This Saturday from Chelyabinsk, Russia, Sergey Kovalev returns home to defend the WBO light heavyweight title against unbeaten mandatory challenger Anthony Yarde in an ESPN+ main event.
Our staffers make their picks.
Sergey Kovalev looked sharp last time out, beating Eleider Alvarez over 12 rounds to get revenge for his Aug. 2018 knockout loss to that same opponent. But what did we really see? Was it a rebirth in Kovalev’s mid-30s, a sign that he is an elite fighter still, or just a night where things went right because Kovalev executed?
My gut feeling is it’s the latter. Kovalev is still a top light heavyweight, but he’s 36 and the clock is aggressively ticking. He also had good results against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mikhalkin after the losses to Andre Ward, but then came the first Alvarez fight. There’s a lot of talk about Kovalev’s demeanor and personality from those who have worked with him in the past, and from news reports about his behavior. You can’t just write it off.
He’s a better boxer than Yarde, who has never faced anyone even near this level. But Yarde is younger — even if at 28 he’s older than you might think — and Yarde may have the hunger that Kovalev has lost over the years. It’s a bold move going to Russia for this fight, one that speaks well to Yarde’s desire to be here. But if Kovalev doesn’t have a real bad night or “get old,” Yarde can’t beat him. If Kovalev is 80% of what we saw in February, he’ll be able to handle Yarde without a ton of trouble. Kovalev UD-12
I believe the end is near for Sergey Kovalev. And no, it’s not just because he’s 36 years old, but more because he hasn’t been the same fighter since those two losses to Andre Ward. Since then Kovalev has split with his trainer, stories of heavy drinking have surfaced, and Kovalev has spent more time in the news for reasons other than boxing. Add it all up and I think you have a very talented yet declining fighter who’s primed to fly right off the rails at any moment. Boxing is an unforgiving trade, and as Andre Berto once said, “The ring is a cold place where the truth comes out.”
But the “truth” here is that even at this stage I think Kovalev is still a much better technical fighter than Anthony Yarde. That, along with his experience, should largely carry Kovalev to a win in this outing. If Yarde was a much more prolific body puncher, I’d actually give him chance because I think Kovalev is just about ripe for the picking and can’t really handle a sustained body attack, but that’s not so much Yarde’s game. Yarde hasn’t been in with a fighter on the talent level of Kovalev, and that should demonstrate itself once the opening bell rings. I think Kovalev takes a decision here only to parlay him into a cannon fodder fight with Canelo Alvarez next time out. Kovalev UD-12
Patrick L. Stumberg
Sergey Kovalev is past his best and nowadays seems to spend half his time embarrassing himself in public. Honestly, local commissions licensing him to fight and ESPN aggressively promoting him are similarly skeevy to Marcus Browne continuing to get booked.
But it’d take a lot more than that to make me think he’d lose to Yarde.
Yarde’s got pop and bangs the body well. He’s also not half as good defensively as he thinks he is, which doesn’t figure to change when his trainer is a walking meme. Kovalev is deceptively technically sound and could probably win this fight even if he didn’t punch like a mule kick. The “Puncher’s Chance” cliche runs headlong into the “Levels to This” cliche as “The Krusher’s” volume and quality jab exhaust Yarde until Kovalev feels ready to drop the hammer. Kovalev TKO-6
As hilarious/deluded as Tunde Ajayi has been over the past months, as we get closer to fight night a part of me has begun to believe the hype. As little as Yarde has been tested over his 18 fights as a professional, the Briton shows qualities that can’t be ignored. His athleticism allows dangerous combinations to flow on the inside, with a high-intensity work rate comfortable over the championship distance. When Yarde throws with an opponent, he is likely to come out on top, but when he relies on his defence and footwork he can become unstuck.
What version of Kovalev will turn up in Chelyabinsk is the biggest question. A heroic homecoming or a farewell to the sport? At 36 years old in a fight he clearly didn’t want to take, will the hunger still be inside ‘Krusher’? We’ve seen Kovalev get hurt to the body, and if Yarde and Tunde can pinpoint some power to the solar plexus of the champ then we could have an upset on the cards. I’ll stick my neck out on a Yarde stoppage to the body. Yarde TKO-9