By Corey Erdman
Sergey Kovalev slumped onto his stool following the eighth round of his bout against Anthony Yarde. He was thoroughly dominated and nearly knocked out. He looked up at his trainer Buddy McGirt and saw a man concerned, ready to stop the fight, as referee Luis Pabon was mere seconds before. Kovalev found himself pleading not just to remain in the fight, but so much more—he had to decide whether his time as a meaningful elite fighter was up, and whether chasing the “gold watch” fight against Canelo Alvarez was worth what he would have to go through to get there.
Improbably, Kovalev bounced back and produced his best round of the fight, hammering Yarde again and again with a laser accurate jab. Two rounds later, it would be that same jab that knocked Yarde out.
The 11th round knockout was the most exciting performance of Kovalev’s career—but physical, back-and-forth fights aren’t necessarily what’s best for 36-year old fighters. As dramatic and entertaining as the fight was, it had the distinct feel of an old champion’s last stand.
In a different context, Kovalev’s performance can be viewed as equally concerning as it was entertaining. Kovalev struggled with an inexperienced opponent who didn’t spar in preparation for the bout and looked to use just two weapons—a sweeping left hook and a pull-counter right hand—to thwart him. When Yarde chose to move forward behind a high guard and simply push Kovalev back, he did so with relative ease, and nearly ended the fight by doing so in the eighth round.
It’s through this lens that Kovalev’s old rival Andre Ward, who provided commentary for ESPN’s broadcast of the fight, viewed the contest.
"How much does he have left in the tank? He showed again that he does not do well when he gets hit to the body, when somebody presses him and is not enamored with the power and can take the power,” Ward said afterwards. “So, I think he's in that tricky spot in his career where, if you have a cash out situation, meaning you can say hey, I've got enough in the bank to walk away, you should take that."
Kovalev’s situation is far from unique—in fact, fighters quite often bank their biggest paydays when they are past their prime. There are several reasons why —for one, purses are generally commensurate with the income a promoter perceives the fighter can generate for them, which is often tied to overall recognition, which generally is earned over time in the spotlight. Most of boxing’s biggest fights ever have included one—but often two—fighters past their peak.
But Kovalev may be in a “now or never” type situation when it comes to cashing his career-high check. The odds heading into the Yarde fight, which saw Kovalev as low as a -170 favorite, indicate how the public and bettors’ perception of his abilities have declined since his losses to Ward, and particularly his knockout loss to Eleider Alvarez.
The Russian’s marketing appeal is rooted in his mainstream recognition, of course, but hinges desperately on his possession of the WBO light heavyweight title, and the fact that he’s had back-to-back wins on national television. The Yarde fight showed how unstable the ground he stands on is at this point.
Kovalev reportedly walked away from an eight-figure offer to face Canelo earlier this year to make good on his promise to have a world title fight in his hometown of Chelyabinsk. It turned out to be a riskier play than perhaps he thought it would be. In interviews prior to the bout, he entertained the notion of the Canelo fight, but stressed that he only has about five fights left in his career, and his dream is to unify the light heavyweight division—which would mean battling Dmitry Bivol and the winner of the upcoming Oleksandr Gvozdyk-Artur Beterbiev clash.
"I probably wouldn't tussle with the young lions at light heavyweight,” said Ward. “I would do away with the notion of unifying. He's gotta fight four times to make the Canelo money. So I'm going to the low-hanging fruit, the biggest fruit on the tree, Canelo Alvarez. See what happens in that fight and then make a decision about your career. Because he's starting to age right before our eyes, he's starting to get into dangerous territory at 36 years old."
One has to wonder if, in the wake of the scare against Yarde, Kovalev and his braintrust feel a little more urgency in fetching the biggest possible payday the next time out, rather than laying out a five-fight plan. It’s well known that Canelo is looking to fight in early November if possible, which would be a quick turnaround for Kovalev. But that opportunity may never present itself again. Kovalev is vulnerable against any 175-pounder at or near the top of the rankings at this point, and Canelo could find another opponent, go on to fight Gennady Golovkin next year, and Kolave’s ship will have sailed.
For Kovalev, it’s an opportunity to make a colossal amount of money, but to potentially rewrite the narrative of his career. For better or worse, his losses to Ward are at this point considered the biggest fights and defining moments of his career. But a win over Canelo—the sport’s biggest star and perhaps its very best fighter would serve to reframe his resume entirely. And if not, the additional zeroes in his bank account would make any regrets he may have a little more bearable.