by Hamilton Nolan
Every fighter need not be a world champion. He need not be the slickest, the most well-rounded, the most polished athlete at the pinnacle of human performance. Sometimes, to make it to the sport's highest heights, it is enough to be good at just one thing. Punching, preferably. He who loves to punch will find love in boxing. Everything else can wait.
The road of extreme, devil-may-care punching is a hard one to walk. But some fighters are naturally drawn to it. Those who embrace it fully--who give their bodies, and their hearts, and their health to the cause of hard punching, consequences be damned--often find themselves more popular than other fighters who, while objectively better, seem to lack that near-insane lust for violence. Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov are both fighters of this sort. When they come together, the only thing guaranteed is smashing.
Alvarado (34-1) is coming off his career highlight, a decision win in a rematch with world champion Brandon Rios. Rios himself is the premier prototype of the punch-at-all-costs fighter, disdaining most defensive elements of boxing in favor of walking straight forward, absorbing unlimited amounts of punishment, and giving back all of that punishment plus a little bit more. He TKO'd Alvarado a year ago, but in their rematch in March, Rios seemed to have lost a tiny bit of energy from all his wars, while Alvarado rallied and thrived. Mike Alvarado's technical boxing skills could be described as average at best, but compared to Brandon Rios he looked like Pernell Whitaker. For example, he jabs once in a while, and sometimes ducks a punch. These could be interpreted as corruptions of the "all punching" style, but they're really just dashes of flavor. The punching is still Mike Alvarado's primary interest.
This is not to imply that Alvarado is not a quality fighter. Along with Rios, he's beaten Mauricio Herrerra and Breidis Prescott, both quality 135-pounders. Most Alvarado victories involve a great deal of bruising and torture inflicted on both men in the ring, but it seems to work for him.
Ruslan Provodnikov (22-2) has a similar disposition to Alvardo, but a slightly lesser pedigree. He is also coming off the biggest fight of his career, but in his case, it's a loss--an extremely close 12-round decision loss to undefeated pound-for-pounder Tim Bradley, in which Provodnikov had Bradley catatonic from cannonball-like shots more than once. Bradley, possessing a superhuman will and better ring movement, managed to survive and win. But Provodnikov made quite an impression on the boxing world. All he needed was a single hard right hand to concuss Bradley, a man who'd survived 12 rounds with Manny Pacquiao with less damage than he received in three rounds with Provodnikov. It's not that Provodnikov doesn't have boxing skills--he trains with Freddie Roach, and he's served time as Pacquiao's sparring partner-it's just that he's most distinguished by his power. Opponents tend to look like they've just been hit by a shovel when his punches land. It's only common sense for him to build around that.
This is all a long way of saying that Alvarado-Provodnikov should be one of the best "action" matchups in boxing, just as Alvarado-Rios was. "Action" is a polite term meaning "bloody and violent." Alvarado is somewhat more highly touted, but he's also four years older, and brings in the extra damage those years entail. Provodnikov has never been knocked out, whereas Alvarado has been, by his fellow power puncher Rios; then again, Provodnikov lost to Mauricio Herrerra, whom Alvarado beat. Provodnikov probably has better pure power, but Alvarado has demonstrated the kind of heart that gets you to the top of the world's most brutal sport even when you lack the natural talent of many other men. Plus, this is Alvarado's biggest fight ever in his hometown of Denver, and he'll have the crowd on his side.
Pick 'em. Provodnikov is sure to come forward. Alvarado would be well served to use his jab and move his feet and circle, as he did against Rios. (In the context of this fight, that just means he should try to step around before he punches. No one expects him to morph into a fluttering butterfly.) Against quality opponents, Alvarado's knockouts have come in late rounds, if at all. Provodnikov, though, has the type of one-punch power that can end a fight at any moment. Both men are equally hungry--Alvarado, for a triumphant capstone on his career to thrill his hometown, and Provodnikov, for redemption from his close loss and a chance to catapult himself directly into boxing's top tier with a victory. It will be a fun fight. As long as you're not one of the men fighting.