- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Welterweight titleholder Timothy Bradley Jr., whose last ring appearance resulted in a highly controversial split decision win against Manny Pacquiao in June, is returning to the ring.
Bradley will make the first defense of the 147-pound belt he claimed against Pacquiao when he faces Russia's Ruslan Provodnikov (22-1, 15 KOs) on March 16 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said Saturday.
The fight will headline an HBO "World Championship Boxing" card. A news conference to kick off the promotion is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles.
"We talked to HBO and we thought this was the most fan-friendly fight we could make for Bradley," Arum said. "Provodnikov is a guy who will press Bradley and a guy Bradley hasn't fought before."
Cameron Dunkin, Bradley's manager, and Banner Promotions' Artie Pelullo, Provodnikov's promoter, both told ESPN.com that both fighters have agreed to undergo random drug testing -- urine and blood -- that will be overseen by the Las Vegas-based Voluntary Anti-Doping Association during the build up to the fight. Bradley requested the testing and Provodnikov agreed, Dunkin and Pelullo said.
Bradley's return has been a long time coming and has not been easy to finalize. Although most believed Pacquiao convincingly beat Bradley, there were discussions for a December rematch.
However, Pacquiao instead elected to face rival Juan Manuel Marquez for the fourth time, leaving Bradley without a major fight.
Still, Top Rank and HBO were ready to put on a Bradley rematch Dec. 15 against junior welterweight titlist Lamont Peterson, whom Bradley had easily outpointed in a December 2009 fight when Bradley held a junior welterweight title. But despite being offered $2.3 million -- the second-biggest payday of his career behind the $5 million he made to face Pacquiao -- Bradley surprisingly turned it down, upsetting Top Rank and HBO.
Now Bradley (29-0, 12 KOs), 29, of Palm Springs, Calif., will fight Provodnikov, a junior welterweight who is moving up in weight, for less money.
"It's been really, really tough, to say the least," Dunkin said about working out a deal with Bradley to fight. "Things didn't work out for Dec. 15, which set us back a little bit. But we have a fight here and Tim seems to be fine with it and seems very excited about fighting again. Once he gets back in the ring and remembers how good he is, and sees how good he is again, he'll be fine and it will lead him back to the really, really elite level he wants to be in."
Making the fight was difficult because of the bad feelings over the decision in the Pacquiao fight -- Arum very publicly supported Pacquiao -- Bradley's financial expectations and the lack of available name opponents, because most of then are with Top Rank rival Golden Boy, which means they are unmakeable fights.
"But it's time for Timmy to fight again," Dunkin said. "Provodnikov is a really tough guy, hard puncher, puts a lot of pressure on you, very, very strong and it's gonna be a hard fight. Tim is going to have to be really sharp not to get caught."
Arum hopes to put the issues with Bradley behind him and this fight is the start.
"Bradley's going to fight and Provodnikov will make a good fight of it," Arum said. "It gets Bradley back in action. (Top Rank president) Todd (duBoef) has been very patient handling it. (Bradley and his wife) were upset at me because of the things I said after the Pacquiao fight. Todd has a lot more patience than I do, but I can see (the Bradleys') point."
In the televised co-feature, 23-year-old Las Vegas welterweight prospect Jessie Vargas (21-0, 9 KOs) will meet Wale "Lucky Boy" Omotoso (23-0, 19 KOs), 27, of Nigeria, in a scheduled 10-rounder.
"I'm anxious to see how the winner of Vargas-Omotoso looks," Arum said. "Maybe the winner will fight the winner of the main event."
Said Dunkin, who also manages Vargas, "I like my guy but it's a very tough fight. Omotoso is no joke, but Jessie is extremely hungry and focused."
Also on the card, two-time Mexican Olympian Oscar Valdez (2-0, 2 KOs) will face an opponent to be determined in a scheduled six-round featherweight bout.
Provodnikov, 29, a staple of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" in recent years, got the fight when Yuriorkis Gamboa, an interim junior lightweight titlist and former featherweight titleholder, walked away from the fight and a seven-figure payday because the weight disparity was simply too much.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for Ruslan," Pelullo said. "I told him opportunities come very few times in life and we're very fortunate that Gamboa turned down the fight. That was our good fortune because I think Ruslan can win the fight.
"Remember, we tried to get this fight in December but they went with Peterson and then Bradley didn't end up fighting. Then Gamboa came into the picture for this fight, but he turned it down and we came back into the picture and got the fight. Timing is everything in life. I don't believe being on the big stage will affect Ruslan. He will come right at Bradley."
Provodnikov has been in several crowd-pleasing fights on 'FNF' and has won five fights in a row since a debatable 12-round decision loss to Mauricio Herrera in January 2011.
"Provodnikov can't help but make a great fight. It will be very interesting to see Tim back in the ring after the Pacquiao fight," Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti said. "Ruslan will make him fight for sure, but Tim is as cool as Sinatra in the ring. Looking forward to it. A lot on the line."
Arum said that his long-range plan for Bradley, assuming he beats Provodnikov, is to "have him fight again in the fall against the best available guy" and then match him in early 2014 with the winner of the expected fifth fight between Pacquiao and Marquez, which is expected to be made for the fall.
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