By Hamilton Nolan
The term "Fight of the Year" is misleading. For fans of boxing, the sweet science, the thinking man's chess, Fight of the Year would be the most flawless expression of skill, of split-second decision-making under pressure, of defensive mastery and the implementation of strategy and the brilliance that emerges when a man is at the very pinnacle of his craft. The fight of the year would be a thing of beauty – were we all talking about the same thing.
That is not, in practice, what the Fight of the Year is. What ends up being enshrined as Fight of the Year is, more commonly, the most violent fight of the year. Strategic jousts between canny competitors do not usually win this particular crown. When the pundits and broadcasters and old know-it-alls start talking about the Fight of the Year candidates, they reel off a reliable list of the contests that were both evenly matched, and very, very bloody. To the extent that casual boxing fans watch boxing not for science, but for smashing, the popular pick for Fight of the Year often conforms to their preferences. Defense makes great boxing matches. But two determined men with good chins and not so good defense standing toe to toe makes for a Fight of the Year.
Which brings us to the matchup between Lucas Matthysse (36-3, 34 KOs) and Ruslan Provodnikov (24-3, 17 KOs). Far be it from me to insinuate that either of these fine men is more concerned with putting his fist through an opponent's cheek than he is with perfecting the art of the shoulder roll defense. That said, this is widely expected to be a very strong Fight of the Year candidate. It is not difficult to figure out why. Ruslan Provodnikov's fighting style is to stay small, move forward constantly, and position himself for the sort of left hook that leaves his body twisting off its axis and seems capable of launching a man's head into the sixth or seventh row of seats. Provodnikov is both extremely deliberate and extremely single-minded in his pursuit of knockouts. He is the opposite of a volume puncher. He stalks, and then he smashes. If he succeeds in catching his prey, he wins. If his prey is nimble enough to escape him without being smashed, as Tim Bradley and (arguably) Chris Algieri were, he loses. This is his nature, and it does not change.
Lucas Matthysse's fighting style bears a certain resemblance to Provodnikov's, at least in temperament. Matthysse, too, comes forward and looks for knockout shots. But he is, if not exactly slick, a bit more of conventional boxer than Provodnikov, throwing combinations, and jabs, and things of that nature. What sets Matthysse apart is his absolutely lethal punching power. He belongs to that small and special class of fighters who are able to make you wince looking at a punch they missed, in contemplation of the carnage that would have resulted had it landed. Matthysse is certainly the deadliest puncher in his division, and one of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers in all of boxing. He has left a trail of bodies across America in the past five years. Even those who were able to defeat him, like Devon Alexander and Danny Garcia, probably would not welcome a rematch.
And so, with Provodnikov meeting Matthysse, we have two men who come only to kill. The last matchup that was this likely to produce nonstop action was Brandon Rios vs. Mike Alvarado (previously a Fight of the Year winner), and this fight promises to be even better, since Matthysse and Provodnikov are better boxers than either Rios or Alvarado, who are both flat-footed sluggers. The two men will try to knock each other's faces off. They know no other way. We know that Provodnikov will push forward, and look to set up one big blow. And we can say with a fair level of confidence that Matthysse will catch him with sickening, vicious combos to the body and head while he is doing so. Matthysse is the more complete fighter, and the more active puncher, and possesses a slight edge in power. The fight, though sure to be a near-death experience, is his to lose. As Danny Garcia proved, though, Matthysse can be hurt as well. A single well placed left hook by Provodnikov could give him a win, just like that. It's two very strong grizzly bears, dancing on a razor's edge. Fun.
On the uncommonly good undercard, lightweight champ Terence Crawford (25-0, 17 KOs) faces Thomas Dulorme (22-1, 14 KOs). In Crawford, we have a legitimate champion, a complete and polished fighter, only a step or two from placing himself solidly in the midst of the pound-for-pound lists. In Dulorme, we have one of the world's most freakishly talented young fighters—his hand speed and power are both world class—struggling to prove that he belongs in the championship ranks, having completed his ladder of comeback fights after a devastating loss to Luis Carlos Abregu in 2012. Dulorme has yet to mold his gifts into a total package, as Crawford has. He may find that his ladder to the top still has a few rungs yet to go.