By Thomas Gerbasi
This shouldn’t be the time to put any pressure on Floyd Mayweather, Robert Guerrero, Saul Alvarez, Austin Trout, Nonito Donaire, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Wladimir Klitschko, or any of the other boxers competing in big fights this spring, but let’s say it anyway. Let’s say that for everyone who steps into a boxing ring, the recent Mike Alvarado vs. Brandon Rios and Timothy Bradley vs. Ruslan Provodnikov bouts should be required viewing.
What happens after that should be a renewed sense of what it means to be a prizefighter, and what it means to go into the ring and deliver a performance that fans will be talking about for weeks, one that will prevent them from going to sleep that night because the adrenalin is still pumping.
That’s what this year’s Fab Four of Alvarado, Rios, Bradley, and Provodnikov gave us. It wasn’t just about the action, the knockdowns and near knockdowns, or the high stakes involved. What we saw over two magnificent Saturday nights in March was the kind of drama Hollywood could never deliver because the silver screen version is just not real.
For Bradley, it was expected that a win over Provodnikov could never lift a profile that hit rock bottom in the dark days following his controversial win over Manny Pacquiao. As for Provodnikov, he was a tough guy, but virtually unknown outside of hardcore boxing circles, and expected to remain there win or lose on March 16.
Two weeks later, Alvarado and Rios would get acquainted again. Their first fight was an instant classic, and instant classics are rarely repeated in the rematch. The hard luck Alvarado had lost the first fight of his career to Rios by way of a referee stoppage some said was too early. But his tendency to eat power shots made most believe that the end would come even quicker the second time around. Rios? He was the guy Cus D’Amato could have prophesized about when he said those who are born round don’t die square. There were no surprises with Rios – he would fight the same way against Alvarado that he did the first time.
He did, and he almost stopped his opponent early in their bout. But then Alvarado turned the tables, landing more than he took, and even staggering Rios a few times over the course of 12 furious rounds that he won via close, but unanimous decision. If it wasn’t the best fight of 2013 thus far, its only competition was Bradley-Provodnikov two weeks earlier, when Bradley became one of the rare souls to win a fight after seemingly getting knocked out multiple times before the final bell sounded.
Bradley also took home a unanimous decision win over his opponent, and while it’s cliché to say that there were no losers in either ring, in this case it was true. Provodnikov put himself on the boxing map in defeat in a way he wasn’t able to do in 22 previous wins. He will get bigger and better opportunities in the future. Rios’ stock didn’t drop an ounce either, and his next big payday will likely be against Alvarado in a rubber match that the fans and the fighters are demanding.
But what about the rest of the boxing world? Are we asking that Mayweather turn into Arturo Gatti, that Klitschko abandon his jab-right cross combination and start winging hooks like Joe Frazier?
No. There is beauty in the art of the sweet science. It was even evident on the night of Alvarado-Rios as late replacement Terence Crawford befuddled Breidis Prescott, a bout that still garnered plenty of boos from fans thirsty for the more primal action delivered by the main eventers. But what fans really want to see are fighters fighting as if nothing else in the world mattered but winning that fight. That’s what Bradley, Provodnikov, Alvarado, and Rios brought to the table last month.
They cared. Nothing is more boring than seeing an elite level athlete coast or do just enough to win. People want to see their sporting heroes act like heroes. And heroes don’t always win pretty. To be a real hero, you have to survive adversity, you have to sweat, you have to bleed, and sometimes you have to pick yourself up off the canvas. Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao, with millions already in their bank accounts, didn’t have to fight the way they did last year. They could have waltzed through their fourth fight, cashed the check, and went on to the next payday. They didn’t. And what resulted was a fight no one would ever forget.
We were lucky enough to see two fights like that in the space of two weeks, and they were battles that the two greatest action heroes of this past era, the late Arturo Gatti and Diego Corrales, would have appreciated. Not surprisingly, anytime you talk about such abstract notions as “leaving it all in the ring” and “fighting your heart out,” you have to bring up Gatti and Corrales.
Thankfully, I had the honor of covering both of these warriors who passed before their time, and when thinking about the fistic festivities of the past month, two stories come to mind immediately. Before his 2004 bout with Gianluca Branco, I spoke to Gatti’s longtime manager Pat Lynch about the early days and when he knew that the kid from Montreal wasn’t your average fighter. Lynch went back to Gatti’s third pro fight in 1991.
“Russell Peltz is the promoter, and we have opponent after opponent fall out,” said Lynch. “Russell comes to me the night before the fight and says, ‘I just want you to know that a few of the writers think that the young Gatti is gonna lose tomorrow night.’ This kid Richard DeJesus has a great amateur background, the whole bit. So I went to the hotel and I told Arturo, we had a lot of opponents fall out, we got you in with a kid we didn’t know much about, a real tough fighter, and he stopped me and said, ‘If I can’t beat Richard DeJesus, I’ll never be world champion. Don’t worry about it.’ The next day he knocked the kid out in 32 seconds. We were not signed with Duva at the time, and in the dressing rooms in Newark you had to go up the stairs. I never saw Dino Duva hop three steps at a time to get to the dressing room. That’s when I knew I had something special. It was that third pro fight.”
That’s a real fighter.
The second story took place after Corrales won perhaps the greatest fight of all-time over Jose Luis Castillo in 2005. Before he scored his come from behind stoppage win, he had taken an array of punishing shots and was sent to the canvas twice, leaving him in a position on the scorecards where only a knockout would secure victory. As a human being, you would assume that even if only for a split second, quitting could enter your mind. Not Diego Corrales’ mind.
“So do you think about quitting?” I asked.
Corrales didn’t hesitate to respond.
Did you ever think about it?
Not even for a brief second?
“It’s not even a thing that pops into my head.”
The crazy part is, I believed him, just like I believed Gatti when he said that there was no place where he found more peace than in the middle of a war in the ring, and the way I believe guys like Rios and Alvarado when they say that after two fights worth of punishment, pain, and hell, they’ll do it again.
Prizefighters are not like you and me. They’re a special breed of human being. And when you see the likes of Gatti, Corrales, Bradley, Provodnikov, Alvarado, and Rios elevate themselves like they have, it’s something you can’t describe and something you don’t find too often. And maybe because it’s so rare it makes us want to celebrate it even more.
So it just might be too much to ask for the rest of the boxers competing throughout 2013 to live up to such lofty expectations. If it is, that’s okay. Boxing fans can at least be content with our own form of March Madness, and know that even if only for a moment, a fight can be elevated to an art form.