By Thomas Gerbasi
It doesn’t seem like nearly a year and a half ago, but in January of 2013, my great discovery (probably later than everyone else, but I’ll blame it on old age) was current middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. “Everybody loves GGG” I wrote in this space, I meant it, and I’m not swaying from that assertion.
But there’s always room in the hearts of boxing fans for another great love, and these days, it’s pretty clear that everybody loves Ruslan, as in WBO junior welterweight champion Ruslan Provodnikov. Like Golovkin, Provodnikov brings a no nonsense approach to the fight game, and when I say no nonsense, it means that this dynamic duo are trying to hurt you. Not on a personal level, as this is strictly business, but in a way that for all the handshakes and smiles before and after the fight, when the gloves are on, it’s war.
In Golovkin’s case, he is a precision sniper, dropping opponents with no mess. Provodnikov? Now he wants to get in your face and rip your heart out up close and personal. Again, nothing personal, it’s just that where this guy comes from in Beryozovo, Russia, life was hard, and it made hard men.
“I know suffering,” said Provodnikov during a media workout in Brooklyn this week to promote his Saturday bout at Barclays Center against Chris Algieri. “I grew up in it.”
In some ways, Provodnikov is like any other fighter who came from a rough part of the world, whether it’s Russia, Mexico, Detroit, or Brownsville. There’s a reason why it’s said that poverty makes the best fighters, but why have fans gravitated to Provodnikov and Golovkin? Maybe it’s because in spite of coming up in hard times, they save their angst for the ring.
It’s rare to see either fighter without a smile, and despite a language barrier, both have made efforts to communicate with their fans and the media. And when that’s not possible, each fighter’s team has gone above and beyond the call of duty to put them in front of the press. So whether it’s K2 Promotions with Golovkin or Top Rank with Provodnikov, the American media has had more access to tell their stories than it gets with several United States-based boxing stars.
I personally know that ace publicist Bernie Bahrmasel has burned up the phone lines to make Golovkin accessible, and Provodnikov’s manager Vadim Kornilov simple doesn’t refuse any interview for his fighter, no matter what it takes to get it done. Late last year, an interview I did with “The Siberian Rocky” for England’s Boxing News magazine took place in an airport shortly after Provodnikov won his title by beating Mike Alvarado, and when it was over, Kornilov laughed at how crazy things had gotten for a fighter once dubbed an “ESPN fighter.”
“In the last two fights, Ruslan went from not being too well-known in the world or in Russia, to being probably the most popular fighter in Russia today,” he told me for the Boxing News piece. “I don’t think there’s anyone more popular, and the attention we’re getting is unbelievable. I’m getting a hundred calls daily, a hundred emails and text messages daily, and I wish I had five of me to take care of all of that. But our strategy and our policy with the press is that we will talk to anybody because you are doing this for us. So we’re open to every single call, text message, and interview, and we try to accommodate everyone. But after this fight, it’s been unbelievable.”
It hasn’t stopped, and it shouldn’t, because the 30-year-old Provodnikov is what we all hope a prizefighter should be: he gives his all in the ring, entertains, and when it’s over he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind shooting the breeze with over a plate of raw moose liver. Well, maybe we’ll leave the moose liver to him, since it’s not polite to be greedy. But you get the point. Even Tim Bradley, who walked away from his fight with Provodnikov with win, but also a concussion, couldn’t say enough good things about the Russian.
“I would never bet against that guy, ever,” said Bradley earlier this year. “Any fight that he’s in, I’m picking Provodnikov to win because that guy has tremendous punching power and the heart of a lion. I hit that guy with everything and he just kept coming. He was so determined to knock me out, and that comes from within. There’s nothing bad anyone can say about him. He’s a great person, he’s a great fighter, and he has tremendous heart and will.”
That kind of admiration across the board, from fan to press member to peer, is rare. And in the boxing world, there are two kinds of stars. There are the ones like Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather, owners of an aura that seemingly came from another planet, making them inaccessible but impossible to turn your eyes away from. Then there are the men of the people, like Arturo Gatti, Diego Corrales, Shane Mosley, Golovkin or Provodnikov. They may do impossible things in the ring, but outside of it, they’re just like us. They’re Superheroes, but only when their costumes are on, and in their case, those costumes are gloves and boxing trunks.
It’s real, or as Provodnikov put it this week, “the way I fight comes from inside of me. It's my character. And I'm probably never going to fight differently. And people love me probably because of that, and of who I am. I am who I am in the ring and I just put everything in the ring. It’s who I am.”
What’s not to love about that?