“Experience played a big part,” Anthony Yarde explained to an animated Steve Bunce inside the Chelyabinsk ring, following his 11th round KO at the hands of Sergey Kovalev. In a fight that Yarde struggled to get a foothold in – barring an eighth-round onslaught, leaving the WBO light-heavyweight champion stumbling on the back foot – the British challenger was keen to draw positives from his experience in Russia.
“I feel like he paced himself a lot better,” Yarde continued. “I knew I hurt him to the body. I thought I should have gone for it, my corner said ‘go for it!’”. This corner – comprising of the opinion-splitting trainer Tunde Ajayi – did very little to dissuade Yarde of any instinctual decisions he was forced to make during the heat of battle. The blueprint was set, with Ajayi speaking before the fight how the inseparable pair had already revised diligently for the fight; to them, it was simply a case of “taking the exam” against Kovalev inside the Traktor Ice Arena.
This exam was failed, but how Yarde and his team react in defeat will inevitably write the chapters that follow in the 28-year-old Londoner’s career. “He shows that he belongs at this level. He had Sergey out. We ain’t never gonna stop,” exclaimed Ajayi in his typically nonchalant fashion. His blind faith in what he refers to as ‘System9’ – an approach to boxing that relies heavily of pads, mitts and combination work – will be put under the microscope closer than ever in the weeks that follow, as calls for Anthony Yarde to move on from his only professional coach to date begin to escalate.
For Yarde, there were undeniable positives to take from a hard night’s work. Coming into the fight as a 7/4 underdog, there were avenues to victory that many – including myself in a heavily condemned, yet undeniably British-biased prediction – saw Yarde being able to navigate. Landing the most shots against Kovalev in a professional bout according to Compubox (132 – ahead of Chilemba: 127 and Ward: 116), Yarde looked to fight fire with fire after having difficulty avoiding ‘Krusher’s’ jab in the opening stanzas. Choosing to go downstairs where Kovalev was once again asked to prove his durability, Yarde’s game plan almost paid off in dramatic fashion.
The challenger showed whiskers that hadn’t needed proving in his untested rise to this mandatory shot at the WBO strap. Kovalev’s heavy artillery bounced off the cranium of Yarde through the majority of the fight, with the Briton proving undeterred in his momentum moving forward. Machismo showed in Yarde beating his chest in an attempt to walk down ‘Krusher’ and were the first signs that Yarde was beginning to blow – a reaction of a fighter that Kovalev has seen time and time again as the Russian smiled through his gumshield.
The stoppage came by the way of exhaustion. Yarde will have to swallow some pride in accepting the reality of a jab KO, however, having blown his gasket in an absorbing eighth round – a round which forced Buddy McGirt to tell Kovalev to “show him something” in the ninth that followed – Yarde was chasing the fight having rolled the dice on a stoppage during those three minutes.
“I went for it. A lot of people don’t go for things because of fear,” Yarde explained in defence of his reason to gamble. Unable to outbox the accomplished left hand of the hometown hero, it’s hard to argue with an alternative to the approach that Yarde took.
“Lions in the camp!” – the war cry that Team Yarde has adopted – could be heard from ringside throughout this fight, with pockets of monotonous “Russ–sy–yah!” chants from the home crowd drowning out Tunde and his associates at regular intervals. Resembling a team of cheerleaders harmonizing for their favourite quarterback, Yarde’s absence of clear instruction from an onlooking team hampered any improvements during the scheduled 36 minutes – fine margins that can make the biggest difference at the elite level of any sport.
“You will be a champion one day, you are a good fighter,” Kovalev reassured Yarde as the challenger spoke candidly to the BT Sport cameras. A sentiment that ‘Krusher’ may well have expressed post-fight regardless of the test in front of him that night and regardless of the challenger, but to Yarde and his team, it was enough to cling onto – perhaps, it distracted from the wake-up call they needed to hear.
Anthony Yarde and Tunde Ajayi have been judged meticulously since their names began to be linked with world level opposition. A lack of sparring in camp has, quite rightly, dominated the headlines in Tunde’s approach to developing his fighter, but to look at the bigger picture underlines their growth. From 12 amateur fights to his 19th as a pro, Yarde’s rapid rise has been harnessed by his close relationship with Ajayi – a relationship that extends out of the four walls of the Peacock Gym and the roped square of combat. Comparisons to Ben Davison’s role within the Fury and Saunders camps would label these trainers the “right man for the right fighter”, but if Yarde and Ajayi want to reach that next level, humility and willingness to adapt, learn and progress will be fundamental. We may only know if Ajayi is the right trainer for Yarde once alternatives have been exhausted.
For Kovalev, Father Time has been defied once again, as the Russian looks to cash out on an incredible career against Saul Alvarez this November. For Yarde, it’s about re-building for the future. It’s an old cliché in sport that you learn more in defeat than you do in victory. For the sake of the future of Anthony Yarde, hopefully, himself and his trainer learnt their biggest lesson, in what they mistook to be an easy exam.