Well, that was pretty great.
The expectation going in was that this was going to be, mostly, a one-sided beatdown. Even the more optimistic Yarde fans didn’t think he had much chance between getting there first on a hard shot, bringing his own power to bear in a snap moment. Or Beterbiev would get old overnight, and be unable to compete with the speed.
What we got instead was an early contender for Fight of the Year, a back-and-forth affair of heavy leather and smart adjustments. Yarde far exceeded expectations in many ways, drawing the most exciting fight we’ve seen from Beterbiev, perhaps in his whole pro career. It was superb, exciting, and the differences came in the finest margins. The reason for the champion’s win was not so much that he hit so much harder, nor that he was technically vastly better. It was that in certain moments in the heat of battle, he made the right decisions, faster than Yarde.
Let’s take a quick look at the story of the fight before we dig into the reasons, because there’s patterns we’ll need to talk about. It started with Yarde, unexpectedly, boxing on the backfoot, and doing so quite well. He wasn’t necessarily winning the early rounds, but he was well in them. His best weapon in those moments was a check left hook, pivoting and stepping around to his left while throwing that punch and letting Beterbiev run on past him. Beterbiev did adjust, starting to focus much more heavily on the jab as he approached, but the left hook was a weapon for Yarde throughout. At the end of the third, Yarde started to get perhaps a bit overconfident. He let a couple of big shots go that missed, taking hard hits in return. He survived, but the fourth round opened with him still hurt and Beterbiev pressing the action.
That was when we saw another surprise, somewhat. Despite Yarde clearly wobbling, he managed to fire back hard and sharp enough that the champion decided that a toe-to-toe firefight wasn’t in his best interests. He backed off, and from then on adopted a different strategy. Rather than pushing the action non-stop and trying to blow Yarde away, he’d step off a bit, invite the Brit at him. This was a risk, because as long as Yarde kept patience, he had the handspeed to land on Beterbiev from a distance, and had success. He did get impatient, though, and that was when Beterbiev’s plan came into play. He’d fall back to a corner, then spin and put Yarde into it. From there, off-balanced from the spin and already at close quarters, Yarde found it more difficult to escape or land his shots. Those were the moments in the fight the champion did the most unanswered damage.
The end didn’t come from that directly, but still from Beterbiev playing patient. It was quite simple really: throughout the fight, one of Yarde’s tactics had been shovel hooks to the body, which he’d dip a little to his right to throw. For the knockdown, Beterbiev ate that shot, but timed one of his chopping overhands to clip Yarde as he popped back up. That sent him reeling, with follow-ups knocking him down. He did get up and carry on, but Yarde’s trainer wisely decided he’d seen enough, and waved the fight off.
— Boxing on BT Sport (@BTSportBoxing) January 28, 2023
So, what was the difference here? Was it the anticipated huge gulf in technical form between the two? Well, no, not really. Yarde did make errors that led to openings, of course, but the reverse was also true. Pretty much all of Yarde’s success in the fight came from seeing mistakes the champion was making and exploiting them. The difference came in how quickly each noted their own mistakes, and the strategies they had to deal with it.
The first example came with that check left hook that Yarde kept throwing. Beterbiev opened the fight aggressively, and he found himself matadored repeatedly, at one point falling into the ropes completely. It wasn’t really hurtful, but it was embarrassing, and it was dangerous. Yarde never quite got there on time, but if he’d got to Beterbiev while he was recovering his balance even once, that could have been big trouble. But he didn’t, because within a round and a half, Beterbiev had spotted the problem, and adjusted. Instead of rushing to push Yarde to the ropes, he focused on his jab, pushing him back that way and only letting the big shots go when a step closer. Yarde’s hooks were still landing, but they were no longer throwing him off-balance, and that removed a big threat.
He did try to continue to press, though, and as we mentioned, that still proved surprisingly dangerous. On a couple of occasions from the third through the fifth, he hurt Yarde pretty clearly. As a brutal finisher, this is normally his cue to step in and pound his opponent out. When he tried, though, he discovered that, hurt as he was, Yarde still had answers. In particular, he’d throw some hard fast bodyshots that the champion really didn’t like. With those combining with the occasional flashy shot upstairs, Beterbiev decided that it simply wasn’t worth the risk, and backed away. He, apparently, isn’t a fighter like some who can become much slicker when in need- but that was okay, because he had other plans.
And that was the key. In the heat of the moment, under fire, he made a decision, and implemented it. Later on, in similar situations, Yarde did not. Most notably, as we mentioned, Beterbiev very clearly adopted a strategy to lure Yarde to the corners then spin him into them. This happened three or four times when Yarde got too keen chasing what he thought was an opening to finish, yet Yarde never stopped doing it. While it wasn’t those moments that ended the fight, the hurt he took and the energy he expended to stay up definitely had an effect. By the eighth, Yarde was starting to look tired. Not nearly as exhausted as he did against Kovalev, but slowing down at all against Beterbiev is a bad sign. He may not have avoided that chopping right anyway, but it certainly didn’t help.
— Top Rank Boxing (@trboxing) January 28, 2023
You can probably add to that that the chopping right hand was something Beterbiev had been working on throughout. The bodywork had been a big part of Yarde’s success, so Beterbiev decided to try to use it against him. Yarde didn’t see it coming, and walked into it.
And that, probably, was the key difference between them. Both were able to get a read on their opponent’s technical weaknesses, but Beterbiev was able to get a read on his own. In the fire, both when under pressure and when pressing himself. Yarde didn’t. He didn’t stop pressing when Beterbiev faded to the corners, and he didn’t connect that overhand right to his own movements. The differences in power, and raw technical ability, were there, but ultimately, it wasn’t those that decided the fight. It was that awareness, the cool head in the moment.
For Beterbiev, what we want from the future and what we’ll get probably aren’t the same thing. Ideally, he’d fight Dmitry Bivol for the undisputed light-heavyweight title. Almost certainly, what he’ll get instead is a defence against Callum Smith. To be fair, that is by no means a bad fight. Smith isn’t as good as Bivol, but he is enormous, much bigger than Yarde, and carries a sweet bag of counters that are a danger to any aggressive opponent. It’d be disappointing not to see Bivol, but still worth watching.
Yarde has, for the second time in his career, raised his reputation considerably despite a loss. He now has several options. Quite which come to pass depend in large part on promoters coming together. A big domestic clash with Joshua Buatsi- on the BT desk last night- would be ideal, but hard to make. A losers’ face-off with Gilberto Ramirez would also require cross-promoter work, but might be easier. Even aside from those, though, light heavyweight has a stack of good British or fringe world contender type matchups that would be of interest. Perhaps Joe Smith Jr? As long as he doesn’t drop back down to fighting no-hopers again, it’s hard to go wrong.
Either way, we can only hope that both get into something as entertaining as this.
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