FOY race to get can't-miss contender

Updated: October 18, 2013, 8:35 AM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

It has been a banner year thus far for fans of action-packed fights. There have been several memorable brawls so far.

Welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley Jr. survived a battering to eke out a decision against Ruslan Provodnikov in March in a stunningly violent fight. Two weeks later, junior welterweight Mike Alvarado exacted revenge in a rematch with Brandon Rios, winning a decision and a vacant interim belt in a barnburner that was every bit as great as their 2012 fight of the year candidate.

In May, Guillermo Jones reclaimed a cruiserweight title in an 11th-round knockout of Denis Lebedev, who was left facially disfigured from the shockingly bruising battle. July brought an unexpected gem between hard-charging lightweights Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa, both of whom went for broke for all 12 rounds.

But nobody should go awarding any fight of the year kudos just yet.

There are still a number of compelling bouts remaining on the 2013 boxing schedule, but none come close to carrying the incredibly high expectations for thrilling combat as the fight between Alvarado, recently elevated to a full 140-pound titleholder, and Provodnikov, who returned to junior welterweight following the Bradley fight.

Alvarado and Provodnikov, both proven high-contact warriors, meet Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET/PT) at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo., just outside of Alvarado's hometown of Denver, in a fight most expect to feature unbridled action. The telecast will open with the delayed broadcast of last Saturday's pay-per-view fight between Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez.

[+] EnlargeMike Alvarado
Chris Farina/Top RankWith slugger Mike Alvarado defending his 140-pound belt in his Denver hometown against another banger in Ruslan Provodnikov, Saturday's fight is a hot ticket.

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who represents Alvarado, is usually at his salesman's best in the buildup to one of the company's fights. No need on this baby, and he knows it.

"There is not much I can say as a promoter. You don't have to sell this fight," Arum said. "Everyone that knows anything about boxing knows that this fight will be a candidate for fight of the year. Two great warriors, two guys that entertain the public. You don't need a sales pitch for this one, and it's showing at the box office as there are so few tickets left, and by fight time it will be sold out."

It's no wonder it's a hot fight. Alvarado is making his first defense in front of a hometown crowd, which hasn't witnessed a world title fight since 2000, when former lightweight titlist Stevie Johnson of Denver fought to a draw with titleholder Jose Luis Castillo in their rematch.

"This is exciting. It's a dream come true to defend this title in my hometown and having all of my main supporters here," Alvarado said. "It's a blessing. I'm ready to get in there and do what I always do -- win this fight and retain this title and go on to bigger and better things."

Said Henry Delgado, Alvarado's trainer and manager: "The whole city is on fire. Everywhere you go, people are talking about the fight. This is a great thing for Denver. They have the Broncos, the Rockies, and now Mike Alvarado is on the scene. There is great buzz in the city."

But besides the stakes, there are those sky-high expectations.

"All of our fights have been top-caliber fights," Alvarado said. "The anticipation is from the wars that we have been in. It tells us that this fight has 'war' written all over it and there's a good chance that this fight will turn into that. I have a good game plan. I know how I'm going to box to win this fight, but you never know. This fight could turn into a crazy war and we could see Rios I all over again."

It's not an accident that HBO programmed the bout to precede the debut of its "Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward" documentary, which chronicles the epic trilogy (and its aftermath) between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, whose memorable battles were in the junior welterweight division -- same as Alvarado-Provodnikov. Gatti-Ward I and III were named fight of the year in 2002 and 2003, and now, a decade later, clearly the network, like most fans, believes that Alvarado-Provodnikov can replicate the thrills of those famed fights.

[+] EnlargeMike Alvarado and Brandon Rios
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesIn their frenzied March rematch, Mike Alvarado, right, traded with Brandon Rios but boxed just enough to sway the judges for a decision win.

The positioning of the fight telecast isn't lost on Alvarado (34-1, 23 KOs), 33, who has been in numerous memorable brawls.

"When I sit here and think about it, it's kind of scary," Alvarado said. "Those dudes [Gatti and Ward] about killed each other. That's a big step. Those are some big names to categorize ourselves with. It's an honor to be in that kind of fight. We'll see what happens. I am ready to perform and show greatness."

The past performances of Alvarado and Provodnikov are why so many believe Saturday's bout is a can't-miss fight of the year contender.

"These guys don't know any other way other than to come right at you," said Banner Promotions' Artie Pelullo, who represents Provodnikov. "It will be another fight of the year candidate."

How high are expectations?

"I have been promoting events for over 30 years, and for the first time 15 family members are coming out to see the fight -- a first for me," Pelullo said.

Provodnikov (22-2, 15 KOs), 29, who had a hard life growing up in Siberia, the remotest part of Russia, said he is aware of the expectations for the fight.

"I try not to think about that and not to worry about that," he said through manager and translator Vadim Kornilov. "My job is to get ready for the fight and to come in and do what I do best."

What Provodnikov does best, just like Alvarado, is fight his heart out.

Provodnikov has been in a string of fan-friendly slugfests as a regular for years on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" before getting the high-profile opportunity against Bradley.

He is expecting another hard fight against Alvarado.

"I think we are going to have to fight no matter what," Provodnikov said. "Whether it will be one punch [I don't know], but I think it will turn into a fight no matter what. I don't think either of us can run for the entire fight and I don't think he'll be able to box with me as well as he thinks. This will turn into a fight. If I can make Timothy Bradley fight me, I don't think there is anyone that won't end up fighting me. ... Every muscle and bone in my body is ready to go."

[+] EnlargeRusian Provodnikov and Timothy Bradley Jr.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesRusian Provodnikov, who drew the typically crafty Timothy Bradley Jr. into a firefight in March, said, "I don't think there is anyone that won't end up fighting me."

Alvarado has been in four consecutive fight of the year candidates. There were the two fights with Rios, an April 2012 rock-'em, sock-'em battle with Mauricio Herrera (who owns a 2011 split-decision win against Provodnikov) and a 2011 bloodbath with Breidis Prescott, in which Alvarado, who was badly cut, rallied for a knockout in the 10th and final round.

Although so many crunching fights might worry some boxers, Alvarado said the tough bouts have made him better.

"It hasn't caught up to me yet," he said. "Being in those kinds of fights has made me that much better as a fighter. Being in fights like that has helped me adjust into being a better boxer. Being in wars can take a toll and can catch up to you. It has helped with my training also. We have brought in [assistant trainer] Rudy Hernandez, who helped with different training methods. I am still learning and becoming a better boxer, [which] will help in those kinds of wars."

Another one of those wars seems likely.

"Whoever has the most willpower, whoever is stronger mentally is going to win this fight," Provodnikov said.

"I've been in these kinds of fights before and I know how they can end up," Alvarado said. "I am very strong mentally and very strong-willed. I've been there before and need to use my will to make the fight go my way. I'm ready to put on a great show and ready to win this fight."

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