Ringside Seat: A big fight for Yarde; a lot on the line for Kovalev
After Sergey Kovalev lost his light heavyweight world title by seventh-round knockout to Eleider "Storm" Alvarez last August, many thought it was the end of the "Krusher" as a top-flight fighter.
Then Kovalev exercised his right to an immediate rematch with Alvarez and changed trainers, linking up with Buddy McGirt. Skeptics remained until he easily defeated Alvarez and won a clear unanimous decision to regain his 175-pound belt on Feb. 2.
Kovalev once again looked to be in fine form. It was clear he wasn't done just yet and there would be at least one more big fight in his future, with potential unification fights against either Oleksandr Gvozdyk or Artur Beterbiev and middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez -- boxing's biggest star -- also showing interest in moving up two weight classes to challenge Kovalev.
But before any of those fights could happen, Kovalev had to first make a mandatory defense against unbeaten British puncher Anthony Yarde. They will meet on Saturday (ESPN+, 12:30 p.m. ET) at Traktor Arena in Chelyabinsk, Russia -- Kovalev's hometown, where he has never fought before.
"I understand Anthony Yarde's ambitions," Kovalev said. "He calls himself a lion but to me he is a cub. He is so young. I will have to get rid of all that baby fur off his skin so he will run away back home."
England's Yarde has embraced going on the road for the fight.
"I am more than happy to achieve my goal in Russia and I think it is only right that a great world champion such as Kovalev is given the opportunity to defend in his home country. He has earned that right," Yarde said. "What I know is that on [Saturday] another world title belt will be under British ownership and I will have done it the hard way, one that nobody will be able to question."
As big as the fight is for Yarde, there is a lot on the line for Kovalev besides just keeping his title. Although Gvozdyk and Beterbiev have agreed to fight each other to unify their world titles on Oct. 18 (ESPN), Kovalev has an offer on the table to fight Alvarez on Nov. 2 -- but first he must beat Yarde and come away with no injuries to set himself up for that enormous potential fight.
This is your Ringside Seat for Kovalev-Yarde:
Canelo showdown looms?
Who Alvarez fights this fall has become boxing's biggest soap opera. The inability to lock up a fight even caused him to move off of Sept 14, his usual Mexican Independence Day weekend slot. Former unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin and broadcast partner, DAZN, pushed hard for a third fight between them, but Alvarez said he wasn't interested.
Then Alvarez was in talks to fight a mandatory defense against Sergiy Derevyanchenko, but Alvarez's promoter Golden Boy also had made overtures to Main Events to see if Kovalev was interested in defending against Alvarez. Which he was.
But by that point Main Events had already made a deal for Kovalev's defense against Yarde.
Meanwhile, Alvarez and Golden Boy continued to look for an opponent after failing to make a deal with Derevyanchenko, which caused Alvarez to be stripped of one of his middleweight belts.
Main Events promoter Kathy Duva said if Kovalev wins on Saturday and is uninjured she and Golden Boy president Eric Gomez will pick up their talks after this weekend in an effort to make the fight, for which Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs), 28, of Mexico, would move up in weight. Gomez told ESPN that Alvarez would not ask for a catch weight to force Kovalev to come down below 175 pounds.
"Sergey would love to accept Canelo's challenge," Duva told ESPN. "The prospect of such a big event is quite exciting for him. But he must not lose focus on Yarde, who is a big puncher and formidable young opponent."
Kovalev (33-3-1, 28 KOs) knows the Alvarez fight is on the table, but he's doing his best not to think about it.
"We did have an offer but we can talk about that after Saturday," Kovalev said. "Official agreements were already made with Antony Yarde. My primary task is to defend the title. If the fight is still interesting for Canelo afterwards, then OK."
Kovalev, 36, has fought most of his professional career in the United States. The fight with Yarde will only be Kovalev's fourth in Russia and his first since he successfully defended his unified light heavyweight title by unanimous decision against Isaac Chilemba in Ekaterinburg in July 2016. "While he fought Chilemba in Russia a few years ago, the fight took place about three hours away from here," said Duva, who joined Kovalev in Chelyabinsk earlier in the week. "So this event is truly a homecoming in the most literal sense of the word. "
Kovalev has wanted to fight in his hometown.
"I am indeed very pleased to be home," Kovalev said. "My career and my schedule doesn't really let me live here. I try to be as far as possible from home so I can work harder and not lose energy."
The hometown folks are glad to put on his homecoming.
"We are all very proud of him. When Sergey enters the ring, he always remembers his home region and his every victory is a victory of all residents of the Chelyabinsk region," Vadim Evdokimov, the deputy governor of Chelyabinsk, said at Wednesday's final prefight news conference.
Yarde's big shot
England's Yarde (18-0, 17 KOs), who turned 28 on Aug. 13, is a powerful puncher. He will be taking a quantum leap in the level of his opposition when he takes on Kovalev, who has faced a who's who of top opponents for many years.
Yarde, who had only 12 amateur fights and whose pro résumé is devoid of any notable victories, will also be fighting outside of the United Kingdom for only the second time. He fought once in the United States in 2016 against an opponent who came into the fight with a record of 11-21.
This is undeniably a big opportunity for Yarde to make a name for himself on the world stage against an elite opponent and ruin Kovalev's Canelo plans. Yarde believes he is up to task.
"I believe that right now I'm mentally very strong and I believe what happens on the night is what matters," Yarde said. "I'm going to focus on myself, be the best that I can be and get the knockout victory because that's what I feel like I need to do to win the fight.
"I don't know which round. I'm not a psychic, but that's my plan. In boxing you can't predict rounds. I've just got to go in there with a goal in my head and produce. I've rose very quickly to be here, so I'm happy to be at this level and I'm going to make the most of it."
By the numbers
Kovalev: 16th consecutive title fight; 105 of 162 pro rounds have been in title fights (65%)
Kovalev: Last seven opponents had a combined record of 166-2; Yarde is the fifth of those seven to be undefeated (Kovalev: 1-3 in those four previous fights)
Kovalev: In his first fight under new trainer Buddy McGirt in February, averaged 68 punches per round (26% landed), well above his average in his last 15 fights (54), according to CompuBox.
Yarde: Began boxing at age 19 and turned pro at 23 with only 12 amateur fights (Kovalev had more than 200 amateur fights)
Yarde: Connected 48.5% of his power punches in his past three fights, according to CompuBox (light heavyweight average: 37%)
Yarde: In his past three fights, 28% of his thrown punches were jabs, according to CompuBox (Kovalev: 47% in his past 15 fights)
Rafael's prediction: Kovalev by mid-rounds knockout.