Sergey Kovalev vs Anthony Yarde: Boxing prepares to explode into late summer life as undefeated challenger heads to champion's home city

Sergey Kovalev and Anthony Yarde do battle in Chelyabinsk on Saturday night

Martin Hines
Saturday 24 August 2019 10:47
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A slow summer of boxing explodes into life this weekend in Russia as Sergey Kovalev defends his WBO light heavyweight title against British undefeated sensation Anthony Yarde.

Chelyabinsk may not be one of Russia’s most iconic locations, but the city that sits deep in the East cusping the Ural Mountains will be warmed up by home star Kovalev, who is putting it all on the line in front of his many friends and family.

This is a fight which has ignited the boxing world, though many once believed the fight would never happen at all. It’s an event which is very unBritish, taking a red-hot prospect and throwing him into the lion’s den without any adequate jungle experience. But in 2019, pedigree has been replaced with balls, and there’s no doubt that Anthony Yarde possesses some King-sized ones.

Savour this. Soak up the warmth of one the most dominant light heavyweights of the past decade against the most unknown quantity in world boxing right now. It’s mass experience against the hype machine, but it may all come down to whether a 36-year-old veteran can withstand the unshakeable confidence of a 28-year-old undefeated man.

18-0 across a professional career which has spanned just four years, Yarde emerged into the paid ranks after just 12 amateur bouts, of which only one saw three completed rounds. In most sports, Yarde would be a novice, yet in boxing, he’s one win away from a world championship.

Yarde is not afraid of travelling to Russia

There are plenty of reasons why people believe in Yarde, despite his lack of experience. 17 of his 18 professional victories have come via knockout, while he has looked remarkably untroubled in the ring during those successes. Creative defensively and very heavy-handed, those skills alone will trouble many boxers, but add in an almost cult-like serenity and focus, and Yarde is a dangerous proposition.

That confidence could be an issue however. Part of his belief will stem from his invincibility thus far, but that could be a result of his lack of credible opponents. Just under two years ago, Yarde was fighting for Southern Area titles, while his recent victories have come against gatekeeper types who have offered very limited opposition.

There have been no major headline events, no grudge matches, no domestic dust-ups. It’s easy to look invincible when you’ve hand-picked your route to the top, but if you’ve never looked into the eyes of a dangerous challenger, have you really fought at all?

And there are no more clinical stares in this sport than the one belonging to Sergey Kovalev. A light heavyweight world champion since 2013, the Russian has defeated many difficult opponents in his career, but is still best known for a brace of defeats to Andre Ward in 2016 and 2017. Though Kovalev lost both fights, he was dogged and impressive in both, and was unlucky to lose the first before being controversially stopped in the second.

Kovalev has fought for a world title in each of his last 15 bouts 

Kovalev’s unique ability to deal with pressure and controversy is perhaps his most impressive attribute. Yes, he punches hard, has a great 12 round engine and better technical ability than he’s given credit for, but there is a steel in his resolve which is seemingly unbreakable.

The veteran kept his destructive boxing style despite Roman Simakov dying three days after their 2011 fight, travelled abroad in his early career to face and defeat Nathan Cleverly in Wales and Jean Pascal in Canada, and recovered from a shock knockout defeat to Eleider Alvarez last year to outclass the Colombian in their February rematch.

Inside the ring, Kovalev’s skills are still on point despite his advancing years. But outside of it, controversies are beginning to catch-up with the Russian. Kovalev was allegedly removed from a flight in July after he “kissed and threw money at a female passenger” while other unsavoury stories have emerged over the past year.

Perhaps the biggest issue heading into this fight for both men is their training, and how effective each camp has gone. If Kovalev was acting erratically on a flight last month, just how efficient has his camp been? While Yarde and trainer Tunde Ajayi work from a self-devised approach named ‘System 9’ which is one of the more peculiar training systems in boxing.

The key element is repetition over sparring, with pad-work seen as more important that heavy spars. While too much sparring can be problematic, too little can be worse. Former light heavyweight supremo Joe Calzaghe has admitted that his poorest performances came from an inability to spar due to injury, yet Yarde and Ajayi have made the choice rather than have it forced upon them.

How does Yarde, with such little experience, know how he’ll react when faced by a big shot from a heavy puncher thousands of miles away from home if he hasn’t been through tough spars? That element could be the key if Yarde fails to bomb out Kovalev early.

All of these variables are what makes this fight so intriguing. Both Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder are backing Yarde for the win, while even The Rock has thrown his support in for the London fighter. Equally, there are plenty of British fans rooting for Kovalev in protest at many outspoken comments from Yarde’s trainer Ajayi.

Whoever you’re supporting, this is sure to be memorable whatever the result, and with a potential winter fight against Canelo Alvarez for the winner, success tonight won’t just mean a world title, but future millions.

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