Next time you’ll understand: Sergey Kovalev is finished and has been for years.
It was over for Kovalev when he bowed before the “Son of God.” And if “Krusher” wasn’t yet kaput when he quit against Andre Ward, then he certainly was after Eleider Alvarez ragdolled him. After that, the book was out on Kovalev, that front-runner with too much vodka in his gas tank. Oh, and he was an asshole too, and assholes always get theirs.
Yes, Kovalev is finished now. Sure, he successfully defended his light-heavyweight title against mandatory-challenger Anthony Yarde at the Traktor Sports Palace in Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Saturday, surviving a handful of scares to mow Yarde down in the eleventh. But such details are mostly immaterial because Kovalev—despite being finished for years—was supposed to win.
What’s happening to Kovalev, 34-3-1 (28), is something akin to what happened to Manny Pacquiao years ago. Instead of letting the ring reveal the truth—an exercise in extreme patience—Pacquiao was at that point deemed, alternately, still an elite fighter, and just short of one, and ripe for retirement, and, considering the little death he suffered in his fourth fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, a knockout waiting to happen. Seven years later, Pacquiao remains one of the best welterweights in the world, proving as much at Keith Thurman’s expense last month.
Kovalev won’t have the longevity of Pacquiao because Kovalev is only a very good fighter, not a great one, and because his division is as rich in challenges as it is free of promotional obstructions. Indeed, were it not for Jean Pascal exposing Marcus Browne earlier this month, Kovalev, thirty-six-years-old, and a middling 4-3 with two knockout losses in his last seven fights might be the most vulnerable 175-pound champion.
Despite that vulnerability, Kovalev has repaired himself rather nicely after setbacks both humiliating and brutal. Even during the Alvarez disaster, Kovalev struggled to rise from each knockdown. He immediately rematched Alvarez too, as a fighter should, and kept his nerve for twelve rounds, torturing his former conqueror en route to a lopsided decision win. Buddy McGirt, hired after Kovalev’s nasty split with his longtime trainer, John David Jackson, deserves some credit for restoring Kovalev’s fidelity to a measured application of abusive fundamentals, but not more than the fighter himself, who made a mockery of all the premature eulogies in his honor.
Were it merely a matter of age and wear, talk of Kovalev’s decline would sit better. But it’s never just that Kovalev is aging, or that he’s reckoning with the consequences of having the strongest résumé in the division: the most obvious and sensible explanations for Kovalev’s vulnerability are rarely the exclusive ones. Perhaps it’s more interesting, more satisfying, more reassuring to deconstruct an unsavory fellow like Kovalev in moral terms, to tether his fighting weaknesses to deficiencies in his character. Perhaps we’ve just had our fill of the Eastern European invasion, that army of cool tacticians is starting to leave us cold.
For his part, Yarde, 18-1 (17), vowed to bring one title back west. Alas, he managed very little in the ten rounds that preceded his undoing beyond earning a moral victory from the same people who’ll bestow Luke Campbell with one after he’s demolished by Vasiliy Lomachenko in a few days. “I’ve done myself, justice, even coming out here—99 percent of people would not have dared to do what I did,” said Yarde, reinflating his ego in the aftermath of being knocked out. He’s right though, even modest in his math. But it’s a rather desperate contrast and hardly one to humor. Fighters are exceptional, and thus held to exceptional standards, something Yarde himself, who usually seems appropriately arrogant for his calling, would likely have encouraged had he won.
And he might have won had he landed another punch or two in the eighth round. It was then that Yarde—he of the flamboyant mitt-work and nonexistent sparring—came as close to winning a title as he will for some time (Kovalev is a softer touch, remember). Abandoning the counter left hook that Kovalev had solved, Yarde unloaded to the Russian’s body with both hands. The effect was striking and immediate. And Yarde knew it. He even waved off referee Luis Pabon, who tried to break the action after Kovalev landed a low blow. Yarde seemed to grasp that his only hope for victory lay in finishing Kovalev in that stretch of vulnerability, and, to his credit, Yarde went for it. It was a taxing commitment, one that likely cost the UK fighter the chance to lose a decision. But that commitment also imbued the fight with its only real drama. Those gripping moments were Yarde’s, and that too is to his credit.
It wasn’t enough, though; and Kovalev, the quitter, the bully who breaks in the face of resistance, the fighter who wilts under body shots, survived those harrowing moments and reestablished control of the fight. He did so behind his jab, a weapon Yarde may have navigated better had he acquainted himself with the instructive and ill-intentioned stick of a sparring partner or two.
And then it was over. In the eleventh, Kovalev stepped in with a hard jab that put an exhausted Yarde on his back and kept him there.
With the win, Kovalev preserved a chance to fight middleweight champion Saul Alvarez for a career-high payday in November. Somehow, Kovalev is already being counted out in that fight as well. It says something about Kovalev that Alvarez is targeting him. What, exactly? Perhaps that Kovalev is the most vulnerable champion (and will be even more so if burdened with a catchweight), perhaps that he’s the most recognizable. It’s likely a combination of both, but if you think Alvarez needs an opponent to move the needle you’re welcome to Google “Rocky Fielding.” The Alvarez brain trust sees a light-heavyweight mark in Kovalev. And apparently they aren’t alone.
So this, then; this is the “next time” people have been talking about. Kovalev is surely finished now. And if not, then the time after this one, right?