By Cliff Rold
Before his narrow miss in challenging WBO Welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley in what might still be the best fight seen in 2013, there were some who wondered if Russian Ruslan Provodnikov really belonged, wondered if he was really an “HBO-worthy” fighter.
It didn’t matter that Provodnikov had been one of the most consistently entertaining TV fighters of the last few years. He was written off by many on boxing message boards and via social media as an “ESPN” fighter, that somehow being treated as something inherently to be derided.
There was a time where someone like Provodnikov would have been easily celebrated for the opportunity he got in March. Boxing is at its most romantic when the hard luck pug that makes his way with his fists gets his moment to shine. Guys who work hard, show ass, and send the fans home happy are always welcome. When the brass ring is there for them to grab, those are the moments when some of boxing’s best magic occurs.
Not everyone remembered that before Bradley-Provodnikov.
We all remembered by night’s end.
As is just after the effort he gave, Ruslan Provodnikov (22-2, 15 KO) has found that there are rewards even in defeat. His reward is a trip back to an HBO main event matched with fellow warrior Mike Alvarado (34-1, 23 KO) this Saturday night (9:45 PM EST/PST).
It might not feel like a reward as another potential Fight of the Year unfolds Saturday night, but it is. It is the process of the making a fighter at its most organic.
There have always, and will always, be especially gifted fighters who make their way to big arenas or premium outlets early. Sugar Ray Robinson debuted on the undercard of Fritzie Zivic-Henry Armstrong I in the age before broad television outlets. Sugar Ray Leonard got big money for a CBS televised debut. Andre Ward debuted on HBO.
It’s not like that for most. Any television exposure is a blessing within ten fights for the average fighter. To be an ESPN staple, as Provodnikov became, is a boon. Provodnikov is the latest in a long, proud tradition of fighters who gave the world classics after being basic cable fighters first.
On the weekend when HBO will debut a “Legendary Nights” documentary immortalizing his most famous rivalry, Mickey Ward can be remembered for his first “Fight of the Year” on an ESPN2 broadcast when he defeated Emanuel Augustus (then Burton) in 2001.
While Ward had made some HBO appearances before the Augustus win, it was that fight that set the stage for his epic trilogy with Arturo Gatti. The first and third of those contests were also named Fight of the Year. Without his regular appearances on ESPN beginning in the 1980s, Ward’s qualities might never have shone through and given fans the classics they did.
Glen Johnson became beloved by hardcore fight fans over the years, and why not? His steady, hard style, and even harder luck on scorecards over the years, marked him a consummate professional. After building up an undefeated mark against mostly middling types, Johnson got a title shot in 1997 against a Bernard Hopkins entering his prime.
It didn’t go well.
Johnson suffered a stoppage loss in eleven and the losses piled on from there. He lost his next two bouts after Hopkins, won four in a row, then lost four in a row, then won a couple more. Perceptions of his career started to change in his next short losing streak.
The second of two straight losses, a Solo Boxeo main event loss to Julio Gonzalez, was widely seen and had many screaming robbery. Whispers about too many narrow main events going against him increased in volume. A draw with Daniel Judah on ESPN2 led to louder catcalls and more opportunity. Johnson bested Eric Harding on a Fox Sports telecast and then, off US TV and overseas, suffered a draw for the vacant IBF Light Heavyweight title against Clinton Woods.
The decision was booed by most who saw it, setting the stage for a rematch that Johnson won. His next call was for an HBO date with Roy Jones Jr., the presumed first step in Jones rebuilding after a knockout loss to Antonio Tarver.
Jones rebuilding never really did not get off the ground, nor did he for a few minutes after Johnson landed a finishing right hand in round nine. Johnson followed with a pair of memorable fights with Tarver and cycled between premium and basic cable for years afterwards.
Ring named him the 2004 Fighter of the Year.
Former Heavyweight Champion George Foreman, returning to the ring in 1987 after a ten-year retirement, was initially seen as a sideshow. People laughed at his jokes and laughed harder at his chances. It was through outlets like ESPN and USA’s Tuesday Night Fights that Foreman was able to reconstruct his career over the next three years. A pay-per-view showdown with Gerry Cooney was labeled “the Geezers at Caesars” but the total process got him onto HBO in a fight with Adilson Rodriguez in 1990.
His 1991 title shot against then-Undisputed Heavyweight king Evander Holyfield broke the bank and expectations. Foreman lost but there was no laughing anymore. He proved he belonged and stayed in the mix for years afterwards, eventually recapturing the crown in 1994.
The list of fighter’s basic cable has provided access to as network coverage evaporated is long and full of glory. Jones, Hopkins, Mayweather, James Toney, and Oscar De La Hoya all used those platforms when they needed them on the way up. Diego Corrales (Fight of the Year and Century to date in 2005 with Jose Luis Castillo), Antonio Margarito, Miguel Cotto, all cut their teeth their too.
At some point, everyone in this era was a basic cable fighter.
For men like Ward, Johnson, the returning Foreman, and now Provodnikov, it was an especially important lifeline. It was where they proved they could entertain before they had the chance to prove they were worthy of the bigger dollars and spotlight premium cable provides.
Provodnikov may not win this weekend. Alvarado is a tough customer and has home court. After Bradley, no one can say Provodnikov doesn’t belong.
And everyone who truly loves boxing wants to see this fight.
Thank God for basic cable.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org