Sergey Kovalev vs Anthony Yarde: Why the challenger’s task has similarities to the champion winning his first world title

If Sergey Kovalev vs Anthony Yarde takes place, the challenger could do worse than looking at the champ’s first WBO bid against Nathan Cleverly

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Anthony Yarde
Anthony Yarde

The predominant criticism of Anthony Yarde, relating to a mooted mandatory challenge to WBO light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, is that he has had insufficient experience – both in terms of volume and, more significantly, level of opposition – to stand a chance against the experienced, intelligent Russian. A fair point perhaps, especially given Yarde’s relatively late start in the sport and abbreviated amateur career, but, at 27 and having climbed the WBO rankings to the top position, it may just be the optimum time. Kovalev turned 36 in April and was knocked out less than a year ago by Eleider Alvarez, albeit changed tack to outbox the Colombian in their February return to regain the belt.

It is perhaps Kovalev’s first WBO title victory that has the most in common with Yarde’s audacious gamble, however. He was 30, so three years older than Yarde is now, and had four more professional contests, but, like the Hackney puncher, had looked outstanding and powerful against mostly middling opposition, lighting up HBO rather than BT Sport, of course. The standout victory on Kovalev’s record going into the Cleverly challenge was his three-round destruction of former WBA champ Gabriel Campillo, a wily campaigner who was coming off a contentious defeat to then-IBF ruler Tavoris Cloud. A good win, no doubt, and better than anything on Yarde’s record but Campillo was 34, had been inactive almost a year before the defeat and went on to lose three of his next seven by knockout. That aside, Kovalev had defeated fringe contenders like Lionell Thompson (beaten in his previous bout) and Cornelius White, who had been halted in a round by Donovan George and would be defeated by Thomas Williams Jr in the opener after Sergey finished him in three.

Examine Yarde’s record in detail and it’s not as bad as his critics would have you believe. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: Yarde did not face an opponent with a winning record until pro fight number nine, although this is not uncommon for a young prospect, certainly not for one with just 12 unpaid fights under his vest. Anthony contested the Southern Area title just two years and eight fights ago, which illustrates both the improvements he has made and the skill exhibited by Frank Warren in manoeuvring him into this mandatory position. Winning the WBO European strap and their InterContinental belt in successive 2017 fights probably didn’t hurt his cause.

In December of that year he scored what I believe is his most impressive victory, stopping Nikola Sjekloca in four rounds. The Montenegrin had never been stopped and was coming off a draw for the European title against former two-time WBO super-middleweight champion Robert Stieglitz. Sjekloca had given the EBU king a tough, close fight but was dropped twice and generally hammered by the slick, explosive Yarde. The Tunde Ajayi-trained operator then forced the seventh-round retirement of lanky Tony Averlant, stopped Dariusz Sek - his first southpaw rival – and Argentine Walter Sequeria and, in March, took just five rounds to get rid of an ambitious American in Travis Reeves. No world-beaters there, but importantly Yarde has ticked most if not every box, fought every style, from aggressive fighters to counter-punchers, tall and short, both stances. His career has been brief but diverse.

Now, likely in August, he looks to unseat a formidable but flawed world champion in hostile Russia, just as Kovalev did in Cardiff against a 26-0 Nathan Cleverly in the same month six years ago. The parallels, if not quite eerie, are there if you look for them. Of course Cleverly vs Kovalev was a pick ‘em with the bookies, while Sergey is a 4/11 favourite against 2/1 Yarde. Kovalev’s four-round blasting of the shell-shocked Welshman looked anything but a pick ‘em as it panned out, and Yarde managing a late stoppage of a fading Kovalev, while unlikely, is far from unthinkable.

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