Sunday, May 19, 2024  |

By Paul D Gibson | 


While it should never be easy to win your first world title, Anthony Yarde could be forgiven for thinking it should not be this difficult. Three and a half years ago, the Londoner traveled to Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains to challenge Sergey Kovalev for the WBO version of the light heavyweight crown. It was too soon for him, they said, and they appeared correct as the champion dominated early before forcing a late stoppage. But in an eighth round in which Kovalev tottered like he might towards the end of a heavy session on the Russian Standard, we saw enough from a very raw Yarde to suspect he’d be back for more soon enough.

A surprise loss to Lyndon Arthur in 2020, emphatically avenged the following year, delayed that return to the top table until January 28, 2022. But while this time around Yarde at least enjoyed home advantage, that is where life stopped getting any easier. Again it was a formidable Russian … sorry, Chechen … sorry, Canadian-as-a-Mountie-drinking-maple-syrup-from-the-Stanley-Cup standing in his way. A unified champion who had knocked out all 18 of his previous foes, Artur Beterbiev is a bona fide beast and one of the most formidable boxers on the planet. He’ll have far too much for Yarde, they said. When the ring inside Wembley Arena finally cleared of circus acts, it was time to find out if they were right once more.

(Photo by Mark Robison/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)

The start was fast as Beterbiev looked to be the alpha by establishing an authoritative jab and manipulating Yarde backwards from sheer presence alone. Yarde feigned resistance to the tactics, but in truth he looked relaxed and comfortable on the back foot. He was happy biding his time, waiting for the step forward a half-foot too long, the weight a few pounds too far over the front foot, the split-second in which a well-thrown check hook could land. Twice or thrice he caught an advancing Beterbiev with the shot, knocking the champion off balance in the process. But Beterbiev is far too seasoned a boxer to allow a pattern to be set that is detrimental to his chances of winning. For every occasion he was caught, there was another in which he entered range unhindered and landed a damaging right hand. After three minutes, it was already clear they were delivering the intense, educated war we’d hoped for.

The two men continued into Round 2 at a pace more suited to a far lighter weight class. Jab supremacy remained a key goal for both, but lead left hooks were finding homes and rattling bones as well. Yarde swallowed one with his back against a corner post, but keen to deny Beterbiev any encouragement, he spun out of danger and fired back in kind. The crowd responded with the first of many throaty roars unique to an elite prizefight in which anything can happen. Seconds later, Yarde exited the opposite corner in a more direct fashion, a connecting right uppercut the punch of the night thus far. It was probably enough to earn the Englishman that round, and he was within a shout of taking the third as well until a jarring left hook on the bell sent him back to his stool blinking hard.

The crowd responded with the first of many throaty roars unique to an elite prizefight in which anything can happen.

A Swiss patent clerk once explained to the world that time is relative. Perhaps he’d been considering how the 60 seconds between rounds feels for a fighter with momentum compared to one seeking respite. The bell to commence the fourth proved a tocsin for Yarde as Beterbiev piled forward from the off. For a full minute, the champ had his man backed against one rope then another, damaging lefts and rights hitting more than they missed. The challenger could only swing wildly in return, falling well short with each attempt. Beterbiev is well-accustomed to finishing wounded prey, and for a moment it looked like his latest quarry was in the bag. 

But a temporarily open-mouthed Yarde was going nowhere yet, and Beterbiev had the experience to sense that. The attack eased, perhaps with a view to launching another all-out assault in the final minute of the round. Not prepared to wait and find out, Yarde got his retaliation in first. A short vicious left must have hurt. Beterbiev is not a man to show many outward signs of suffering pain, but it must have hurt. Wembley Arena certainly thought as much, and the noise urged Yarde forward. This time he was the aggressor, corralling the Russian towards the dead end of a neutral corner and aiming to tee off. But before he got that far, a shuddering right hand with everything behind it landed square. Yarde covered up and then emerged chastened a few seconds later. In quick succession, both had felt the other’s power and accepted it was a force not to be trifled with too often. The remainder of the round played out in a tacit agreement to settle for what they had and go again in the fifth.

You felt it must, but the pace refused to slow. Yarde was the first to strike this time, a right hand the like of which had stopped plenty of his previous opponents landing flush. Again Beterbiev did his best to hide the true extent of the damage, but the sudden desire to bounce backwards and away from confrontation said it all. A minute later, another check left hook took Yarde out of a corner and deposited Beterbiev against the adjacent ropes. A long right quickly followed, and suddenly the champ was holding on. As the crowd rose, so did Yarde’s blood. He marched his man down, forcing him from one side of the ring to the other and back again. It wasn’t quite Kovalev Round 8, but Beterbiev looked none too comfortable. Then, by some miracle of resilience it is difficult to comprehend, he was comfortable and on the attack. It was a torrid final 10 seconds for Yarde as he was bludgeoned from all angles until the bell ended a round that was worth the price of admission alone.

(Photo by Mark Robison/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)

Yarde ate two jabs and an arcing right hand in the opening 20 seconds of the sixth, but Beterbiev failed to build on those foundations. In truth, neither had managed to fully impose their will on the other. The ebbs and flows within each session were constant, and what momentum either man managed to fashion would swing violently from one side to another and back again. The fight was still very much anyone’s to win, and anyone’s to lose. There were signs of fatigue in Yarde now, but his heart remained as strong as ever and his more forthright pressure throughout the session earned him another round.

Both now wore the masks of combatants that had fought for much longer than 18 minutes. Yarde was heavily marked and bore a razor-like slash on his right cheekbone. Beterbiev sported a notable gash on his left eyelid and an angry welt below the same peeper. It had been brutal but clean, with gloved fists doing all the damage. The level of punishment absorbed kept those who had wagered on a stoppage either way confident their bets remained good. The rest of us were simply enthralled by the show.

The opening half of the seventh session was all Yarde. Nothing destructive landed, but in nuisance value alone he was well on his way to banking another round. Then, with a minute to go, the narrative took another abrupt turn. The punch with which Yarde had had so much success, a short check left hook to an advancing target, ironically did the job for Beterbiev. Innocuous, it went largely unnoticed at the time. But like the final drop of water that causes a cup to overflow, it was the punch that directed the fight down a road of no return. The champ pinned his man to the ropes and unleashed to body and head. It was Yarde’s heart alone now keeping him afloat. More than that, it was keeping him fighting. The standing ovation at the final bell was the only appropriate response to what was unfolding.

(Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)

It’s as if Beterbiev now knew it was time. Patiently he waited, allowing his opponent to expend the final kilojoules of energy in defensive movements alone. He watched and noted how Yarde’s bobbing and weaving had not only slowed but now also lacked any tangible offensive output at the conclusion. The champion just had to time a right hand. The first did the damage, buckling the knees and scrambling the senses. The second, a cruder cuff of the lugs, expedited Yarde’s fall. He dragged himself to his feet at eight – of course he did – a heart as big as his. While the ref sought assurances he wished to continue, Yarde turned towards his coach. Nothing was spoken, and we’re not privy to what the look in Yarde’s eyes said, but Tunde Ajayi knows his fighter better than he knows himself. The trainer gave the boxer a second to prove his instinct wrong, but as fresh blows from Beterbiev rained down, Ajayi stood on the ring apron with one hand raised and said, enough. An often-maligned trainer, he can not be faulted for this act of mercy. Corners, just like refs, must err towards ending contests one punch too early rather than one too late.

The champion dropped to his knees in relief and celebration of a victory he could not have imagined would be so difficult to earn. He moves on, pristine record still intact. He is an immense fighting machine, with just enough flaws to make his matchups potential classics if his opponent fires back with belief. The only fight Beterbiev and the boxing world wants now is the WBA champion, Dmitry Bivol. Another undefeated Russian … sorry, Kyrgyzstani … sorry, Californian aiming for 175-pound supremacy, Bivol would aim to outbox rather than outfight his countryman.

As for Yarde, he’ll be back. And as he did after Kovalev, he’ll return a better fighter. Boxing rarely respects destiny narratives, but given a third chance, who would bet against him finally fulfilling his dream.

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