If you walked up to them and asked, no doubt two-division champion Timothy Bradley and former WBO junior welterweight titlist Ruslan Provodnikov would admit that, all things considered, 2014 hasn’t exactly panned out the way they would’ve liked. What must be really gnawing at them is that they can’t quite understand why this is so. Frankly, neither can I.
It was just last year that the two staged a genuine, blood-and-guts war that had fans on the edge of their seats until the final bell and took Fight of the Year honors in most quarters. Through twelve of the toughest rounds fought in 2013, Bradley proved his courage matches his superlative athleticism, while Provodnikov imprinted his name on fans’ minds with his high-pressure, power-punching style. While “Desert Storm” emerged the winner, Provodnikov succeeded in making his case as a can’t-miss attraction. In the aftermath of such a rousing battle, everyone thought both fighters had nowhere to go but up.
And during the second half of 2013, that proved to be true. Provodnikov revisited the junior welterweight division to challenge Mike Alvarado, who had just picked up a title belt by avenging his previous defeat to Brandon Rios. But the real reason fans flocked to Alvarado vs. Provodnikov was that it pitted two fearless brawlers who would no doubt produce serious fireworks, two gluttons accustomed to feasting on punches in order to land their own. For ten violent rounds, Provodnikov threw bomb after bomb at a mobile Alvarado who tried but failed to keep up with the Russian’s merciless tempo. In the end, Ruslan prevailed, earning a stoppage win and his first championship belt. The sky was the limit for Provodnikov.
Just a few days after the “Siberian Rocky’s” huge win, Timothy Bradley squared off against Mexican master Juan Manuel Marquez, who for reasons not completely clear, turned down a massive payday and a fifth meeting with Manny Pacquiao, opting instead to take on “Desert Storm,” a decision he would soon regret. Bradley’s performance that night stood in direct opposition to his showing against Provodnikov: he outsmarted and outpointed Marquez thanks to highly effective footwork and reliable hand-speed. Bradley’s second victory of 2013, unlike his win over Provodnikov, had little to do with his fighting heart, and everything to do with his versatility as a boxer.
Bradley’s first fight of 2014 was a second meeting with Manny Pacquiao, a rematch that never would have taken place had it not been for the deranged judges who inconceivably scored Bradley the winner of their first fight. There’s no point in dwelling on the putridness of that verdict; the second go-around proved much more entertaining than the first, with Bradley taking more risks as he sought a knockout over the Filipino. While Bradley deserves credit for trying something different in his pursuit of victory, the strategy proved highly flawed, as it allowed Pacquiao to dominate a fading Bradley in the late going.
Meanwhile Provodnikov took on the worst possible stylistic matchup available to a guy of his faculties, with a potential, huge-money showdown against Manny Pacquiao at stake, no less. The rangy and peripatetic Chris Algieri presented Provodnikov with an unsolvable puzzle last June, earning a decisive points win. It was a humbling night for the Russian, who quickly saw a large chunk of his intangible capital vanish into thin air at the same time Algieri signed a contract to fight Pacquiao.
Sadly, Bradley’s defeat to Pacquiao and Provodnikov’s loss to Algieri represent more than just a couple of red entries on their ledgers. Instead they are proving to be massive setbacks for boxers who not that long ago were both in perfect positions to reap huge rewards after years of grueling work and sacrifice. Their future prospects are less than inspiring. Exhibit A: “Desert Storm’s” next commitment will see him trade leather with Argentine Diego Chaves, known to North American fans as the guy Keith Thurman knocked out two summers ago in San Antonio. And if you don’t find it even a little upsetting that a guy with a pedigree like Bradley’s is fighting One Time’s leftovers, just consider Exhibit B: Provodnikov has been sent all the way back to Russia, where his opposition is currently listed as the dreaded “TBD,” i.e. “to be determined,” although the front-runner seems to be a beyond-shot Jose Luis Castillo, believe it or not.
If we’re to be unbiased, there’s little we can say without first stating it’s a travesty that guys of this level struggle to secure decent opposition because of the greed or incompetence of their managers and promoters. Seeing Bradley—a guy who for all intents and purposes should be near the top of the list of potential Mayweather opponents—headline a minor card at a minor boxing venue like the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas should be enough to make fight fans’ eyes bleed as if they had ebola. And the Siberian Rocky returning to Mother Russia to face a mummified version of the once-amazing Castillo is about as appealing a prospect as having to watch a shirtless Vladimir Putin go hunting again. Simply put, both bouts are embarrassing backward steps for two proud warriors who deserve much better.
What is wrong with boxing that even proven guys at their fighting primes find it impossible to secure attractive matches? While it’s no secret Bradley has never been a ratings magnet, it’s difficult to understand why HBO and Top Rank wouldn’t make more of an effort to get him a decent opponent, especially given recent statements from Bob Arum and Oscar De La Hoya that the end of the Cold War is at hand. And what to say of Provodnikov—a guy who’s the very definition of a ring warrior—and his inability to even remain stateside? It’s too depressing for words, and it’s entirely undeserved for a guy with Provo’s allure.
Perhaps Bradley and Provo having slim pickings in 2014 — along with all the other fighters who’ve sat on the sidelines for most of the year due to legal and/or business problems (Mikey Garcia, Andre Ward, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., among others) — is all just karma evening things out. After a flagship 2013, we should have known that this year was bound to be nothing but a letdown for boxing. But a little voice inside my head keeps telling me that in their effort to get back into the game after Showtime stole Mayweather from them, HBO are making the same mistake their rival network did: they’re putting most of their eggs in the Canelo basket while failing to diversify.
If this is indeed what’s happening, it will be sad news for both the fans and most of the fighters stuck on HBO not named Canelo. And it’s a clear indictment of professional boxing that the cable networks wield so much power and so clearly fail to learn from the lessons of the past. If they want to profit from boxing, they should invest in a larger pool of potential attractions, not in a single household name who has all the incentive to maximize his revenue and minimize his risk. Fans flock to boxing to see dramatic, exciting, competitive fights, not to see the latest big name in a showcase mismatch. If HBO fails to properly market and match names like Bradley’s and Provodnikov’s, there’s little hope of boxing escaping the mediocre cycle of crappy matches that has plagued us during a largely forgettable 2014. — Robert Portis