1000 Fights: Bradley-Provodnikov

 Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Michael Gluckstadt

This Saturday, HBO Boxing airs its 1,000th fight. To commemorate the occasion, HBO Boxing Insiders selected their favorite fights from the HBO catalog and wrote about them.

March 16, 2013

There's an old boxing quote that's been misattributed to everyone from Mike Tyson to Joyce Carol Oates, a variation of which goes like this: "You can play tennis. You can play basketball. You can play football. You can't play boxing." Well, it might not match up as well linguistically, but you can't watch boxing either, at least, not like any other sport.

At every boxing match, there's a certain range – and it varies by the size of the venue, sound of the crowd, and power of the puncher – where if you're within it, you'll feel the punches land before you hear or see them. Boxing is unparalleled in the intimacy it offers between observer and participant. And though I've been a die-hard sports fan my entire life, I didn't always know this. I learned it watching Timothy Bradley fight Ruslan Provodnikov.

More: HBO Boxing Insiders Pick from 1000 Fights

Bradley came into this fight perhaps the most haunted reigning champion of all-time. After being gifted an incorrect – not "controversial," just flat-out wrong – decision victory over Manny Pacquiao, he settled into a deep depression. Fighters are often quick to declare themselves winners in their own mind, readily brushing aside all claims to the contrary, but for a man who never quite captured the fan support he deserved, hearing he'd somehow robbed the world's most popular fighter of his belt was too much to bear. He came into the fight with Provodnikov determined to put on a show, no matter the cost.

Ruslan Provodnikov may just be my favorite human being on the planet. He comes from a group of indigenous people of which there are just over 5,000 men remaining (many of them, according to Provodnikov, are either in jail or perpetually drunk). He grew up in Siberia on a steady diet of raw moose liver, which he still enjoys. And his mother is a Russian nesting doll come to life. But the most striking thing to me about him are his eyes – green, soft, almost childlike, they betray a vulnerability that is nowhere else to be found on his person. Because the most notable things about Ruslan Provodnikov in the boxing ring are his hands of steel, iron will, and Kevlar chin.

Bradley-Provodnikov was not a fight anyone had circled on their calendars. Writing for HBO.com, Nat Gottlieb called it "a classic high-risk, low-reward matchup, and probably a no-win situation for the champion." He rightly described Provodnikov as "virtually unknown to most fans." In truth, it shouldn't have been close. Had he simply been looking for a victory, Bradley could have boxed circles around Provodnikov. But Bradley didn't come to win, he came to fight.

Here's HBO Boxing Insider Kieran Mulvaney describing the fight's opening rounds:

Bradley looked from the start like a man determined to win over some fans, as he walked right in and began fighting Provodnikov's fight in round one. Nearly a 10-1 favorite with some oddsmakers, Bradley gave up his advantages in skill and speed and elected to trade punches with his relatively one-dimensional Siberian opponent. "I came out fast because I wanted to jump on him, I wanted to control the action and work at my pace," Bradley later explained. It didn't take long for the folly of that strategy to become clear. A Provodnikov right hand late in the round hurt Bradley, and he held on and soon fell to the canvas. Referee Pat Russell ruled it a slip, a dubious decision that became demonstrably incorrect when Bradley tumbled backward and down again upon trying to stand up.

The second round was pure caveman combat. It would do it no justice to try to describe any of the single punches that were thrown. This was about the totality of the three minutes, Bradley getting walloped over and over but refusing to go down, just standing in the Russian's range and punching back. To anyone with the slightest interest in a liberal application of the 10 points available to each boxer, this was a 10-8 round without a knockdown.

In the subsequent 10 rounds, Bradley alternated between putting on a boxing clinic and getting lured into a street fight, with the latter moments clearly favoring his opponent. At the end of the 12th, Provodnikov finally put Bradley down on the canvas with a series of cracking right hands. Bradley, showing Provodnikovian levels of heart, got to his feet and survived the round. He won the fight 115-112, 114-113, 114-113.

It's a cliché to say the fighters left it all in the ring, but post-fight follow-ups show that, in this case, it isn't just a platitude. Bradley, who suffered an obvious concussion in the first round, was unable to speak normally for months following the fight. As Bradley was making his way to the hospital that night, Provodnikov gave an interview in the bowels of the Home Depot Center. His face resembles a crude drawing by a particularly non-dexterous kindergartner; the only thing human about it are those soft, green eyes.

There's another boxing quote I like, this one directly attributed to S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated: "All sports are boxing at different levels of remove." It's not the savagery or the skills on display that made this fight stand out, but that it showed me how boxing is the ultimate expression of sports revealing character – and at great personal cost. I was in love and repulsed at the same time.

In other words, it made me a boxing fan.