By Mitch Abramson
Ruslan Provodnikov ambled to the microphone and waited.
Staring into the crowd at Barclays Center on Thursday, wearing a white T-shirt and baseball-style cap, the WBO junior welterweight champion slowly growled into the mic, a slow rumble that became apparent the longer he snarled. He then smiled, said the time for talk was up, he was ready to fight, but not before hurling himself into a long discourse on his upbringing in Russia, the task at hand, life, and other topics that caught his fancy. It was a rambling homily that was sincere, comical, heartfelt and firm. Once he found his oracle footing, he was off to the races.
When his opponent for Saturday’s bout on HBO, Chris Algieri, spoke, it was much more concise. He looked dashing, wearing a charcoal suit and lavender dress shirt. He could have been posing for a Men’s fashion ad if he wasn’t talking about boxing.
If an imaginative person with a TV deal on the line wanted to create a reality show involving a pair of boxers who couldn’t be more different, they might hit the jackpot by coupling Provodnikov with Algieri.
On the surface, they’re the Odd Couple of boxing, as different as Oscar Madison was to Felix Ungar.
Algieri is tall and classically handsome with a jawline that looks as if it was constructed for a part in a movie; Provodnikov on the other hand is squat and rugged, with big eyes and cheeks and a thick head that looks like it was filled with concrete.
Their apparent differences also stretch to their disparate backgrounds and hobbies.
While Algieri produces slickly-made videos for social media of him making yerba mate tea and other refined goods (he has a Master’s degree in clinical nutrition), Provodnikov says he used to sniff glue as a youth and continues to snack on frozen, raw moose liver.
Their seemingly unrelated looks and personalities is what gives their match-up Saturday at Barclays Center for Provodnikov’s belt an element of curiosity.
Though some have dismissed the match-up as simply a showcase for Provoknikov as he waits to line up fights with bigger name opponents such as Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez- at least the blending of personalities and styles in the ring has produced one of the more entertaining and intriguing fight build-ups.
After he was done hitting the pads with trainer Freddie Roach during a workout for the media on Tuesday at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, Provoknikov unleashed a primal scream into the cameras, a quick reminder of his Wildman persona. Of course he smiled after each scream, since it’s his shtick.
“He was on the street and by his own admission, sniffing glue, getting high, drinking, stealing food,” his promoter Artie Pelullo said of when he encountered Provoknikov as an amateur in Russia for the first time. “And his amateur boxing trainer changed his life. He was a maniac, from what I heard. Fights, street fights, gang fights, drugs. Drinking, he was a maniac.”
The Huntington, LI resident Algieri likely was never called a maniac in his days wrestling for St. Anthony’s HS in his hometown of Huntington. On Tuesday, he was less flashy, shadow boxing and running through his exercises and quietly doing a few interviews afterward. There was no yelling in the ring. No “Look at me” posing.
Told of Provodnikov’s preference for moose liver, Algieri smiled and gave his assessment, sounding as though he thinks his opponent’s food choice has more to do with enhancing his reputation for being visceral in the ring than adding anything of nutritional value.
“Well, I know Sugar Ray Robinson used to drink a glass of blood at the weigh-in,” Algieri said. “And it was more of a psychological thing than a physiological thing because from what I’ve heard he threw up after he did that. But that doesn’t concern me what Ruslan puts in his body. I’m just concerned what I put in mine and I’m a well-oiled machine at this point.”
Algieri talks of boxing as a sport and a vehicle to spread his message of healthy living. Medical school is an option for when he stops boxing, he says. Provodnikov (23-2, 16 knockouts) views boxing as the be-all end-all, claiming he will die in the ring to ensure victory if necessary. And his brutal fights with Timothy Bradley and Mike Alvarado last year seem to support this.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Algieri said of Provodnikov’s assertion he would die in the ring. “Maybe he actually believes that. It doesn’t matter to me either. If that’s what he believes - great. I’m willing to go to great lengths for my career and my health [too].”
There is little visible bad blood between the fighters and their camps. They have behaved cordially during the pre-fight promotions. The two even shook hands at the final press conference on Thursday and seem to respect the other. There's no real trash talking. Algieri (19-0, 8 knockouts) has said he’s not even bitter after the fight was moved from the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale LI, to the Barclays Center after Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov used his influence to switch venues, surrendering Algieri’s home-court advantage. Besides, the fighters have more in common than meets the eye.
They’re both affable down-to-earth, hard-working and bright. Despite his poor and wild upbringing in a small village in Siberia, Provodnikov says he finished high school and even graduated from a local University, majoring in physical culture and sports.
Provodnikov doesn’t smoke or drink, vices he gave up once he started boxing as a teenager, Pelullo says.
"Look at the way he changed his life," said Pelullo. "He's a role model to kids now."
And despite his pretty-boy looks and fondness for cooking, Algieri has shown plenty of grit in the ring to get to this place. So they may not be as different as they seem.
But with the strains of the fight just days away, the boxers’ comments and those of their camps on Tuesday were a bit more pointed than usual on Tuesday.
“The fact that he has a good education is great,” Provodnikov said of Algieri. “It probably means that he’s smart and he’s a smart boxer, also. The fact that he has videos online, I don’t know much about it. The only thing is that I hope he doesn’t stay online too much taking care of that stuff [instead of focusing on the fight].”
Provodnikov’s manager, Vadim Kornilov was a bit more cutting, making light of Algieri posting videos to YouTube under the banner, “Champion Lifestyle,” in which he discusses his approach to nutrition and shows what it’s like to be a boxer.
“I hope that he realizes that all of that has nothing to do with the sport once you get in the ring,” Kornilov said. “He seems like a nice, educated gentleman and it’s good to be doing business with someone like that. But I hope he knows that once he’s in the ring, none of that matters.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.