Nikolay Yakovenko took up wrestling in 1958 and won his first Soviet title in 1961 in the Greco-Roman welterweight division, but was not selected to the Soviet national team until 1967, when he competed as a light-heavyweight. Yakovenko made his international début at the 1967 World Championships, where he won gold as a Greco-Roman light-heavy. At the 1968 Olympics, Yakovenko won silver in Greco-Roman light-heavyweight and, after moving up to the heavyweight class, won another silver medal at the 1972 Olympics. Yakovenko was also the 1969 World and 1972 European Greco-Roman heavyweight champion, while taking bronze at the 1970 World Championships. Domestically, in addition to his 1961 Soviet title, Yakovenko won the Soviet Greco-Roman heavyweight title in 1969, Greco-Roman middleweight bronze in 1965 and light-heavyweight bronze in 1966. Yakovenko finished his sporting career after the 1972 Olympics and then worked as a wrestling coach and official. From 1973-80 Yakovenko was head coach of the Soviet national Greco-Roman wrestling team and later worked as a wrestling coach with SKA Rostov-on-Don and CSKA Moskva. He also worked as head of the wrestling department of the Soviet Sports Committee and, from 1985, was head of the physical education department at the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering. He was also honorary president of the Moscow Wrestling Federation. Since 2009, an annual memorial tournament in his honor has been held in Rostov-on-Don.