Light heavyweight world titleholder Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev put himself on the verge of a massive fight against Canelo Alvarez later this year by knocking out Anthony Yarde in the 11th round at the Traktor Arena in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
The U.S.-based Russian survived an eighth-round crisis in a fight he otherwise dominated, before finishing England's Yarde with a powerful left jab to the jaw.
It was just the statement Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KOs), 36, wanted in his first professional fight in the city where he was raised.
So, what's next for him? Where does Yarde (18-1, 17 KOs) go from here? Dan Rafael and Nick Parkinson share their thoughts.
Is Kovalev still a top fighter?
Rafael: From about 2013 to 2016, Kovalev was viewed as one of boxing's pound-for-pound best. He had gone to Wales and won his first light heavyweight title by destroying Nathan Cleverly, cruised to a shockingly one-sided decision over Bernard Hopkins to unify three titles in 2014, and scored two knockouts of former champion Jean Pascal in 2015 and 2016. To many, Kovalev even deserved the decision in his first fight with Andre Ward in 2016. But since taking a knockout loss to Ward in their 2017 rematch, Kovalev has not been the same. He can compete with top guys, but he's 36, has had some tough fights and many issues outside the ring. While he's very good it's hard to see him still being elite.
Parkinson: Kovalev looked sharp, accurate, tactically astute and just about showed enough stamina after absorbing some big punches in the eighth. But this rousing win was a statement that he is not finished, and is still a major player -- perhaps the No. 1 light heavyweight in the division -- again.
It was Kovalev's pinpoint jab that served him so well against Yarde, along with well-timed combinations. It was vintage Kovalev, and destroys theories that he is on the slide.
What should Kovalev do next?
Rafael: Forget unification. He's been there, done that. He should, 100 percent, go for the fight with Canelo that is on the table for Nov. 2. The potential unification fights with Dmitry Bivol or the winner of the Oct. 18 unification fight between Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Artur Beterbiev are certainly interesting fights but they pale in comparison to a showdown with Canelo, who would move up two weight classes. Kovalev stands to make way more money to fight Alvarez than in either unification fight and there would also be far more fan and media interest in a fight with Canelo. It's not even close. This is a no-brainer decision.
Parkinson: This impressive performance clears the way for Kovalev's promoter, Kathy Duva of Main Events, to resume talks this week with Canelo's promoter, Golden Boy, about a fight on Nov. 2, which will likely be Kovalev's biggest payday of his career. Canelo -- boxing's biggest star, and world middleweight No. 1 -- has been showing interest in moving up two weight classes to challenge Kovalev, and he should be Kovalev's preferred option for his next move.
If talks break down, and Canelo chooses a different opponent, then Kovalev has an attractive alternative. California-based Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk sits atop of ESPN's latest light heavyweight rankings, and faces Canada-based Russian Artur Beterbiev, the IBF titleholder, in a mouth-watering matchup on Oct. 18 in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card in Philadelphia. A fight against either WBC champion Gvozdyk or Beterbiev would be huge for Kovalev and generate a lot of interest in Russia, and Ukraine if a matchup with Gvozdyk is made.
Where does Yarde goes from here?
Rafael: Yarde may have lost but he showed he has ability and a fighting heart. He needs more experience in a bad way. He was 18-0 but had never fought anybody of remote note. He's only 28 and physically fresh since he had only 12 amateur fights. He needs real training though. He said he didn't spar at all for the fight with Kovalev, which is nuts. Sparring is important and also gives a guy experience. But Yarde does have a future if handled the right way.
Parkinson: Yarde will recover from his first setback, but clearly needs more tests against boxers in the top 10 before another crack at global glory. Yarde can take confidence from the fact he had Kovalev rocking in the eighth round and bravely kept coming forward until Kovalev's accuracy took its toll and he became more exposed shortly before the finish. Expect Yarde to get another world title fight, but promoter Frank Warren should get him some learning fights against other contenders. Fights against fellow Britons Joshua Buatsi and Callum Johnson would be popular with fans. But U.S.-based Badou Jack or Jesse Hart might be better targets for Yarde in 2020.
What was the key to the victory?
Rafael: One word: Jab. Kovalev's jab was a nightmare for Yarde. Kovalev jammed it down the middle throughout the fight and Yarde was never really able to adjust to it and find a way to get away from it. Trainer Buddy McGirt reminded Kovalev to use the jab and land it anywhere he could -- the head, the body, the arms, just keep firing it. A vast experience advantage also played a big role for Kovalev, but the jab was the big weapon. Kovalev's jab often lands like a power shot and, in fact, a heavy left jab turned out to be the knockout punch.
Parkinson: While Yarde had no answer for Kovalev's left jab, experience was the defining factor in the fight. This was Kovalev's 16th consecutive world title fight, and first defense of his third reign as WBO world light heavyweight champion, after making nine defenses in two previous reigns (2013-2016 and 2017-2018).
But Yarde, who had just 12 amateur fights, had never been in a world title fight before. It was also the first time Yarde had faced a top-tier opponent, and one who is as offensively minded as himself who gave him his first proper "chin check." Ultimately, it was a painful experience for Yarde.
What are Kovalev's chances against Canelo, Gvozdyk and Beterbiev?
Rafael: Kovalev would have a tough time in any of those fights, but he could also win each of them because he's a big puncher with vast experience. But I'm not sure if he'd be the favorite in any of them. Gvozdyk is better technically and a solid puncher, Beterbiev is a bigger puncher with fresher legs, and Alvarez, while a lot smaller, is a hellacious body puncher, which is something Kovalev has a hard time taking. Yarde hurt Kovalev to the body several times and Andre Ward knocked him out to the body in their rematch. Just imagine Alvarez banging his ribs and liver with his Hall of Fame-worthy left hook.
Parkinson: As impressive as this was, Kovalev's stamina will again be under scrutiny if he faces the younger Canelo, Gvozdyk or Beterbiev. The eighth round was a reminder that Kovalev's stamina can let him down in the second half of fights, and he can be hurt.
Fellow light heavyweight titleholders Gvozdyk and Beterbiev are big punchers who would punish any moments of fatigue. It's a tough call -- it might come down to who lands first. Canelo faces a big challenge if he decides to step up two weight classes and go for a world title in his fourth weight class, which would tie him with Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales and Jorge Arce for the most among Mexican boxers. However, his speed, energy and combinations could be too much for Kovalev to contain in the later rounds.