by Kieran Mulvaney
Before Saturday night, Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov had staked rival claims to the Fight of the Year. But now they have joint ownership in a new contender for that honor, following a battle that was every bit as absorbing, skillful and downright brutal as had been predicted, and which ended when Alvarado, no longer able to resist the Russian's relentless aggression, yielded in his corner at the end of the tenth round. With the victory, Provodnikov has a junior welterweight belt and a world of possibilities.
When we last saw Provodnikov (23-2 with 16 KOs), in mid-March, he nearly knocked out Timothy Bradley on more than one occasion before falling short in a points decision. Two weeks later, Alvarado (34-2, 23 KOs) boxed and fought his way to a revenge victory over Brandon Rios, who had issued him his first professional defeat the previous October. Both fights had been compelling, but given these two fighters' styles and commitment to combat, there was genuine optimism that this meeting could match them both. And with the very first action of the very first round, it began to live up to that billing.
Provodnikov, from Beryozovo in Siberia, stalked forward from the outset, looking to inflict instant damage. Alvarado, intending to box, circled and retreated, his hands held high, as Provodnikov landed heavy leather. In the second and third, the American, fighting in front of a boisterous hometown crowd in Broomfield, Colorado, managed to gain more distance, and showed signs of turning the contest into a lesson in power boxing, as he switched back and forth between orthodox and southpaw stances, rattling the onrushing Provodnikov with short uppercuts, popping jabs and overhand rights, and, when his opponent did close the gap, turning his left shoulder to deny his foe a clear target.
But although Provodnikov was known for his strength and power, he showed guile and adaptability, too, using Alvarado's technique against him from the fourth round onward, by sliding to his right off Alvarado's shoulder and launching potent left hooks from the side. What might appear to be an Alvarado round could suddenly change in an instant, as a blow to the body rooted him to the spot, enabling Provodnikov to tee off with a succession of short but punishing punches to the body and head.
If the first four rounds appeared relatively easy to score, with the two men seemingly all even, the next few were anything but. Each man had his moments: Alvarado, rattling his challenger with uppercuts and short, straight combinations; Provodnikov happy to yield the advantage for two minutes of every round in order to rain punishment in the remaining 60 seconds. By the seventh, both men were showing visible signs of damage: Provodnikov was bleeding from his nose and outside his right eye, while Alvarado's own right eye was starting to swell into a gargoyleish mess as a consequence of the Siberian's left hooks.
The momentum shifted dramatically and permanently in the eighth. Another body shot, followed by a sweeping left hook, stiffened Alvarado. Provodnikov, sensing immediate opportunity, pounced, opening up with rights and lefts, hammering Alvarado into the ropes and putting him down onto a knee. Alvarado stayed on the canvas, collecting his breath and perhaps considering his options, until referee Tony Weeks reached the count of nine, and only then rose to his feet. The sight of a vertical Alvarado was merely encouragement for Provodnikov, who returned to the assault and in short order put Alvarado down against the ropes again, this time on the other side of the ring. Again, Alvarado took a knee as Weeks counted; but he looked more annoyed than hurt, and once again resumed battle.
Suddenly, the worst seemed over for the man from Colorado, as he resisted the onrushing Russian tide with a right hand and a big uppercut of his own, before Provodnikov closed the frame with yet another hook and a right. Alvarado survived the ninth by circling and backing up, but now it appeared evident that his apparent Indian summer in the previous round was, in fact, a false dawn. Although he threw enough punches with enough authority to prevent Provodnikov from rushing forward without consideration of the consequences, those blows no longer carried the force they did before, and Provodnikov's continued targeting of his body only made it harder to summon up the strength he had lost.
The end came at the end of the tenth, a round that closed out with Provodnikov again launching a lethal flurry with Alvarado's back against the ropes and then landing a short right hand that wobbled him into the ropes anew. The local man survived that onslaught, but looked out of sorts as he walked wearily to his corner, where interrogation from his trainer and from referee Weeks resulted in the latter calling a halt to the contest.
"I knew what I had to do was break him," said an amped-up Provodnikov afterward. "That's what I told my team. I don't care about the titles. It's all about the war we had today. I had to break his will to win this fight, and I did that."
Alvarado predictably, was more downcast, but philosophical.
"I give him all the respect," he said. "He did what he had to do. I was winning that fight. I was boxing, but I gave him a little bit too much. I was keeping him out as best as I could. The fight was just destined to go that way."