One of boxing’s most dramatic shows rolls into 2023 early. Light-heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev is known mostly for one thing: he hits ludicrously, cartoonishly hard. There are other big punchers in the sport, of course, but possibly no-one today — not even at heavyweight — lands each punch as concussively as the 38-year-old Russian. In his nine years as a pro, he’s steamrolled every opponent who’s stepped in with him.
The fight most want to see him in is, of course, fellow light heavyweight champ Dmitry Bivol. In the absence of that, though, he’ll happily look to wreck his way through all comers, so here he is, travelling to London for this one, against the flawed-but-dangerous Anthony Yarde.
This card is available on ESPN+ in the US and BT Sport in the UK. The scheduled start time of the card is 2pm ET, though ESPN+’s schedule doesn’t start till 3:30pm: presumably there will be prelims shown on BT that ESPN won’t carry. Ringwalks are expected at about 5:30pm ET, but stay tuned on the day for updates on that.
Beterbiev (18-0, 18 KOs) was a decorated amateur. He won a world championship and a couple of European golds. His career as a pro started slowly for someone turning over at 28, but since winning his first world title (the IBF in 2017) he’s been appointment viewing. He’s since added another two belts to that and is most recently coming off a 2-round demolition of Joe Smith Jr. last summer.
Stepping in with him this time is Yarde (23-2, 22 KOs). Don’t let the length of the record fool you. He’s a lot less experienced than his opponent. Beterbiev had a strong amateur career, allowing him to move up as a pro relatively quickly. Yarde, on the other hand didn’t. As a result, a lot of those numbers are learning fights. Even with that, though, his career path has been odd. This has been his second jump up to world level against a hard-hitting Russian, having lost to Sergey Kovalev in 2019. Outside that, though, he’s fought almost entirely against completely overmatched opponents. His one opponent of a good British level, Lyndon Arthur, he’s 1-1 with .
One thing to note about Yarde is his loyalty to his trainer, Tunde Ajayi. In some respects, that is obviously a desirable trait. However, Ajayi is not an experienced boxing coach and has had some very odd ideas about how to work with his fighter. This has led to the perception that Yarde’s natural talent has been held back. After the 2020 loss to Lyndon Arthur, they did make changes, bringing former European and British champion James Cook onto the team. This seems to have shored up some holes, leading to a dominant KO win in the rematch with Arthur. Whether it’s enough to bring him up to the level needed for this fight is open to question, but let’s take a look at the details.
Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first: Beterbiev should win. The difference in both experience and proven technical ability is vast here. The champion has a level of skill, particularly in attack, that is sometimes disguised behind his reputation as a relentless bruiser. This came to light most obviously in his 10-round battering of Oleksandr Gvozdyk. The Ukrainian was a seriously good opponent, with some solid defence and movement as well as an attack of his own. He was competitive throughout the first half of the fight, but after that, he began to fall apart. That happened because Beterbiev doesn’t just throw hard and hope for the best.
The main problem for Yarde will be that it’s very hard to tell where those shots are actually going to land. Beterbiev is a master of disguising what he’s aiming for until very late, and carries the rare skill of doing that while still landing hard. His opponents find themselves trying to block an overhand that turns at the last second and slips under their elbow to their chest, or a hook to the body that becomes an uppercut. He uses this to draw defences out of shape by throwing one way, then another.
This marries well with the fact that Beterbiev already has a huge arsenal of punches to throw. Some fighters, when you say they can throw a right hook, that means two shots; one to the head, one to the body. Even very high-level boxers can fall prey to this — Anthony Joshua is an example. Beterbiev is not one of those. He can adjust the arc on any punch he throws in a variety of ways. Added to that, he’s comfortable throwing any of them from various positions, not needing his opponent to be in a particular spot to let something go. It makes him very difficult to predict and means his attack is anything but crude.
That will be an issue for Yarde, whose defence is sound in principle but gets ropey in practice. In essence, he does the right things, but does them wrong. Not in huge, obvious ways, but his head movement will take him just slightly off balance. Or his hands will be a little bit out of place. Any individual mistake isn’t egregious, but these are the sorts of things that amplify with each movement. A small mistake will leave an opening for Beterbiev to exploit. Yarde’s reaction to that will likely lead to another, larger, mistake, and so on. He hasn’t been too exposed on that front so far in his career, but he’s never fought a pressure fighter like Beterbiev. Even Kovalev, also known for his destructive tendencies, was more of a jab-heavy mid-range fighter with a finishing instinct.
All that will likely be exacerbated by Yarde’s other big weakness — his footwork. He’s made some progress on this since hooking up with Cook, but mostly on closing distance. We’ve not yet seen how he’ll react when he has to escape. Now, actual outboxing almost certainly won’t be in his plan, but at some point against Beterbiev you just have to get to distance for a breather. We’ve seen little indication Yarde has that in him. If that’s still true, he’ll find himself overwhelmed fast.
The final note of real concern is his stamina. Against Kovalev, although outboxed, Yarde had his moments of success. In chasing them, though, he ran out of gas. He ended so tired he was knocked out by a jab in the 11th round. He appears to have been working on managing that since then, but as mentioned, Kovalev was not a pressure fighter. Neither is Lyndon Arthur, the best opponent Yarde’s had since then. Beterbiev is, so Yarde won’t be resting on his own terms
And, even aside from Yarde’s particular weaknesses, there’s Beterbiev’s other hidden strength. He’s a pressure fighter by preference, but when he needs to, he can step off and let an opponent come at him. When he does that, he keeps his balance well, so he isn’t easy to force out of shape that way. He counter-punches well, too. All of the tools mentioned above about picking punches well work just as well when he’s under fire himself, looking to back an opponent off.
So yes, Beterbiev should have too much for Yarde. That’s a long list of reasons to favour him.
This is being made out as a fight somewhat similar to that two round demolition of Smith. It’s true that Yarde hasn’t proved himself at any higher a level than Smith, or equal even. They are, however, not similar fighters. Smith imploded for a couple of reasons. He needs to impose himself enough on his opponent that they’re not really throwing to be effective, so when Beterbiev threw back, he wilted. That is not true of Yarde. Smith also doesn’t really defend much at all, so for all Yarde’s mistakes, he’s a level up there.
Yarde will be the first fighter Beterbiev has faced in a while who actually wants to exchange with him. Sure, ultimately that will probably prove foolish. It’ll certainly make it hard for him to adjust when things do go wrong. But, for all the subtlety in his attack, Beterbiev often doesn’t really defend much himself. He tends to rely on intimidating his opponents into submission. His footwork, too, is positionally good but he sometimes lets it get technically crude. He gets into the right spaces very quickly, but he’s often initially off balance. That means if an opponent can find him they can drop him. Callum Johnson, another good British fighter with no real world level experience, did it. It is fair to say that when he really needs it to be he can keep it much cleaner, but he does make those mistakes when he sniffs blood.
And that could leave him open to Yarde’s one big strength. 21 knockouts in 22 wins suggests Yarde is no pitter-patter puncher himself. What that pure stat doesn’t show though is his speed. It’s sometimes overlooked because his feet are slow, but his hands are fast. And, much like Beterbiev himself, he doesn’t throw thoughtlessly. He looks to open up gaps, throwing shots in one spot then waiting to see what the reaction is before following up. A slower fighter couldn’t get away with that, but Yarde is fast enough to visibly pause after throwing and still have enough time to get a follow-up home. He’s also good in his own right at taking advantage of an opponent getting off-balance, or otherwise out of shape. Which Beterbiev does do. Put simply, if Yarde can disrupt Beterbiev’s attack, he might have enough to actually take advantage. It’s not a big shot. He’ll have to fight right into the teeth of Beterbiev’s best strengths to get there. But it’s a shot.
So yes, Beterbiev is rightly being heavily favoured. But Yarde will have a go. With his own predilection to attack, too, it should be a firefight while it lasts.
What’s on the undercard?
We’re looking at quite a strong card here. Ukrainian Artem Dalakian has received criticism for seeming content to sit on his WBA flyweight title for five years now. His opponent here, David Jimenez, isn’t an elite fighter, but he should be good enough to prove a challenge. Beyond that, this is going to be a showcase for a slate of British prospects. Probably most notable are Karol Itauma, at light heavyweight, and the professional debut of his highly rated brother, Moses, at heavyweight.
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