Sergey has been through the wars and never had the world's greatest chin. In addition, Kovalev had lost three fights since 2016; whatever aura of invincibility he once had is now long gone. And Yarde certainly had enough of a punch to cause damage. But it just didn't work out. They gambled and lost. Maybe it wasn't the right time to push the chips in, but the thought process behind the decision was certainly understandable.

Once upon a time Kovalev was one of the true ring bullies in the sport. Battering opponents with a laser jab and a Krushing right hand, he was a destroyer. He intimidated in the ring. More than that, he was a bona fide sadist. He wanted to hurt opponents, to cause damage, to elongate their suffering before ending it.

Kovalev eventually got into trouble in three ways: He didn't respect his opponents, he lacked humility and he was a nervous fighter under duress. He seemed shocked when opponents actually decided to fight back, and when they did, he was ill-equipped from a technical or psychological standpoint. Despite jumping out to an early lead against Andre Ward in their rematch, once Kovalev was hurt, he couldn't process a next move. He complained to referee Tony Weeks instead of defending himself. He didn't tie up. He didn't take a knee. He appeared to crumble instead of think his way out of trouble.  

After getting dropped from a menacing overhand right in the first Eleider Alvarez fight, he decided to fight back harder, to slug it out with Alvarez mano-a-mano instead of giving himself the opportunity to recover. His decision making when under duress was a significant flaw.

But in Kovalev's performance on Saturday and in his victory against Alvarez in February's rematch, he finally displayed a maturity in the ring and a real sense of Ring IQ. He didn't try to decapitate Alvarez in the rematch. He stuck to his boxing fundamentals and would beat Alvarez with his jab and short right hands. And instead of gassing in the later rounds, he seemed at his most relaxed in the ring. 

And on Saturday, even when he was hurt, he was still processing the moment in the ring. He wisely tied up at the end of the eighth round, enabling him to have an opportunity to come back; I'm not sure if he would have made the same decision a few years ago. He has now realized that he can be hurt, but that circumstance doesn't have to lead to defeat. Even under duress, he still has agency.

This was Kovalev's second fight with Buddy McGirt and the trainer has made a huge difference with Kovalev's ring demeanor and sense of strategy. In perhaps the twilight of his career, Kovalev now understands that hitting harder, running farther and killing yourself in camp don't necessarily lead to better results in the ring. McGirt wisely decided to rein in Kovalev during training camps and also instilled a confidence in Kovalev – that the fighter was far more than a knockout machine; he had a fantastic fundamental boxing foundation, and that would be enough to beat even top-level opponents. 

But credit must also be given to Kovalev for accepting his own mortality in the ring. Kovalev had a well-deserved reputation of being stubborn and not listening to others. After the Alvarez defeat, however, he understood that he needed to make changes to prolong his career. Primarily, he needed to accept a revised ring identity – that it's OK not to run through opponents. And this was a radical change for one of the best knockout artists in the sport, one who prided himself on his ferocity. It's a change that many veteran fighters would refuse to make. It is an old dog learning a new trick. He realized that the most important thing in his career was winning, by whatever means necessary. And if that meant fundamental boxing, so be it.


Yarde is now at the first crucial inflection point of his career. At 28 he is no longer considered young in boxing years; he's squarely in the middle of his athletic prime. He certainly has the raw athleticism and enough fundamentals to compete on the world stage, but what lessons will he learn from Saturday's defeat? What does he need to change in order to beat top fighters? Does he take a few step backs, get some needed rounds against B-level opponents, or does he believe that he's ready for another shot at the best? Should he switch trainers? Is he getting the right advice from his team? 

It's easy to say that Yarde will be able to regroup and win a title in the future. But look around the division – Gvozdyk, Beterbiev, Bivol and Kovalev – one has to beat a terrific fighter to get a belt at light heavyweight. There are no guarantees that Yarde will be able to get to that level. 

Yarde's next set of decisions will be the most important ones he makes in his career. It took Kovalev a series of catastrophic defeats to make needed changes. Although Yarde isn't at that level, he might not be that far away. But does he know where he went wrong? He only gets to have one career, and if he wants one that lasts, he needs to realize that the status quo cannot suffice.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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