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Sergey Kovalev vs Anthony Yarde: The potential to shock and all the ingredients of a great fight

The Independent logo The Independent 23/08/2019 Steve Bunce
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In a business that delivers Kung Fu clowns in comedy fights with living legends, it is still hard to think of a fight with extremes like Sergey Kovalev against Anthony Yarde on Saturday in Chelyabinsk, an industrial Russian city.

In the fantasy world of Floyd Mayweather it seems any pairing is acceptable for the right pile of cash, but in boxing’s real world fights like Kovalev and Yarde are rarities, the classic known and unknown, young and old, innocence and experience. The old man giving the kid a shot, nice.

The story line seems simple, a Rocky tale without raw eggs or love: Kovalev has won and lost savage, bloody wars in ring battles that have shaped his face and mind and made him an icon in Russia. Yarde has barely broken a sweat in four years of biffing and bashing a steady line of willing punch bags. This should not be a fight, according to ancient boxing reason.

However, strange things happened on the way to the Traktor Sport Palace on the edge of the darkest and deepest green forest, on the outskirts of this sprawling concrete city. As the statistics were mentioned and dismissed, as Yarde – when faced with Kovalev on Wednesday – still insisted he would win by knockout and as Kovalev shared his pain at missing his children when isolated in endless training camps, there was a shadow of doubt creeping over the fight. Is Kovalev in the wrong place, is Yarde in the right place?

Yarde is the unbeaten, untested fighter from East London, he has dropped his 18 victims over 30 times, he refuses hard sparring with any rivals and is joined at the hip with Tunde Ajayi, his maverick coach. The pair have divided boxing opinion, their unshakable belief that their brand of preparation- called System 9 by Ajayi – will change the boxing world has been dismissed as foolish and arrogant. The rejoicing if they lose will be quite uncomfortable, but few in the old boxing game will come out now and say categorically that no sparring, lengthy sessions of repetition on the pads and no roadwork is crazy preparation for a fight against a hardened beast like Kovalev.

Yarde started to box late in life, finding the gym and leaving the streets. His bond with Ajayi was instant. Yarde calls him a “genius” and Ajayi, who had five professional fights without loss in 2001, talks about him and Yarde being the same man: “I know when I wake up just how Anthony feels – I don’t even have to see him,” Ajayi told me on Wednesday here. “We both go through it – I’m with him and he’s with me – it’s like the old karate thing: Master and pupil. He spars with me, I’m his best sparring partner. We will answer the critics. I will be validated.”

Underneath the Karate Kid references and bold claims there is an awful lot of good sense in Ajayi’s methods. The concentration needed for his repetition sessions on the pads is not new, but he has extended the conventional time from three minutes to possibly 20 or even 40 minutes; same combination, no rest, two men in one ring. The simplest way to learn any sporting art is through repetition, which enhances concentration and that is one of boxing’s oldest beliefs. The veterans of abandoned gyms will tell you about the hours spent shaping the left hook on yet another forgotten master in a time that nobody cares about any longer. Tunde is just speeding the learning process up. As I said, strange things have happened on the way to the Traktor Palace.

However, lack of hard sparring is slightly more difficult to dismiss and it raised the eyebrow of Buddy McGirt, former world champion and the man in Kovalev’s corner. “It’s hard to replace real sparring, real hard. We will see – I can tell you that Sergey did have hard sparring,” McGirt said. McGirt knows best because he belongs to a past boxing needs to change, he is a veteran of the vicious American slum gyms of the Eighties when fighters were broken in too many stupid sparring sessions that established gym kings. I have seen those men at recent fights in Las Vegas and New York, panhandling and looking through milky, damaged eyes for recognition.

“I have watched too many fighters have too many hard sparring sessions over the years,” Ajayi added. “If my method doesn’t work, then how has Anthony Yarde got better without any meaningful sparring? I will tell you why – It’s deeper than that, it’s a mind set.” It is easy to see why Ajayi upsets the purists, but difficult to understand how many smart boxing people dismiss him as a chancer; Ajayi is a real boxing man, make no mistake.

Kovalev has been the world light-heavyweight champion on and off since 2013, has fought 15 consecutive world title fights and believes he has five more left. Yarde is nearly 10 years younger, unbeaten in 18 and has few physical or mental scars from his short life in boxing. Kovalev has the wounds, make no mistake, Yarde has the innocence and on Saturday night one of the schools – either old or new – will get a beating. Yarde can deliver the shock and it would be monumental. Kovalev, under McGirt, can take fewer risks and win easily. That, my friend, is what you call the ingredients for a great fight.

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