- Nigel Collins, ESPN Staff Writer
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I was sitting in the back seat of promoter Russell Peltz's car, outside of Joe Frazier's North Philly gym, when Ron Lyle climbed into the front seat. He was rebuilding from his loss to Jerry Quarry, and a tuneup against Wendell Newton at the Spectrum was coming up in a few days.
"Don't forget the orange juice," Lyle growled, as Peltz made a U-turn and headed back to Center City. The way he said it sounded more like an order than a request.
They were the only words Lyle spoke during the half-hour drive back to his hotel. No goodbye. No thank you. No see you later -- just the back of a hard man walking away, clutching two quarts of orange juice and a gym bag.
I invariably think of that long-ago car ride whenever Lyle crosses my mind. It's a shame he won't be ringside in his hometown of Denver this Saturday for the junior welterweight match between native son Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov. It promises to be the sort of shootout that Lyle, who died in 2011, often engaged in during his formidable career.
When the Alvarado-Provodnikov bout was announced, a lot of media reports pointed out that it would be the first title fight in Denver since lightweight titlist Jose Luis Castillo escaped with a majority draw against hometown favorite Stevie Johnston in 2000. That was a good, competitive fight, but nothing like what most fans are hoping for when Alvarado and Provodnikov start lobbing hand grenades at each other.
A far more suitable comparison would be Lyle's 1975 bout with Earnie Shavers in Denver, a surreal heavyweight slugfest that came close to equaling Lyle's unforgettable brawl with George Foreman the following year. Although Lyle and Shavers definitely set the bar high, with a couple of Kamikaze pilots like Provodnikov and Alvarado on a collision course, the Mile High City could very well be hosting another explosive encounter.
"This fight has 'war' written all over it," Alvarado said. "I have a good game plan. I know I'm going to box the way I need to to win this fight, but you never know. This fight could always turn into a crazy war."
Alvarado won his rematch with Brandon Rios by boxing more and slugging less than in their first punch-out. It was, of course, the smart thing to do, as it would be against Provodnikov. But despite Alvarado's best intentions, there's a distinct possibility that the "crazy war" scenario will become a reality and invite further comparisons to Lyle-Shavers.
It also looked as if Lyle, who had been stopped by Muhammad Ali in his previous bout, was planning a more pragmatic approach against Shavers. He came out moving laterally, keeping his distance, and flicking jabs. It was hard to tell if Lyle was trying to borrow a page from Ali's playbook or just skittish.
Whatever the case, the aberration didn't last long. Midway into the first round, Shavers forced Lyle into the ropes and clobbered him with a wicked right. When Lyle remained upright and rallied back, the crowd sprang to its feet. The war was on.
Old habits are hard to break. Fighters automatically revert to what they know best when hurt, and for guys such as Lyle, Shavers, Alvarado and Provodnikov, that means firing back with everything they've got, damn the consequences.
Lyle-Shavers almost ended in the second round. Shavers connected with a wicked left hook, and Lyle collapsed into the ropes and crumpled to the floor like an imploding building. He groggily groped his way to his feet, using the ropes to pull himself up, and still looked woozy when the ref completed the mandatory eight-count. Fortunately for Lyle, the bell rang before Shavers could launch another haymaker.
The insanely violent confrontation see-sawed back and forth, with both men giving and receiving enough punches to knock out everybody currently ranked in the heavyweight top 10. How they kept it up for as long as they did, I'll never know.
Following a last-gasp surge early in the fifth round, Shavers began to wilt, and Lyle finished him off just 47 seconds into the sixth, hammering his spent adversary to the canvas like John Henry driving home a railroad spike.
There's a photo of Lyle being pulled away from the prone Shavers, looking down at his victim with a contemptuous snarl. It reminds me of the surly look he gave me when he climbed into Peltz's car.
Lyle was a genuine badass who had already fatally shot a man by the time he turned pro, and he would kill another after his career was over. Boxing helped him obtain an early release from prison the first time; he beat the rap the second time around, claiming self-defense.
Alvarado has also had problems with the law, but his transgressions were nowhere near as serious as Lyle's. He did time for domestic abuse and traffic-related offenses, and then went back again for violating his parole.
Before the Rios rematch, Alvarado allegedly got into an altercation on Super Bowl weekend, but rumors that he had been stabbed were quickly snuffed. Just a scuffle, his camp said, nothing to worry about.
Considering his devil-may-care lifestyle and go-for-broke approach to fighting, it's easy to understand why "Mile High Mike" has drawn comparisons to Arturo Gatti. Boxing could use another Gatti-like figure, but Alvarado isn't the only candidate for the job -- Provodnikov certainly qualifies.
While the streets of Denver helped mold Lyle and Alvarado, the "Siberian Rocky" became a tough guy growing up in an unforgiving climate and fighting his way to the top of Russia's demanding amateur system. He has been a fan favorite since his first appearance on ESPN's "Friday Night Fights," but until his fight of the year candidate with Timothy Bradley Jr., few people outside of Provodnikov's team thought he could rise above that level.
The Bradley fight was a revelation. Provodnikov not only inflicted more punishment on Bradley than any previous opponent had, a lot of observers thought he deserved the decision. When Bradley went on to beat Juan Manuel Marquez in his next fight, the Russian's stock enjoyed another boost.
There is practically no chance that Provodnikov will try anything fancy Saturday night, such as getting up on his toes and boxing defensively. It's just not in him. He'll go after Alvarado the same way he has gone after everybody else he has fought: face-first, winging bombs as he rumbles irrevocably forward.
Very few things are guaranteed in life (which is especially true in boxing), but Alvarado-Provodnikov comes as close as it gets to a sure-fire thriller. Whether it equals or (dare we even think it?) surpasses Lyle-Shavers is not yet known. But one thing is virtually assured: Barring an early butt-inflicted cut or some other sort of weirdness, it's going to be the best fight Denver has seen in nearly 40 years.