By Jake Donovan
Ruslan Provodnikov is referred to as 'The Siberian Rocky,' but it was Chris Algieri who lived the dream of the ultimate underdog story. The unbeaten contender survived two knockdowns and a grotesquely swollen right eye to score an upset split decision win Saturday evening at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
There was debate heading into the evening over whom would truly serve as the crowd favorite in the HBO-televised headliner. Algieri - a college-educated clinical nutritionsist who has a boxer a huge draw in his hometown of Huntington (Long Island), New York - reportedly sold roughly $100,000 worth of tickets. The efforts truly earned his paycheck, receiving by far the biggest payday of his career for his first title shot, with his family and friends making the hour-long trek from Suffolk County for his first major title shot.
Meanwhile, Provodnikov was being groomed as a future star in the Brooklyn area. The fight took place 30 minutes from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, heavily populated with Russian immigrants and Russian-Americans.
As the fight progressed, it was clear who became the sentimental favorite. Algieri was in trouble from the opening bell, but managed to survive a pair of opening round knockdowns and a rapidly swelling right eye to make a fight of it to the pleasant surprise of the crowd on hand and viewers at home.
Provodnikov lived up to his reputation as a ruthless stalker, even walking through his opponent's punches to make his point. Both fighters scored with left hooks, in fact Algieri landing first. Provodnikov shrugged off the shot and slammed home a left hook of his own, landing flush on Algieri's right eye. The punch was good for the bout's first official knockdown, and also caused instantaneous swelling that would become a factor over the course of the bout.
Algieri was back on the canvas moments later, absorbing enough body shots to wisely take a knee to avoid further punishment. The tactic proved smart, as the pride of Long Island boxed smartly over the course of the next several rounds. Constant lateral movement from the first-time title challenger minimized the incoming from Provodnikov, who struggled to cut off the ring in rounds rwo and three.
"This has been a surreal week for me," Algieri explained after the fight while also providing a fitting analogy for what he was experiencing in the ring. "Me and my trainer almost got into a car accident this week. Some guy drove us off the road. My heart rate didn't even go up.
"I felt like that walking into the ring tonight, and even when I was on the deck. My heart rate didn't even go up."
Perhaps the most telling statistic of the evening was the fact that Algieri outlanded Provodnikov in every round, but the visible damage was all one way. By the end of round six, Algieri's right eye was nearly swollen shut and blood was streaming out of his nose.
The wounds never discouraged the 30-year old, a former kickboxer who took to traditional boxing at age 23 and was the superior boxer of the two when provided the opportunity to punch from a distance. As his challenger refused to wilt, Provodnikov struggled to figure out how to regain momentum.
"I could see pretty well out of the right eye through the first eight rounds,"Algieri insisted afterward, though also with an admission to accompany the claim. "But by round 12, I was f****n' blind."
Even with his vision compromised a little more after each round, Algieri looked sharp as the action went deep into the evening. A steady jab landed regularly, snapping back Provodnikov's head and disrupting his rhythm. The fight appeared to creep close enough to prompt Provodnikov's corner - headed by Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach - to demand a knockout to avoid any controversy on the cards.
Provodnikov failed to deliver on that front, and worse was unable to land any power punches of consequence. He was still landing the more telling blows, but with minimal frequency as Algieri confidently slid around the ring, stopping long enough to land his jab with conviction before moving back out of harm's way. The 30-year old challenger carried that game plan all the way to the finish line.
As it turned out, it was enough to get the job done.
"I'm sure this fight looked like a nice juicy steak (to Provodnikov)," Algieri believed. "I saw it in his eyes every time he threw a punch."
Provodnikov was announced as a winner by 117-109 on one scorecard, a tally in line with HBO's unofficial judge Steve Weisfeld. That card was overruled by matching scores of 114-112 in favor of Algieri, who comes up huge in his first ever major title fight.
Coming to an end is Provodnikov's title run, as well as his streak of bllistering fights.
The Russian brawler came up just short versus Tim Bradley last March, in a fight that was hailed as 2013's Fight of the Year. Eight months later, he rallied to drop and eventually stop Mike Alvarado on the road just outside of Denver, Colorado.
In both of those fights, Provodnikov managed to get his opponents to abandon their game plan and get caught up in a brawl.
That never happened with Algieri, something that clearly frustrated the now ex-champion.
"I have to admit, runners aren't my style. I prefer guys who stand and trade," admitted Provodnikov, who falls to 23-3 (16KO). "It's just not my style. He just jabbed and ran. He just touched me, then ran."
It was enough for Algieri to prevail in the eyes of two of the three judges. It was enough to remain an unbeaten fighter, now 20-0 (8KO) and giving Long Island its first major titlist since the 1990s.
"Did that answer some of your questions?" Algieri bluntly asked HBO's Max Kellerman after the fight.
One question that Algieri wasn't yet ready to answer, however, was what comes next in his first piece of business as the new champ.
"I have not thought past this day in months,"Algieri admitted. "I don't even know what June 15 looks like."
Prior to June 14, the longshot underdog never knew what a championship fight or atmosphere felt like. Given how he handled himself under those circumstances, June 15 and beyond figures to look more promising than ever.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox