It's hard to imagine that after beating the great Manny Pacquiao, nine months later people are saying Timothy Bradley still needs to prove himself when he fights Ruslan Provodnikov on March 16 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. But such is life when you win a highly controversial decision against one of the most beloved and respected boxers in the sport.
Since that victory over Pacquiao, not a lot of things have gone right for Bradley. In addition to having to rehab painfully sore feet, he has seen marquee matchups fall through and suffered some pretty vicious slings and arrows shot at him by media and fans.
The ground swell of criticism inevitably took its toll. Bradley admits there was a time after the Pacquiao fight that he was bitter and blown away by the criticism. But as the months went by, Bradley's psychic wounds began to heal. Now the undefeated Bradley (29-0, 12 KOs) says, "I'm not mad anymore. I'm just glad to be back." A thought echoed by his manager, Cameron Dunkin. "The other day Tim told me 'I understand now. I know. So I'm just going to fight and make more fights. Get me who you can. If it's a big fight, fine, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to carp out about it.'"
By no stretch of the imagination is Provodnikov (22-1, 15 KOs) a big fight, because the Russian, who used to train in Siberia, is virtually unknown to most fans. That being said, this fight is still a dangerous one for Bradley, a classic high-risk, low-reward matchup, and probably a no-win situation for the champion. If Bradley beats Provodnikov, people will say he didn't fight anybody of any consequence. If he loses, then he is in danger of falling from the ranks of the elite.
The issue is whether Provodnikov, who has yet to beat a single fighter of any real pedigree, can pull off the upset. It would hardly seem possible if you judged Provodnikov solely by his record before he began training with Freddie Roach, when he was a crude, powerful plodder who just kept coming at his opponents, though with limited skills. But in January, the five-time Trainer of the Year took the Russian under his wing and then, most importantly, made him Pacquiao's chief sparring partner for the Bradley fight.
"Sparring with Pacquiao," Provodnikov's manager, Vadim Kornilov, says, "was a big psychological boost for him." The 29-year-old Russian came away from those rugged sparring sessions with the reigning pound-for-pound contender at the time with enormous self-confidence, knowing that if he could fight with Pacquiao, he could fight with anyone.
Another benefit of the sparring was that getting thrown into the fire with Pacquiao forced Provodnikov to grow as a fighter. Prior to tangling with the Filipino, the Russian had several bad habits in the ring, including not moving his head much, keeping his chin up too high, and failing to use his jab when he moved in on opponents. Against Pacquiao, Provodnikov quickly learned the painful way that if he didn't tuck his chin in, or move his head and use the jab, then he was going to get blasted around the ring like a rag doll.
Bradley, on the other hand, doesn't have nearly the power to do that to Provodnikov. In fact, it's hard to imagine that Bradley, who has just one knockout since 2007, can even put down Provodnikov, who has never tasted canvas, according to his promoter, Artie Pelullo. The Russian's ability to absorb punches and keep on coming could pose real problems for the defending champion. "Ruslan fights like a Mexican," Pelullo says. "He's always coming forward at you, and is strong and powerful. His attitude is that he will kill you to win, and you have to kill him to beat him."
The key to beating Bradley, Pelullo says, "is to take him out of his game plan. And the way to get a fighter out of his game plan is by hurting them, roughing them up, making them worry about being hit."
If that should happen, however, Bradley could adjust in much the same way he did in the Pacquiao fight. After getting shook up a few times by Pacquiao's punches in the earlier rounds, Bradley switched tactics and used his good boxing skills and a stick-and-run style over the final six rounds to pull out the split decision win, at least according to the judges. Should Bradley go into that boxing mode again, it could make life difficult for Provodnikov, whose only loss was to Mauricio Herrera, a fighter who out-boxed the Russian and kept the fight at a distance by using a stinging jab.
But even if Bradley tries to outbox Provodnikov, he knows the Russian's power will always give him a puncher's chance to win. "Tim is aware," Dunkin says, "that he's got to watch Provodnikov's right hand. That's his knockout hand. It's a tremendously powerful right hand." Should Bradley elect not to shift into boxing mode, and decide to engage in a brawl for awhile, even then Dunkin says he is not worried. "If Tim wants to put his head down and bull his way in, he will," the manager says. "Tim's physically very strong. Other fighters have no idea how strong he is."
While some say that Bradley has more power in the head he charges in with than in his hands, if Provodnikov comes forward without his gloves held up high enough-as he has in the past-the American has a chance to stop him at some point on cuts or closed eyes. "He's just going to be eating punches," Bradley said recently. "Eating punches until maybe even the ref stops the fight because his face is going to be swollen up after I get done with him."
Then again, should Provodnikov eat Bradley's leather and keep coming back for seconds, then all bets are off and you can toss out the lopsided odds for this fight. "Larry Holmes once told me," Pelullo says, "that if you want to be a great fighter and make money, then you have to win a fight you aren't supposed to win."