- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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For 11 rounds, Ruslan Provodnikov battled Timothy Bradley Jr. one-on-one. In Round 12 of the fighters' melee back in March, the Siberian slugger found himself in a handicap match -- against Bradley and the clock.
It's boxing's ultimate dramatic scenario: the final round of a championship fight, with one man needing a knockout and hurting his opponent badly as the seconds tick away. From the 15th round of Jake LaMotta versus Laurent Dauthuille, to Round 12 of Julio Cesar Chavez versus Meldrick Taylor, to the 12th round of Sergio Martinez versus Chavez's son Julio Jr., boxing history is dotted with these unforgettable sprints to the finish line. To that roll call we can now add the last stanza of Bradley-Provodnikov, ESPN's 2013 round of the year.
Bradley led by three, three and five points on the official cards through 11 rounds (although many observers thought it was closer), meaning prohibitive prefight underdog Provodnikov needed two knockdowns just to get a draw. In other words, his best chance for victory was to knock out Bradley. And considering he had hurt Bradley badly three or four times already, it was an outcome that was very much in play.
The first half of the round was a microcosm of the whole fight: Bradley controlling the action when he jabbed and employed lateral movement, Provodnikov doing damage whenever Bradley stood in front of him and willingly engaged. With the Southern California crowd chanting "Brad-ley! Brad-ley!" at the midpoint of the stanza, the American produced a quick combination to the body, leaving himself open for a flush right hand to the jaw. That punch reminded Bradley to get back on his toes and pump jabs into Provodnikov's bloody left eye and protruding cheekbone.
With a minute and 15 seconds to go, Provodnikov leaned on Bradley, sending the defending welterweight titlist down to his knees and draining precious seconds off the clock as referee Pat Russell issued a warning. Down to his final 53 seconds, Provodnikov lured Bradley into an exchange along the ropes and sent him staggering across the ring with a left hook. Bradley clinched briefly, but then his machismo put him back in danger when he chose to pursue Provodnikov and walked into a right hand to the jaw that sent him lock-legged into the corner with a half-minute to go.
The subsequent conversation between HBO broadcasters Max Kellerman and Jim Lampley captured the drama of the furious finish. "Bradley better hold here!" Kellerman yelled. Responded Lampley: "Bradley reaches out and grabs. His legs are almost gone!" And then Kellerman: "One shot could put him down here -- and out!"
Provodnikov unloaded two big rights and then a left, wobbling Bradley into the ropes with 16 ticks on the clock. With 12 seconds to go, Bradley stumbled forward and dropped to a knee. "That is a knockdown. But the clock is going to bring an end to the fight," Lampley said. "If Bradley can get up and stay up!" Kellerman clarified. Bradley made it to his feet at the count of six, Russell asked him to come forward, Bradley did, and the bell rang before the Russian could throw another punch.
"It's a 'Rocky' movie! That was 'Rocky'!" Kellerman exclaimed at the bell.
As in the first Balboa-Creed fight, the undefeated beltholder survived to win the narrow decision. If there's a rematch to this real-life "Rocky" fight, Bradley and Provodnikov will be hard-pressed to produce a more captivating round than the one that capped this brawl.
2. Mike Alvarado-Brandon Rios II (second)
Alvarado's and Rios' straight-ahead styles complement each other perfectly and have made all 19 of their shared rounds a delight for viewers. From their second fight, in March, won closely on points by Alvarado, the second round stood out -- particularly the final third of it. You rarely see a fighter rocked by a jab, but that's precisely the punch Rios used to buckle Alvarado's knees with a minute to go. "Bam Bam" pursued and landed some vicious uppercuts, but Alvarado stood his ground and started talking smack. For the final 15 seconds, they engaged in a nonstop, zero-defense exchange, and another fight of the year contender from Alvarado and Rios was off and running.
3. James Kirkland-Glen Tapia (third)
Halfway through this third round, HBO's Lampley declared, "So far, it's the fight of the year." The hyperbole was entirely warranted. Kirkland-Tapia would have been the year's best fight if both fighters could have kept it up. Unfortunately, it turned into a Kirkland rout and was over soon. But in the third, Kirkland was still in the process of heating up and Tapia hadn't yet been worn down. Kirkland bullied Tapia to the ropes early and imposed himself, but Tapia battled back, maneuvered Kirkland to the ropes and initiated an exchange of heavy leather. Tapia seemed punched out for most of the final minute, but he came alive in the last 10 seconds and the two warriors slugged it out until the bell.
4. Omar Figueroa-Nihito Arakawa (third)
For consistently furious action, you could make a case that this round was the best seen in boxing this year. Most of it was waged at close quarters, with both men digging to the body and head, almost like a poor man's Corrales-Castillo. With 45 seconds left, southpaw Arakawa landed a crackling left to the jaw along the ropes, but Figueroa wouldn't be discouraged, bombing back with uppercuts and combinations as he bled from the bridge of his nose. The Texan blasted Arakawa with a looping right hand, and we got a glimpse of Arakawa's psychotic toughness when he soaked up the punishment and flashed a satisfied grin at the bell.
5. Darren Barker-Daniel Geale (sixth)
The first half of this round between evenly matched middleweights was nothing special. The second half was unforgettable. With 1:25 to go, Geale whipped home a scorching left hook to the liver, and Barker collapsed to boxing's version of the three-point stance -- two knees, one forehead -- in agony. For the first five seconds of ref Eddie Cotton's count, Barker's feet kicked the canvas uncontrollably. But he pushed himself up just inside the 10 count, then spent the next 30 seconds in pure survival mode, unable to throw a single punch as Geale unloaded on his rib cage. But late in the round, Barker summoned the strength to fire back, and one-sided drama gave way to two-way action until the bell clanged.
Timothy Bradley Jr. and Ruslan Provodnikov proved in ESPN's 2013 round of the year that there's nothing more enthralling than the frantic final stanza of an up-for-grabs slugfest.