by David P. Greisman, photo by Ed Mulholland
Ruslan Provodnikov and Chris Algieri were not just opponents, but opposites as well. They were so different in so many ways, several of which strongly suggested that Provodnikov would win when they fought this past Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Provodnikov’s background is a Russian nesting doll of harshness. He is an ethnic minority in a small town in a district of western Siberia that on average has less than one person per square mile. His upbringing was difficult, and for a time his future seemed as bleak as his environment.
“I’ve had a very tough life,” Provodnikov said a week before the Algieri fight, with his manager serving as translator. “The way I was brought up and what I had to go through, for me I think it was unimaginable, and I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
He didn’t want to get too deep into what he had gone through. It would be hard to understand, he said. But he was more open about where he would be if not for boxing.
“I think I would be in jail, it’s 100 percent,” he said with a smile. “It was going towards that. I was on the way. All my friends that I was growing up with, I don’t know where they are. Most of them are in jail, or I don’t even know where they are. I was drinking. I was sniffing glue. I was stealing. I was doing everything that leads a person to get to jail when I was a kid.”
Boxing has long been a sport that attracts the poor. Their energy is directed away from the violence, crime and desperation around them, and they are willing to endure years of pain and discipline in a sport that requires both. As Marvin Hagler was famous for saying, it can be hard to get out of bed early in the morning to run several miles if you’re sleeping in silk pajamas.
Provodnikov’s dedication and determination were clear. He had gone from the streets of Siberia and into the gym, had used his amateur boxing career in Russia to attract the attention of a professional promoter in the United States, and had worked his way up from preliminary bouts on undercards to televised spots on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.”
That level had seemed as if it would be his limit, though. Fighters with a surplus of grit, heart and balls can make up for what they lack in natural gifts and technical expertise. The reverse is also true. The best, however, draw from both the tangible and intangible.
Heart and balls cannot be taught, though, while crudeness can be refined. Marcos Maidana, for instance, has put forth his best performances since he began working with Robert Garcia. And Provodnikov has seen significant success since he transitioned to the Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. He has thrived under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach and Roach’s assistants, and he has benefited from sparring with the boxers there, including Manny Pacquiao.
So last year, when Timothy Bradley fought Provodnikov on HBO, most saw it as a mismatch, a talented welterweight titleholder taking on a limited slugger in a keep-busy bout. Those who had been monitoring Provodnikov’s progress in California felt otherwise.
What followed on that March evening was no mismatch, but rather one of the best fights of the year. The brutal battle ended with Bradley taking a very close decision victory. Provodnikov won with the way he lost. Though Bradley could be blamed for the tactical error that allowed Provodnikov to hurt him and drag him into a war, Provodnikov had also shown himself to be a capable, dangerous and entertaining warrior.
And so when Provodnikov returned on HBO last October against fellow fan-friendly fighter Mike Alvarado, the hope was for another special night. The television network assigned a camera crew to document Provodnikov in the two days leading up to the fight. Media and boxing fans traveled from around the country to an arena out in the suburbs of Denver. Provodnikov broke Alvarado down, won Alvarado’s world title, and celebrated with great emotion in the ring.
Later that night, down the road at the fight hotel, Provodnikov walked into the bustling restaurant. Conversation in the room came to a halt and gave way to a standing ovation.
This world tends to love the underdog. Provodnikov, with his story and his style, had become a hero. HBO doubled up on the spotlight, scheduling a June fight for him and airing its “2 Days” documentary feature on him a few weeks beforehand. The media focused most of its attention on Provodnikov rather than Algieri and then had the wisdom and the gall to ask Algieri how he felt about this situation.
“I don’t take any offense to it,” Algieri said in response in late May. “It’s the nature of the game and the situation. I haven’t had those big name fights yet. I’ve only been on TV a couple of times. But I’ve been working very hard throughout my entire career to get ready for this opportunity. On June 14, everybody’s going to see who I am and what I bring to the table. That’s when everyone can really see what Chris Algieri is all about.”
Algieri went to a private high school in a wealthy town in Long Island, New York. He was a champion wrestler in high school, transitioned into professional kickboxing and didn’t start boxing until he was 23. And unlike an overwhelming majority of boxers, Algieri graduated from college, continued on to get his master’s degree, and now works as a nutritionist.
Where Provodnikov’s approach was predicated on his willingness to withstand punishment inside of the ring, Algieri’s style had been based on avoiding it, accentuating boxing instead of brawling.
“Knockout punchers get hit more,” Algieri told media a week before facing Provodnikov. “It’s like home run hitters. Home run hitters strike out more than regular guys. You got to take those chances to get hit to score those knockouts. I’d rather hit and not be hit. That’s the sweet science. And in this fight, I think that’s the exact plan.
“Health over anything, Not taking damage and staying healthy is first and foremost,” he soon added. “There’s life after boxing. Going out there and fighting smart is the way to be and the way to win. If you look at the best fighters in the world, the pound-for-pound guys, they’re all smart fighters. Floyd Mayweather, Andre Ward, those guys aren’t in there banging back and forth. And they’ve been doing it for a long time and been at the top for a long time.”
He noted his education and his desire to work in health, fitness and medicine. It is the type of potentially lucrative fallback career outside of boxing that is unattainable for so many others who lace up the gloves because that is the best way for them to make an honest living, even if doing so comes with a physical cost.
“I still don’t have to do this,” Algieri said. “I do this because I love the sport. Boxing is the best sport in the world. And for me to be able to compete at the highest level like we are in this situation, it’s a dream come true. This is my passion. If I lose the passion, I don’t fight anymore. That’s all. I don’t have to do this. It’s brought me many wonderful things, it’s brought me very many terrible experiences. But at the end of the day, this is a passion of mine.”
Provodnikov was a bruiser who grew up hard in Siberia, needed to fight, had recently proven himself against a higher level of foes, and was the new network darling. Algieri was a boxer who sought to avoid punches, didn’t carry knockout power, looked at the sport as an athletic pursuit that provided him with the rush of competition, and was the “B-side” taking a big step up in class against an “A-list” opponent on Saturday night.
The opening round told the tale expected, given this dichotomy.
Provodnikov came out from the opening bell looking to attack, cutting off what appeared to be a small ring while the taller Algieri sought to box, move and create distance. Provodnikov attacked the body, took a few shots from Algieri, and characteristically kept coming. About halfway through the round, they traded jabs, and Provodnikov followed with an overhand right that looped around Algieri’s left glove. Algieri pushed Provodnikov back a little bit, threw a right uppercut and then sent out a left hook. Provodnikov countered with a left hook of his own.
Algieri’s hit first, but Provodnikov’s landed flush and hard and dropped Algieri to the canvas. Algieri did a somersault, popped off the mat and pawed repeatedly at his eye, which began to swell rapidly. Soon, Provodnikov backed Algieri toward a corner, threw a left hook to the body and then a chopping right hand. Algieri took a knee, likely to buy additional time to recover.
At the moment, it seemed as if the measure wouldn’t make much difference. There wouldn’t be any other rounds like the first, though. The story of the next 11 showed that this pairing needed to be examined with much more complexity.
Algieri went back to his game plan. He pumped his jab, moved his feet, sent out his shots in quick combinations and ducked and weaved to avoid as many of Provodnikov’s punches as possible — all while his right eye continued to close shut. Before the fight hit its midway point, Algieri’s nose had been bloodied as well.
Provodnikov landed hard hooks on occasion, but none with the effect of the knockdown shot in the first. Algieri took them well, and his punches had enough pop on them to keep Provodnikov honest, even if they were neither hurting him nor doing much aesthetic damage.
Algieri’s activity, movement and defense kept him in the fight well enough that Freddie Roach told Provodnikov before the 10th round that the bout was too close and that he needed a knockout.
It was the same advice from Roach at the same moment that he had given it to Provodnikov in the Bradley fight. Provodnikov ended up forcing Bradley to take a knee in the final seconds of the 12th round, but Bradley got up and got the unanimous decision. There would be no such moment against Algieri. Instead, the 11th and 12th rounds were what got Algieri the split-decision win.
Ringside judge Max DeLuca was the lone official voice with Provodnikov as the winner, seeing it 117-109, or nine rounds to three, with two additional points taken from Algieri for the knockdowns in the first round. Don Trella had it 114-112 for Algieri, though he actually had Provodnikov winning the final three rounds and tightening up his scorecard.
Tom Schreck also scored the bout 114-112 for Algieri. Like the other two judges, he scored the 11th round for Provodnikov, cutting Algieri’s lead at the time on his card to 104-103. But he saw the 12th for Algieri; had Schreck felt otherwise, it would’ve been a draw on his card and a split draw for the overall result.
DeLuca clearly favored the more powerful punches from Provodnikov. Trella and Schreck gave more credit to Algieri for his boxing, as well as for his offense, for the fact that he threw more punches than Provodnikov (993 to 776, or 217 more, according to CompuBox) and landed more than him as well (288 to 205, or 83 more). Their power punch counts were much more similar, with the caveats that their punching power wasn’t — and that fights are still scored on what happens in each round, not on the cumulative statistics shown after an entire 12-round fight.
And though Trella and Schrek had the same final scores for Algieri, they differed in how they got there, disagreeing on four rounds (the 6th, 9th, 10th and 12th), two of those rounds going to Provodnikov and the other two to Algieri. Turn those scores in the opposite direction and either judge could’ve had Algieri winning by as wide a margin as 116-110 or Provodnikov winning 114-112.
“I don’t get excited for fights like this because these fights are not exciting,” Provodnikov had said a week before the bout when asked about Algieri’s style. “I don’t like when the fighter’s running away. I don’t like when the fighter’s moving. It’s not part of my style. I’m always very excited for a real toe-to-toe fight. It makes for a great fight for me, for the fans and for everybody else. When I have to chase after him and I have to run after him, it’s not as motivating for me. It makes for a different fight.
“But it’s not true that it’s hard for me to fight these guys,” he insisted. “Actually, for them, it’s hard to fight me. That’s why they’re running away. So I’ve never had trouble with these guys. I’ve fought these guys all my life. In the amateurs and everywhere, I’ve fought taller guys that can box. And I wouldn’t say I had trouble with them. They had trouble with me. I can do what I do best. I’ve been able to catch other guys. You can’t run forever.”
Provodnikov had shown difficulty with boxers in the pro ranks, though. Mauricio Herrera had boxed en route to handing Provodnikov his first pro loss back in 2011. Bradley had boxed in order to buy himself recovery time and to win rounds in the war with Provodnikov last year.
“I have to admit: Runners are not my style,” Provodnikov told HBO’s Max Kellerman this past Saturday after the decision was announced, with his manager translating. “He’s just jabbing and touching me. I can’t feel any of that. It’s not my style. I like guys that stand there and fight me. This is the worst style for me.”
It was an excuse, and not a wholly accurate one. Algieri had thrown nearly 1,000 punches. He had engaged with Provodnikov, but he had done so in an intelligent manner.
Algieri, for his lack of big-fight experience, had gotten good practice by working in the past as a sparring partner for Brandon Rios and Marcos Maidana.
“Maidana is a fight,” Algieri had said a week before facing Provodnikov. “Every round with him sparring is a fight. You’re not in there playing patty-cakes. He’s looking to knock you out. He hits you with a shot, his eyes turn to dinner plates. He’s trying to finish you off, in sparring, every time. So being able to be with a guy like that, especially where he’s gone recently since I’ve worked with him, is a big confidence booster.”
Algieri boxed confidently and capably against Provodnikov, earning the win and the world title. He demonstrated heart and guts to go along with his skill, showing that this Long Island kid with a private school education and a pair of college degrees could be just as successful as fighters from poorer backgrounds and harsher environments.
It was a very good performance, one that defied the dichotomy — and expectations.
The 10 Count will return next week.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]