Boxing: Ruslan Provodnikov

Best fights to make at welterweight

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
1:18
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There was a certain refreshing nature to the way England’s Kell Brook soundly defeated Shawn Porter on Saturday to capture his welterweight title.

It wasn’t just the convincing nature of Brook’s performance or the fact that his victory announced -- somewhat unexpectedly -- a new player at 147 pounds in boxing’s undisputed glamour division.

The victory by Brook, 28, was extra sweet because it came within the grounds of a disturbingly rare meeting between unbeaten titlist and unbeaten challenger.

Brook (33-0, 22 KOs), who saw his shot against then-titleholder Devon Alexander fall apart three times due to injuries sustained to both fighters in the past two years, was able to challenge for the belt held by Porter (24-1-1, 15 KOs) because he was the mandatory. Without that distinction, it’s fair to question whether Brook would have had that chance in this spot.

After an almost dream-like 2013 for boxing, the first eight months of 2014 has seen the sport devolve back into a state of slow-play matchmaking and promoters not working together. Outside of an unforeseen surprise like Bernard Hopkins-Sergey Kovalev, fights like Porter-Brook have been few and far between in a year dominated by high-profile mismatches and too many pay-per-views.

Brook’s victory over Porter, however, reminded us of how important it is to get the kind of fights whose sole purpose are to give us answers regarding which fighter is truly for real.

With that thought in mind, here are the top five fights that can realistically be made in the welterweight division. Forget the idea of a Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao bout or anything else directly blocked by network exclusive deals or promoters and advisers who don’t play nicely. If those restrictions weren’t already painfully in place, one could quickly concoct 10 matchups better than any you will see below.

But these are the five best matchups at 147 pounds that not only could happen in the next 12 months but really should. So let the involuntary shadowboxing begin:

5. Kell Brook-Keith Thurman

While an all-England showdown between Brook and Amir Khan would be a major superfight across the pond, this pairing would do a better job definitively answering which fighter truly is “next” in the welterweight division. Both fighters are unbeaten, poised and well-rounded. Where do I sign up?

4. Ruslan Provodnikov-Brandon Rios

There’s certainly a bit of guilty pleasure associated with this fight between the two most unapologetically fearsome brawlers in the game. Yes, there would be blood. This would be one of those fights that you would tell three friends to tell three friends to tune in for. Violence and dramatic entertainment wouldn’t just be a hopeful expectation in this case but a guarantee.

3. Danny Garcia-Amir Khan II

Garcia, the unbeaten recognized champion at 140 pounds, has plenty of big fight possibilities in front of him at junior welterweight against the likes of Lamont Peterson, Adrien Broner and a possible rematch with Lucas Matthysse. But with the weight cut becoming increasingly harder for him, a move up to welterweight is inevitable. What better way to make a debut than in a high-profile rematch against the exciting and vulnerable Khan, who had plenty of success in the early parts of their first meeting before eating a flush left hook from Garcia that he never recovered from.

2. Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Keith Thurman

The obvious reactions regarding whether Thurman is ready for a fight of this nature or if his résumé deserves it quickly fade when you look at Mayweather’s current pool of prospective opponents within the division. We know we aren’t going to see “Money” against the likes of Pacquiao or Timothy Bradley Jr., so when you factor in Thurman’s game-changing power, balanced skill and bustling personality, the unbeaten interim titlist’s unanswered questions only add to the prospective intrigue of the fight. While you are much more likely to see Mayweather, should he defeat Marcos Maidana in their Sept. 13 rematch, in lower-risk/higher-reward fights, a showdown with Thurman is not only easy to make but also the most interesting for Floyd on paper at 147.

1. Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez V

I don’t want to hear about customer fatigue or the fact that the two fighters would be a combined age of 77 by the time this fight would be makeable again in 2015. This pairing, between top-five pound-for-pound fighters, still means something. Not only would the victor have a legitimate claim to having won this generation’s greatest rivalry, but all four fights have been dramatic, action classics. In fact, their most recent bout -- Marquez’s vicious one-punch knockout of Pacquiao in December 2012 -- was the best fight the sport has produced since Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I in 2005. This fight doesn’t just make sense because, thanks to boxing politics, both fighters are without a better or more lucrative opponent in waiting. It’s the best fight you could currently make in the division because it involves two all-time great fighters who bring out the best in each other like no one else can.

Bradley, a new and improved fighter

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
11:45
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It has been an improbable run for unbeaten Timothy Bradley Jr. to his current spot among the sport’s pound-for-pound best, considering all he has overcome.

For as many negative labels that have been heaped upon him as a fighter in recent years, Bradley (31-0, 12 KOs) has continued to leap right through them. He has been called anything from dirty and boring to even somewhat of an in-ring con artist for having pulled off a consecutive run of debated victories on the scorecards.

In the two years since his historically contentious split-decision win over Manny Pacquiao -- an undisputed low moment for Bradley, who received death threats and was partially blamed for the controversy -- the 30-year-old Bradley has done plenty of work to repair his image entering Saturday’s rematch with Pacquiao at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET)

As dark as 2012 was for Bradley, he used 2013 as a platform to dispel the notions that he isn’t exciting (in his all-out war with Ruslan Provodnikov) or worthy of elite mention (with his split-decision win over Juan Manuel Marquez.)

But the biggest negative surrounding Bradley has long been his perceived lack of punching power. It’s a notion -- supported by his low knockout percentage -- that is a bit misleading when you consider that he has wobbled and hurt the likes of Marquez, Luis Carlos Abregu and Lamont Peterson. Still, Bradley will never be mistaken for a huge puncher.

What’s interesting to consider, though, is whether his lack of one-punch power has grown to become a positive for Bradley in a different way -- helping to make him a complete fighter.

“I’m getting older and smarter, and I’m paying close attention to my technique and listening to my corner,” Bradley told ESPN.com. “There have been a lot of things that I have made adjustments and improvements on. I had a great 2013, but it took 2012 for me to get to where I’m at today. I had to go through some things in order to make me a stronger person mentally, physically and spiritually.

“Once you go through the past -- and all of your trials and tribulations -- if it doesn’t break you, it will make you stronger. That’s what is happening with me.”

It was the impact of the public backlash following the Pacquiao fight that spurred on Bradley’s superhuman performance against Provodnikov in last year’s ESPN.com Fight of the Year. And although the brutal fight won Bradley a legion of new fans, the physical toll changed him -- but not in the way most observers originally thought.

As Bradley entered his bout with Marquez seven months later, there was a fear that he was damaged goods, leading few to predict the masterful boxing performance he went on to produce.

“What happened in the Ruslan fight really made me go back to my craft and do what I do best in boxing,” Bradley said. “I showed a different side of my game to people [against Marquez] to show I’m a complete fighter.”

Bradley credits his ability to make adjustments as a cerebral fighter to his days studying film as an amateur under Al Mitchell, when he learned to critique fighters’ strengths and weaknesses.

“I was good at it right away, and I started taking different things from different fighters and looking at what made them so successful,” Bradley said. “What made [Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.] so successful was the fact that he would throw one shot to the head and two shots to the body and break you down. He had unbelievable timing. So what did I do? Add body punches to my craft. I picked that up from the great Al Mitchell.”

What has always separated Bradley from the pack is his unmatched work ethic and desire, and mixing that with the newfound wrinkles and versatility of his game have him suddenly at the peak of his prime entering Saturday’s rematch.

“I can be a lot of different styles and bring a lot of different things to the table,” Bradley said. “I’m always switching up. It’s just me being me and figuring out ways to win and using different angles to try and get to my opponents. Whatever they don’t like, I just try to throw it in their face as much as possible. Once they catch on, I’ll switch it up again. It’s just hard to really outthink me.”

The wrinkle in Saturday’s rematch is that because both fighters felt wronged by the impact of the controversial decision, each will be searching for his own piece of redemption.

In many ways, that’s how Bradley, who has long relished the underdog role, has prepared for each of his fights. He believes he is a completely different fighter than two years ago and is hoping once more to prove wrong any remaining doubters.

“I do everything well but not everything the best,” Bradley said. “I’m not the most talented, but the thing that sets me apart is my will to win, and that I always figure out a way because I can make adjustments. I have a very athletic fighting style and I find a way to squeeze by and win fights.”

'12 Days': Pacquiao-Provodnikov

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:17
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Ruslan  Provodnikov Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRuslan Provodnikov is still waiting for an opponent to defend his title against in June.
In the spirit of the holidays, ESPN is celebrating the season with our own "12 Days" wish list of the fights we want to see most, regardless of promotional or other entanglements. Keep checking back over the coming days to see new fights revealed, discuss our choices or even suggest some of your own in the comments section or via Twitter using #ESPN12Days.

On June 26, 1891, two boxers, incongruently dressed in tuxedos, boxed an exhibition on the stage of San Francisco’s Bush Street Theater. One was heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan and the other was upstart contender Jim Corbett.

It was supposed to be a friendly sparring session, but Corbett had an ulterior motive. He was on a scouting mission in preparation for a hoped-for title shot, and discovered that he could easily feint the lumbering Sullivan out of his patent-leather pumps, avoid his roundhouse swings and pretty much land his own punches at will.

A little more than a year later, Corbett knocked out Sullivan to win the championship.

It is difficult to know how much Ruslan Provodnikov has learned during dozens of rounds sparring with Manny Pacquiao, but if this wish-list fantasy turns into a real fight, at least the Russian slugger will know what he’s up against.

Although casual fans probably wouldn’t know any more about Provodnikov than they did about Brandon Rios, those familiar with the “Siberian Rocky” understand that it would in all likelihood be a tremendously exciting fight. While there are no guarantees in boxing, Pacquiao-Provodnikov would be as close to a sure thing as it gets.

Provodnikov only knows one way to fight: charge straight into the teeth of his opponent’s punches, hurling haymakers. Yes, he’s easy to hit, but so far he’s been impossible to discourage. His head gets knocked back, his face gets busted up and his knees buckle, but Provodnikov keeps coming, rumbling inexorably forward in search of his prey. And as anyone who has seen the Russian brawler dig to the body knows, when he lands, it hurts.

Pacquiao, however, not only knows more than one way to fight, he is currently in the process of making the transition that all aging fighters must make if they are to prolong their stay at the top. Of course he’s not the same old Manny Pacquiao. That’s an unrealistic expectation. Instead, he is tweaking his style in a manner befitting a 35-year-old veteran of 62 pro fights.

With a wrecking ball such as Provodnikov in the other corner, Pacquiao’s metamorphosis couldn’t have come at more opportune time. Trying to be the same Pacquiao who tore through some of the best fighters of his generation could very easily prove disastrous. Provodnikov is not Rios. He would attack with far greater ferocity and wouldn’t stop until it was over, one way or another.

Although Pacquiao is not the knockout artist he once was, his evolving style remains aesthetically pleasing. His ability to dart inside, unload, and evade counters by ducking under and pivoting away was impressive against Rios, as was the discipline he demonstrated in sticking to the fight plan instead of recklessly gunning for a KO. But none of that stopped Manny from throwing 790 punches and landing 281 of them.

In no way should the fight be considered a foregone conclusion. If Provodnikov catches Pacquiao early, the way he did Bradley, and forces Manny to trade, there could be an upset. Freddie Roach, who trains both fighters, said Manny had superior speed and combination punching, while Ruslan is the harder puncher with a single blow.

If, on the other hand, Pacquiao fights in the same prudent but busy manner he did against Rios, he should prevail in a fan-friendly fashion.

Fighters who have sparred together on a regular basis often learn to negate each other, but I’d be shocked if Pacquiao and Provodnikov turned out that way. Despite Manny’s relatively refined skills, it is not in either man’s nature to pussyfoot around. Two things would be virtually assured: There would be extreme violence -- and neither fighter would be wearing a tuxedo.

Kovalev: 'I want to fight Stevenson'

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
8:57
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There's only so much that unbeaten light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev can say about division champion Adonis Stevenson until the two fighters one day (hopefully) meet in the ring.

The anticipated showdown between two of the sport's most devastating punchers seemed like a slam dunk when HBO featured both fighters in showcase bouts on the same Nov. 30 card. It's a fight just about everyone in the boxing world is salivating over, from the fans and promoters to the network.

But that doesn't mean we'll see it right away. Stevenson, 36, who came out of nowhere in 2013 to make a case for fighter of the year consideration, with four knockout wins, is hoping to be handsomely rewarded for his efforts, seeking either more money from HBO or an opportunity for financially friendly options elsewhere.

Kovalev (23-0, 21 KOs), 30, typically deflects most questions about future opponents to the capable hands of promoter Main Events and manager Egis Klimas. But the Russian-born fighter makes no bones about the fact that he wants to stay active, with the goal being four more fights in 2014, including at least one against Stevenson.

"I hope he wants the fight [with] me, but maybe [he wants more] money. Maybe not yet, maybe later," Kovalev told ESPN.com. "Maybe he don't want [to fight] -- I don't know. You need to ask him. But what I'm thinking is that it will be a good fight and a very interesting fight for [boxing] fans.

"I want to fight Stevenson. I'm still waiting."

Kovalev clearly has respect for Stevenson (23-1, 20 KOs) as a fighter, calling him a dangerous puncher with both hands, especially from distance with his left. But he doesn't have the same admiration as others for the quality of Stevenson's biggest wins, including a first-round knockout of lineal champion Chad Dawson in June.

"You know, when I saw Chad Dawson go into the ring, I understood that he will lose because he [had] not recovered after he fought Andre Ward," said Kovalev, in reference to Ward's knockout of a weight-drained Dawson in September 2012. "[It was] the same look Mike Alvarado had against [Ruslan] Provodnikov. Alvarado already [went] into the ring [looking] like he is going to die. [Meanwhile,] Provodnikov just went into it. Alvarado had lost already before the fight."

Kovalev isn't necessarily speaking from a place of bravado or trash talk, although he did his fair share of the latter when provoked in his recent knockout of Ismayl Sillakh. He comes across as simply an honest fighter sharing his thoughts, which continued when he was asked about Stevenson's one-sided drubbing of Tavoris Cloud in September.

"Tavoris Cloud, he's a dangerous fighter, but he can only punch," Kovalev said. "If you will be boxing with him in the ring, you saw what [Cloud] can do. It was same fight like against [Gabriel] Campillo. He's only like a bull, like a fighter. There's no boxing. [Cloud] is ready for one punch and only that. At least that is my opinion."

Kovalev's notion that Stevenson's biggest wins need to be put into perspective isn't a great stretch considering both Dawson and Cloud were one fight removed from devastating losses against top-end fighters when Stevenson picked them off. Still, Stevenson did look spectacular in those wins -- both of which, it deserves to be mentioned, were bigger than any on Kovalev's résumé.

The timing for the light heavyweight showdown couldn't be any more perfect than now, with the slugger Kovalev having come into his own as a boxer through six fights with trainer and former two-division titlist John David Jackson.

"It's like [Jackson] is polishing a diamond," Kovalev said. "He is making me into a diamond and polishing out the little mistakes. He has improved my skills. He is keeping [me prepared] with hard work for any fight."

Kovalev, and just about everyone else in boxing, is hoping "any fight" turns out to be one with Stevenson. But does the fighter who instills fear in the hearts of opponents carry his own misgivings about the possibility of seeing such a must-see bout potentially marinate for too long?

"Maybe, you know? Maybe," Kovalev said. "But if he is not crazy and I am not crazy, this fight will [happen]."

Unfortunately for the rest of us, crazier things have happened.

Roach: Pacquiao will 'destroy' Rios

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
9:46
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Roach/PacquiaoChris Farina/Top RankFreddie Roach expects his fighter, Manny Pacquiao, to receive little resistance from Brandon Rios.

MACAU -- Brandon Rios and his trainer, Robert Garcia, think that Manny Pacquiao is in decline. It's an assertion that brings a snort of derision from Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach.

"When does he watch my guy? Does he see my guy train every day? I don't think his opinion really counts," Roach said of Garcia in Macau on Friday. "I watch my fighters carefully. If Manny had shown any signs of slippage in training camp, I'd be the first person to tell him it's time to go. It's not time yet, that's for sure."

Pacquiao, Roach says, knows full well that he has to be impressive against Rios in the Venetian Macao's Cotai Arena on Sunday morning (Saturday night in the United States), particularly as he is coming off two straight losses -- even if one of those losses, a decision defeat against Timothy Bradley Jr. in June 2012, was highly disputed.

"Being impressive is not winning a close decision," Roach said. "Being impressive is winning by knockout. He needs to win in good fashion, and the best way he can do that is by knocking the other guy out."

That's a scenario the trainer has no trouble envisioning.

"I don't feel like Brandon Rios can go the distance with the talent of Manny Pacquiao," Roach said. "I'm very confident about that. It's a world-class fighter going up against a guy who's maybe a journeyman at best."

Of course, Pacquiao was also determined to look impressive against Juan Manuel Marquez in his most recent outing, to prove once and for all that he was the superior fighter after three incredibly close battles between the two. That resulted in his being overly aggressive and walking into a sixth-round counter right hand that knocked him cold. Isn't there the danger that it could happen again?

"Sure, it can lead to that, but I think he learned his lesson last time," Roach said of Pacquiao. "He tried to finish Marquez and paid for it. I don't think we're fighting a guy like Marquez, though. Marquez is one of the slickest fighters of all time, let's face it. They had four great, close fights together. I don't think we're in against Marquez. This is not the same class as Marquez. It's not the same ability as Marquez. I don't feel this guy. He's too slow."

Indeed, Roach is doing little to sell the notion that fans should buy the pay-per-view to watch an enthralling, close battle.

"He won a title at 135 pounds; he was losing the fight eight rounds to zero, and he landed a lucky punch and got the win," Roach said. "Quality opponents: I don't see him have any. His last fight, he lost [to Mike Alvarado]; and then my guy Ruslan Provodnikov destroyed [Alvarado].

"I hope they're overconfident, because Manny's going to destroy this guy."

Marquez leaning toward Bradley rematch?

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
9:14
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Juan Manuel Marquez, Timothy BradleyAP Photo/Julie JacobsonJuan Manuel Marquez, right, may seek out another shot at Timothy Bradley Jr. -- this time in Mexico.

The notion that Juan Manuel Marquez is weighing a Ruslan Provodnikov fight seems to be a misconception. According to promoter Fernando Beltran, Marquez is instead interested in a rematch with Timothy Bradley Jr., and would prefer for the bout to be scheduled on Mexican soil.

In an interview with ESPNDeportes.com, Beltran said that he has had informal conversations with Marquez, and all of them have focused on Bradley and not Provodnikov, who last Saturday stopped Mike Alvarado to claim a junior welterweight title.

"A lot of people saw Juan Manuel defeat Bradley," Beltran said, although the official fight judges saw it differently, finding a split decision for Bradley. "It was a close fight, a true war filled with strategies. Juan Manuel nullified the age difference and proved he is both a great athlete and a great person.

"That's why Juan Manuel would seek the rematch against Bradley, and also the fact that he would get another shot at becoming a five-time champion in five different categories, an opportunity that Ruslan can't provide."

Marquez, whose family has urged him to retire in recent years, and who has lately hinted at it himself from time to time, at the moment seems to be leaning toward attempting to secure that elusive fifth title in as many divisions, a feat that would be a first for a Mexican boxer.

But with many of his recent fights in Las Vegas having been embroiled in controversy, Marquez and his promoter seem keen on ensuring more favorable terms for his next (and final?) attempt.

"If Juan Manuel wants to step away from boxing," Beltran said, "there's no better way of doing than in front of your home crowd, and having another chance to make history."

Provodnikov will burn bright, but quickly

October, 22, 2013
10/22/13
1:56
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If you followed the prefight build-up to Ruslan Provodnikov's all-action victory over junior welterweight titlist Mike Alvarado, a number of prefight foreshadowing quotes rang true in the aftermath.

Provodnikov promised that the bout would turn into a street fight and spoke intensely of his belief that technique and skill wouldn't play a part in deciding which fighter would impose his will on the other.

In both cases, Provodnikov's predictions were shrewd, helped along, of course, by his predisposition for going to war.

But there was one more statement from "The Siberian Rocky" that, frighteningly, hit home harder than all the others. In reference to his urgency to face the most dangerous opponents available for the simple glory of making memorable fights -- in lieu of traditional rewards such as money and titles -- Provodnikov said, "I don't have much time left in my career."

With a face-first style dependent on his absorbing punishment in exchange for inches of space that can be used to close the distance on his opponent, Provodnikov, who turns 30 in January and is as honest a fighter as the definition allows, is telling the truth.

A fighter of his ilk, one willing to go to such barbaric lengths to outlast his opponent and win a single fight, simply doesn't have a long shelf life at the top end of the sport. But the fact that he has a place among the sport's elite to begin with is remarkable enough on its own.

Provodnikov, who identifies himself of Mansi descent, an endangered indigenous people living in Western Siberia, grew up in the tiny Russian village of Beryozovo amid the ruthless climate that formed his dogged resolve. He had a nondescript amateur career and, until recently, was considered nothing more than a club fighter.

Yet, when taken with his performance in a March defeat against unbeaten Timothy Bradley Jr., this win appears to have launched Provodnikov into the rarified air of truly must-see action fighters. Those two fights also recalibrate expectations of what might be possible for him as he continues to seek out the toughest challenges available.

There are plenty of fighters who throw around clichéd variations of the notion that they are willing to die in the ring in order to win. But Provodnikov, even when compared to those savage few who are eager to give away large chunks of themselves for greater glory, is cut from a different cloth.

Skill and will in boxing aren't mutually exclusive, but it could be argued that fighters generally fall somewhere along a spectrum between the two. Provodnikov, in case you hadn't guessed, pushes the boundaries of the latter. He doesn't utilize his jab, his punches are wide and his defense nonexistent. But unlike those who rely on speed and technique or one-punch power, Provodnikov specializes in the maniacal pursuit and poaching of his opponent's willpower, a hunt that won't end until he runs out of time or his relentless pressure causes the pipes to burst.

There's little question about whether Provodnikov is a candidate to be controlled by an elite boxer who relies on movement, as was the case for half of his fight of the year candidate with Bradley. But that opponent had better be equipped with the backbone to withstand the storm.

Did Alvarado spend too much time trying to outbox Provodnikov by switching stances instead of trying to hurt him? It's possible. And might Alvarado, at 33, simply be broken down from the toll of an incredible fifth straight toe-to-toe slugfest in just a two-year span? Sure.

But let's not overlook Provodnikov's role in the outcome. He did more than score the biggest victory of his career on Saturday, securing an unlikely world title in the process. He broke the will of one of the sport's greatest action fighters in stunning fashion, and that is something truly special.

How high, exactly, Provodnikov will be able to elevate himself on sheer blood and guts remains to be seen, but history tells us that a firecracker of his kind will shine bright only briefly before spectacularly burning out.

No one knows that more than Provodnikov, who is set on emptying himself each time out, regardless of the consequences, in order to build his legend and discover just how good he can be.

It's a quality as unnerving as it is endearing, but it's why, at our deepest core, we watch: To see if a fearless fighter with the one skill that can't be taught is able to redefine what's possible for a fighter of his class by testing his manhood in the most unforgiving sport of them all.

Enjoy him while you can.

Bradley: 'I don’t back down'

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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When unbeaten welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley Jr. claims he’s willing to do something, we’re at the point now where doubting him would be a futile endeavor.

“A lot of people say that they are willing to do whatever it takes,” Bradley told ESPN.com Oct. 2. “But they don’t really believe it, especially when they get into tough situations. I think what separates me from a lot of fighters is when the tough get going, I get tougher. And that’s the bottom line.”

"

I'm the type of guy who wants to control the tempo. I hate sitting back. I don't like to wait. I like action.

" -- Timothy Bradley Jr.
Bradley’s quote probably would be written off as mere “fighter speak” had we not witnessed his incomparable will on display March 16 against Ruslan Provodnikov. It was that night in Carson, Calif., when Bradley’s claims that he was willing to “die in that ring” and “go into the devil’s mouth and do what I have to do” came to life in such startling and violent fashion.

Despite claiming a tight victory on the scorecards in the front-runner for fight-of-the-year honors, Bradley (30-0, 12 KOs) was staggered repeatedly by Provodnikov and forced to draw on an obscene amount of heart in order to fight back and survive.

No one realizes more than Bradley -- who admitted to suffering a concussion so severe that he had slurred speech for two months -- what a mistake it was to eschew his game plan to box by trading so recklessly with a bigger puncher. It was the kind of fight, to borrow a boxing cliché, with the potential to steal a fighter’s prime in one night.

Yet even though Bradley endured one of the worst beatings administered to a winning fighter in recent years, he fought back so competently during stretches of dire danger. And by doing that, Bradley discovered a superhuman recuperative ability within himself -- and with that, a double-edged sword.

[+] EnlargeTimothy Bradley
AP Photo/Jae C. HongDespite being knocked down several times in a brutal bout, Timothy Bradley Jr., left, won a narrow unanimous decision against Ruslan Provodnikov in March.
As Bradley enters Saturday’s title defense in Las Vegas against Juan Manuel Marquez (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET), will he avoid the temptation of calling upon the one career-shortening attribute -- his ability to endure untold punishment -- when using it could prove to be the difference between winning and losing the biggest fight of his career?

Bradley, who says he surprised even himself with the grit he displayed against Provodnikov, chalked up the fight to simply having to “do what I had to do and no one, not even my trainer, could stop me from doing what I had to do that night.” But to his credit, he has said the right things about the dangers of trading with a finisher as technically sound as Marquez (55-6-1, 40 KOs), who outright defines what a legendary counterpuncher should look like.

“Marquez is the best fighter that I’ve ever faced to date and I have to be very intelligent and can’t really open up like I’d like to,” Bradley said. “I’m the type of guy who wants to control the tempo. I hate sitting back. I don’t like to wait. I like action. But if I was going to come forward and be the aggressor, Marquez is the kind of fighter who sits back and waits on you to make mistakes.”

What complicates things, however, are the comments Bradley sandwiches around those, which hint at the fighter’s inability to hit the brakes once the bout inevitably turns into a war.

“Most fighters wither when it gets tough,” Bradley said. “When that storm comes on, they back down. I don’t back down.”

As much as Bradley, 30, intends to rely on a 10-year age difference, as well as advantages in speed and footwork, he eventually will find himself at a crossroads, when Marquez makes him fight. And at his very core, that’s who Bradley is -- a fighter.

He’s the same fighter who got off the canvas twice to defeat Kendall Holt. The same man who blocked out significant injuries to his left foot and right ankle in order to finish strong against Manny Pacquiao. And the same guy who crawled through the depths of darkness to finish on his feet against Provodnikov.

Bradley can say what he wants about introducing caution to his game plan, but there simply doesn’t appear to be an off-switch. Not for a guy who has relied this much on his iron will to defy expectations, remain unbeaten and put himself one step closer to his dream of being the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

Sadly, his greatest asset also may be the biggest enemy to his long-term health and the shelf life of his career. And despite what’s at stake for Bradley in the short term on Saturday, that could be a scary thing.

“This is a great moment for me and my family and everybody that’s involved in my career,” Bradley said. “You always think you’re going to get there but you’re never really sure because you can’t really predict the future. But it’s here, now. It’s right here in my face.

"So I say to myself: What are you going to do about it, Bradley? What are you going to do? It’s right here. No more talking, no more work. What are you going to do?”

Indeed. What are you going to do?

Expect boxing's banner year to get better?

August, 20, 2013
8/20/13
4:26
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So let's be real with each other about boxing in 2013:

Like a no-hitter through seven innings, this year shouldn't be celebrated too early. Can't be too careful to avoid jinxing anything to do with this cruel and unpredictable sport. But ... this year has been crazy. Amazing. Riveting. Scintillating. And it just seems to keep getting better with every week.

[+] EnlargeGeale-Barker
Courtesy of Alex Ridley.Saturday's fight between Daniel Geale and Darren Barker continued this year's trend of barnburners, stirring something unfamiliar in fight fans: hope.
From the blockbuster cards to the low-profile shows featuring prospects and journeymen, it isn't just that there has routinely been something to talk about at the proverbial watercooler. The talk has even been positive.

Even now, in the midst of a promotional cold war I personally abhor and will never accept as simply "Well, that's just the way it is," we are getting the fights we want -- and they are actually living up to expectation.

Fans have been able to enjoy at least five legitimate candidates for fight of the year (and that was before Saturday's Darren Barker-Daniel Geale scrap), including at least two -- Timothy Bradley Jr.-Ruslan Provodnikov and Mike Alvarado-Brandon Rios II -- that produced enough drama and savage artistry to be considered on par with the best of this century.

But it goes beyond that. We've also seen breakout campaigns from exciting and marketable action fighters such as Gennady Golovkin, Lucas Matthysse, Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev. We've seen the development of young stars who appear more than ready to be labeled "next." (I'm looking at you, Abner Mares, Adrien Broner and Mikey Garcia.) And we've seen more than the typical number of under-the-radar fights (think Omar Figueroa-Nihito Arakawa and Sakio Bika-Marco Antonio Periban) deliver unexpected fireworks.

What this all amounts to, especially with a jam-packed final five months already on the slate, with fight-of-the-year hopefuls and big-name pairings jumping off the schedule, is two-fold.

First of all, and probably most important, the sport is relatively healthy again. Go ahead, bring on the backlash to that comment. And don't forget to mention the lack of a central governing body, too many titles, far-from-ideal drug-testing protocols and, oh yeah, that whole promotional catfight. But all things considered, boxing appears to be moving in the right direction after such an up-and-down decade.

And it clearly had been a rough ride for the sport since 2004, when a clear and distinct changing of the guard began to take place. There was the sudden crumbling of the heavyweight division, with the retirements of Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko, not to mention the fallout of two knockout losses in a 17-month span for current champion Wladimir Klitschko. You also had a group of fighters who had become the face of the sport over the previous seven or eight years -- Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Shane Mosley, Felix Trinidad -- hit career snags as losses and the impact of age began to erode their elite status.

Every valley, however, eventually leads back to another peak, and boxing rebounded in a big way with a banner year in 2007. In fact, it was the sport's last truly great year.

You had the anchor of the highest-grossing fight in history between Floyd Mayweather and De La Hoya. There were marquee bouts between unbeaten fighters such as Mayweather-Ricky Hatton, Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor I and Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler. There also was a run of memorable action fights: Miguel Cotto-Mosley, Paul Williams-Antonio Margarito, Cotto-Zab Judah, Juan Manuel Marquez-Marco Antonio Barrera and the first two Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez wars. (And let's not forget about the Bika-Jaidon Codrington "Contender" finale and the two Michael Katsidis fights with Graham Earl and Czar Amonsot.)

Seriously, take inventory of the past 10 years or so in boxing and you simply won't find a more action-packed and memorable year than 2007 ... until now. And that leads to my second point.

The buzz of excitement surrounding the sport in 2013 has been a virtual runaway train. For the first time in many years, boxing's traditionally cynical group of fans and experts have grown to expect things to go their way. This is a huge departure from just a year ago, when a flurry of injuries and drug suspensions wiped out nearly a complete summer of entertaining fights.

So what was the tipping point? Ironically, it was a date that was supposed to have been representative of the type of greed that continually has plagued the sport in recent years. With both HBO and Showtime airing competing blockbuster cards on Sept. 15 -- which pitted a Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. PPV against a cable show headlined by Canelo Alvarez -- a night that was expected to further darken the sport's black eye somehow had the opposite effect.

Instead, the fighters on both cards applied the black eyes to each other. The momentum of the evening then spilled into a memorable three months to close out the year, highlighted by Marquez-Manny Pacquiao IV, and it hasn't slowed yet.

The fact that 2013's biggest fight to date -- Mayweather's May 4 win over Robert Guerrero -- featured a poor promotion, lackluster sales and a rather unexciting in-ring result, yet still hasn't killed the buzz, is proof that this will be a year to remember.

And think about this for a second: The next few months, we expect, will bring us continued excitement from the likes of Danny Garcia-Lucas Matthysse, Bradley-Marquez, Alvarado-Provodnikov and Pacquiao-Rios. But what about Mayweather-Canelo? What if this fight -- the one most experts continue to downplay as likely one-sided, with an almost predetermined result -- ends up bringing the kind of action, drama and excitement on par with what we've seen throughout most of 2013? What happens next?

It's crazy to think about, of course. But for a sport that is regularly labeled as cursed to yield a year so sublimely fun to be a part of, I'm not going to bet against it.

I have to admit, it's kind of weird going into a season of big fights and actually expecting them to live up to expectations. Don't lose heart -- this is really how it's supposed to be. Let's savor the flavor while we can.
As the dog days of summer kick into low gear, we reach the midyear mark of the 2013 boxing calendar. So what have we learned from this small sample size of the sweet science? In a fun, taking-stock exercise to cure the summertime blues, this week we unveil our midyear awards for the categories of best boxer, fight, knockout and round through the year's midpoint.

Agree with our selections? Disagree? In any case, let your voice be heard and weigh in on each category in our SportsNation polls and on Twitter.

What makes one round of boxing action stand out from any others? What makes fans leap to their feet and has commentators breathless?

Action, for one thing, and plenty of it. For all his sustained brilliance, Floyd Mayweather Jr. is rarely, if ever, in a round-of-the-year candidate. His erstwhile putative nemesis, Manny Pacquiao, on the other hand, frequently is -- and so is Pacquiao's November opponent, Brandon Rios.

SportsNation

What has been the best round of the midyear in 2013?

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    43%
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    5%
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    49%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,174)

Rios is the kind of guy who won't just take a punch to give a punch; he'll take six to give seven. He did that to great effect in his first against Mike Alvarado last year, and he did so to less effect in the rematch with Alvarado earlier this year. But there was a time early on in that March 30 contest when it looked as if Rios would overwhelm his rival, only for Alvarado to fight back strongly -- and at no point was the back-and-forth more dramatic than the incredible second round, which is my round of the half-year so far.

It didn't take these two 140-pound warriors long to pick up where they left off after their 2012 slugfest. After a slow burn of an opening round, Rios began the second by attacking Alvarado with left hooks, to which Alvarado responded with a short right hand. Alvarado then caught Rios with a hard left hook. And then Rios landed a jab -- of all things -- that sent Alvarado stumbling backward. Smelling blood, Rios attacked, but Alvarado fought fire with fire until a short right hand in the middle of another exchange hurt him again. Somehow, Alvarado found the wherewithal to back Rios off with an explosive combination to the jaw, before Rios came back yet again, snapping back Alvarado's head with an uppercut as the bell rang.

The task of a ringside reporter is to try and observe the action and note what's happening without looking away. The action flowed so thick and fast in this round that I gave up any pretense of note-taking, instead simply scrawling in my notebook at the end of the three minutes: "That was insane." The speed and ferocity of the exchanges and the refusal by either man to give any quarter are why I rate this make this the best round of 2013 so far.

Honorable mentions:

Sakio Bika-Marco Antonio Periban, Round 12: On the other hand, if your vote went to this Rock 'em, Sock 'em slobberknocker, it would be hard to disagree. This initially unremarkable super middleweight bout finally caught light around the midway point. Finesse and defense went out the window as the two opponents threw punches with progressively greater abandon, culminating in a wild final round that would have been deleted from a "Rocky" screenplay for being too fanciful. A big right hand from Bika, a big right from Periban, a huge right from Bika, a huge right from Periban ... back and forth it went, an insane finish to what turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining fight.

Timothy Bradley Jr.-Ruslan Provodnikov, Round 12: "Just box the [expletive] out of him," beseeched Bradley's trainer, Joel Diaz, at the start of the 12th round of this welterweight war. Bradley had been dropped and nearly stopped in the first couple of rounds but rebounded to open up a lead on the scorecards. All he needed to do during the final three minutes was stay out of trouble. But Bradley is a warrior, and after about 20 seconds of moving around the ring, he landed a left hook and began to engage. In the final minute of the fight, he threw a right hand and took a hard left hook as payment. Sent reeling, his response was to try and fight his way out of trouble until a right hand had him in trouble again. A barrage put him down to one knee with only 12 seconds on the clock, but he beat the count and the bell rang to end the fight before battle could be resumed.

Guillermo Jones-Denis Lebedev, Round 7: Lebedev's eye was already swelling into a horrific mass after six rounds of this cruiserweight battle, but the Russian looked like the more likely of the two to secure a stoppage victory for much of this seventh round. He tore into Jones repeatedly with 1-2 combos, and Jones, who had been outlanded to that point even as he had clearly done more damage, began to wilt. And yet somehow, in the final 30 seconds of the frame, he landed a sequence of heavy blows of his own as if from nowhere. They backed Lebedev off and presaged a second wind for the Panamanian, who would finally stop his (by now horribly disfigured) foe in the 11th.

Herrera-Kim headlines FNF card

May, 1, 2013
5/01/13
1:25
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Mauricio Herrera and Ji-Hoon Kim will meet in a 10-round junior welterweight fight on Thursday at the Omega Products International in Corona, Calif., in a special edition of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" (10 p.m. ET).

Despite dropping his past two bouts, Herrera (18-3, 7 KOs), of Lake Elsinore, Calif., has a respectable record with resounding victories over Mike Dallas Jr., Ruslan Provodnikov, Efren Hinojosa, Cleotis Pendarvis and Jason Davis. His first defeat came in 2009 against Mike Anchondo; the others were in 2012, against Mike Alvarado and Karim Mayfield.

Meanwhile, South Korea's Kim (24-8, 18 KOs) is coming off a defeat in December against Raymundo Beltran. He lost a decision for a vacant lightweight belt against Miguel "Titere" Vazquez in August 2010, and in order to face Herrera, he is going up in weight to the 140-pound division.

On paper, this fight can be an all-out war. Herrera and Kim bring styles that complement each other thanks to their clear commitment to exchange, but with different nuances. Herrera is a hard, tough and aggressive fighter with a penchant for making fans rise from their seats. His loss against Alvarado -- the reigning junior welterweight titleholder -- in April 2012 was a fight of the year candidate. Herrera has good defense and is technically superior.

Despite being equally as overwhelming on offense, Kim's defense still needs work. Most of the time his power makes up for his defensive deficiencies. He has managed to throw more than a thousand punches in a fight. With his all-action style, Kim has earned many followers. He has won more than 56 percent of his bouts by way of knockout.

Kim tends to harass his opponents until he manages to land, using the idea that the more he throws, the better his chances become to get a stoppage. If he manages to overwhelm Herrera and land his punches, he'll win by knockout. On the other hand, the risk of him being exposed due to his defensive deficiencies grows as the fight wears on. In an elimination bout against Australia's Leonardo Zappavigna in 2010, a mistake cost him the fight in the first round.

In the co-feature, former lightweight titlist Miguel "Aguacerito" Acosta (29-6-2, 23 KOs) faces Miguel Gonzalez (20-3, 15 KOs) in a 10-round bout. Acosta won an interim lightweight title by stopping Mexican Urbano Antillon in the ninth round in 2009. Then he traveled to Namibia and finished Paulus Moses in the sixth round. He was later stopped by Brandon Rios in the third round, before easily beating Luis Cardozo in Colombia.

Acosta sought to regain his title against Cuban Richard Abril in 2011, but lost the decision. He also failed to win his previous bout, on July 20. It was a close battle that ended in a split decision against Armenian Art Hoyhannisyan. On Thursday, Acosta will go for a much-needed win that enables him to get another title opportunity.

Gonzalez, 27, of Cleveland, is a rising prospect who had a 14-bout winning streak before falling on the scorecards in his previous fight against Mike Dallas Jr. For Gonzalez, defeating Acosta also would mean an open door to a possible title fight in the near future.

Bradley hoping to land fight with Marquez

April, 13, 2013
4/13/13
7:28
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Timothy Bradley Jr.AP Photo/Reed SaxonTimothy Bradley Jr. believes his best option moving forward is a fight with Juan Manuel Marquez.
NEW YORK -- Welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley Jr., who survived a tough fight against challenger Ruslan Provodnikov in March, publicly challenged Juan Manuel Marquez to a showdown of Manny Pacquiao conquerers.

Bradley (30-0, 12 KOs) told ESPNDeportes.com that the fight he really wants right now is against Marquez (55-6-1, 40 KOs), pointing out that a battle between the two would be more interesting than a fifth meeting between Pacquiao and his Mexican rival.

According to Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who promotes Pacquiao and works well with Marquez promoter Fernando Beltran, the two options for Marquez are Pacquiao or Bradley. As recently as Wednesday, Arum said the most likely scenario was Pacquiao-Marquez V in September, either in Singapore or Macau.

But this could be a pressure strategy to attract Bradley, who quickly jumped into the fire.

Bradley made his statement a few feet away from Provodnikov, minutes after the Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner, attended by both fighters.

"To be honest, I want it to be Marquez," said Bradley. "I would like it to be a showdown between the two guys who recently defeated Pacquiao. Why wait? I'm here and would love that shot. To me, Marquez is currently the best option."

Bradley took the welterweight belt off Pacquiao in June 2012 in a controversial split decision that even put the credibility of Las Vegas' judges under the microscope.

Against Provodnikov, Bradley was nearly knocked out several times, but in the end his toughness and conditioning helped him claim a close victory by unanimous decision (another that some questioned).

"If Marquez refuses to fight against me, he is going to lose money," Bradley said. "Listen to my words: He is going to lose money. Right now, the big payout is with me. I would be available to fight anywhere -- Macau or Singapore. To me, Marquez is the only option right now."

Bradley, also said he would have no problem accepting a rematch against Provodnikov (22-2, 15 KOs).

"The first fight against Ruslan was tough. If he wants a rematch, I'm willing to sign up for that," Bradley said. "In a second fight, it would be easier for me to defeat him. I already know how. A second matchup wouldn't be as hard as the first one."

If Bradley can't win hearts, he'll just win

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
2:06
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If you've ever felt solace upon hearing the phrase "you can't please everyone," you're not alone. Timothy Bradley Jr. knows the feeling all too well.

Let's face it: Lately, this guy can't please anyone.

For all the success the welterweight titlist has enjoyed in his eight-plus years as a professional -- 29 wins and counting, against zero defeats -- he hasn't fared nearly as well in the court of public opinion outside the ring.

With boxing fans and critics being as finicky as any in sports -- willing to stamp a fighter as anything from soft to old and obsolete based upon just one performance -- Bradley has heard it all.

The Palm Springs, Calif., native has been labeled a dirty fighter who leads with his head. With just one knockout in the past six years, he has also been told he doesn't punch hard enough to be a legitimate power threat. And after twice turning down headlining roles in big-money bouts (with Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson) over the past two years, Bradley's business savvy has routinely been called into question.

All of that, of course, doesn't include his most egregious sin of all: daring to overcome a fractured left foot and badly swollen right ankle to finish strong last June in the biggest fight of his life against Manny Pacquiao. Oh yeah, there was that other part, too, that got under everyone's nerves: Bradley having the nerve to claim he had actually won the fight, despite a widespread outcry following one of history's most controversial and contentious decisions.

But let's not take the "woe is Tim" road as Bradley prepares for his first title defense, against Ruslan Provodnikov on Saturday in L.A. Instead, why don't we take a moment to figure out how we got here?

At 29 and in the peak of his prime, Bradley has many of the ingredients that typically attract a desired level of crossover appeal. The unbeaten American looks and acts the part of a champion, has a tireless work ethic and positions himself as a role model in terms of his perseverance and professionalism.

But somewhere along the way, as Bradley has endured multiple layoffs due to injuries, promotional issues and difficulty finding big-name opponents, he has left a bad taste in too many mouths. In fact, there seems to be an underlying feeling that many fans would prefer, as harsh as it sounds, that Bradley just go away.

His stock surely wasn't helped by the lasting memories of the two highest-profile bouts of his career: the debacle against Pacquiao and the forgettably dreadful 2011 junior welterweight unification bout with Devon Alexander. Both are deemed black marks on Bradley's résumé, despite the fact he was victorious in each.

"A lot of [the negativity] has affected me over my career, but I've learned to basically just draw it out," Bradley told ESPN.com. "I've learned to understand that everybody has an opinion, and it's freedom of speech, so anyone can say anything about you at any time, whether it's true or not. I've learned to accept it and accept the criticism. It's made me a stronger person."

Bradley is realistic and self-aware enough to realize that something went wrong along the way regarding his likability and marketability to the general public. He also knows that the only way to repair that reputation is within the ring ropes.

"All I got to do is keep winning and keep winning in good fashion," Bradley said. "I need to stay busy and fight more often. Once or twice a year is not good enough. I think that the crossover fans, they need to see me a lot more and see how good I am. That's the most important thing, to show why I am one of the top fighters in the world."

Staying active will clearly be the key for Bradley, ranked eighth in ESPN's pound-for-pound top 10, to help amend his commercial value within boxing's marketplace. He also needs to pursue -- and ultimately accept, without pricing himself out of -- the biggest fights available to him.

Many of those fickle critics would be quick to embrace Bradley should he rack up a series of exciting, high-profile wins. Still, the perceptions of others are out of his hands, and he isn't concerned with the things he can't directly control. Love him or hate him, Bradley says he isn't going anywhere any time soon.

"After I destroy this boy on March 16, I'm still not going to get the credit," he said. "I could beat Floyd Mayweather and I'm still not going to get the credit. I've learned to accept that. But one thing that I will get is respect. I will be respected. That's what I fight for."

FNF preview: Provodnikov vs. Reynosa

June, 23, 2012
6/23/12
1:24
PM ET

Ruslan Provodnikov never fails to entertain on "Friday Night Fights," and this week he'll take on Jose Reynosa in a 10-round junior welterweight bout main event in Corona, Calif. For more, check out the preview above.

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