- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's only March, so it probably won't stand up as the fight of the year by the time December rolls around, but Timothy Bradley Jr. and Ruslan Provodnikov produced a thrilling and dramatic slugfest that included one jump-out-of-your-seat moment after another on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
In the end, Bradley, barely surviving a hellacious beating in the first two rounds and a knockdown in the final 15 seconds of the fight, hung on to win a unanimous decision to retain his welterweight world title in heartstopping fashion before an announced crowd of 3,055.
The judges had it 115-112, 114-113, 114-113. ESPN.com had it 114-112. It was every bit that close of a fight, and as significant as it was for Bradley to retain his title, it's probably just as significant that he undoubtedly made a boatload of fans because of the way he fought -- showing sheer will, desire and guts.
It was Bradley's first fight in what had been a terrible nine months since he was awarded a highly controversial split decision and the title against Manny Pacquiao in June. Bradley never had a chance to celebrate because almost nobody, save for two of the three judges who scored it for him, thought he deserved to win. The decision was blasted and Bradley bore a significant brunt of the anger. It got so bad that the fighter said he received multiple death threats, even though he wasn't responsible for judging the bout. Bradley was also stung by criticism that he was a boring fighter.
But if anything can help a fighter put such an inglorious episode behind him and make fans embrace him, it's a scintillating and memorable battle such as Saturday's -- in which Bradley received a heavy dose of help from Russian brawler Provodnikov.
"I think I got a concussion," a smiling Bradley said moments after the decision was announced. "I know I do. This guy is a power puncher, a great warrior. I take my hat off to him. He'll beat any 140- or 147-pounder out there. He's the real deal."
Fight fans know what happened in the Pacquiao fight, but now when they consider Bradley, they must weigh this new evidence from the Provodnikov fight. It was sensational -- but it was almost over quickly.
Provodnikov is known for pressing the action. Bradley? Not so much. But they both came out firing in the opening round, opening up a brawl before anyone could get settled.
Provodnikov, 29, caught Bradley, also 29, of Palm Springs, Calif., with a heavy right hand that put the titleholder down. But referee Pat Russell ruled it a slip, even though replays showed that Bradley clearly got caught by the punch. At any rate, Bradley was in terrible shape and basically out on his feet as Provodnikov continued to pound him.
"I came out fast. I wanted to jump on him," Bradley said. "I didn't want him to get in control. I wanted to control the action and work at my pace. I am dizzy right now.
"The warrior instinct starts to come out, and it's just heart, determination and the will to win. Even thought I got rocked, I still fight hard."
Still unsteady in the second round, Bradley found himself in deep trouble again as Provodnikov hurt him with multiple right hands. A left hook also damaged him and sent him reeling. That Bradley survived the toe-to-toe round was stunning.
But Bradley soon climbed back into the fight. Provodnikov had expended a ton of energy and was arm-weary from throwing so many punches, which allowed Bradley to get himself together in the third round.
Provodnikov (22-2, 15 KOs), however, hurt Bradley (30-0, 12 KOs) again with a right hand in the fourth round, although Bradley steadily took over the fight and was winning round after round. Even though Bradley was beginning to open a lead, they were engaged in a tremendous battle.
The last half-minute of the sixth round resembled something out of a movie as they were locked in a non-stop frenzy of exchanging punches. Bradley took so much leather as the sixth round came to a close that trainer Joel Diaz threatened to stop the fight in the corner.
"Tim was hurt in every round because he decided to trade with him, and he paid the price," Diaz said. "He wanted a knockout win, and he paid the price for it by taking a lot of shots."
Provodnikov, who is trained by Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, was taking just as much damage. His face was swelling later in the fight, and Bradley opened a bad cut on his left eyelid in the ninth round with one of the numerous right hands he landed.
During the 10th round, Roach told HBO's Max Kellerman that he was considering stopping the fight because of the punishment his man was taking.
As dramatic as the fight had been to that point, the fervor was raised a notch in the final seconds of the 12th and final round when Bradley, rather than boxing and moving as Diaz had told him to do in the corner, engaged Provodnikov and got nailed.
"I've got to win these rounds because I know it's a close fight," Bradley said of why he pressed the action.
Provodnikov sent him reeling across the ring with a left hook and continued to attack him. Bradley ate a huge right hand and eventually went down under heavy fire. He rose unsteadily, but the final bell rang before Provodnikov could get off another shot.
"He's a very strong puncher because he steps into his punches," Bradley said of Provodnikov, who has served as one of Pacquiao's chief sparring partners. "He hits very hard. He hits much harder than Pacquiao because his punches are shorter and tighter."
Provodnikov, who moved up to welterweight for the title shot, said through a translator that he thought he won the fight.
"Everybody saw what I did in the ring," he said. "It's up to the judges, but I think I did everything in there to prove myself. I did not feel his punches. I was going after him all 12 rounds. I didn't feel his punches at all."
Later, Provodnikov added, "I deserved to win."
Bradley sure felt Provodnikov's punches, considering he said he believed he had a concussion.
"As soon as I got in the ring after the fight, Tim looked at me and said, 'That was a fight,'" Top Rank promoter Todd duBoef said. "It was a fantastic fight. Provodnikov was all over him all night and Tim got caught early and late. But he showed his mettle and class and his grit, and he pulled out a nice win."
It was a nice win, for sure -- one that nobody will be sending him death threats over.