by Eric Raskin
If Ruslan Provodnikov is, as he calls himself, "The Siberian Rocky," then in Chris Algieri he apparently found his unlikely Clubber Lang.
After a breakout 2013 campaign in which he excelled in the underdog role and emerged as one of boxing's most in-demand fighters, Provodnikov found himself heading into his first fight of 2014 in the unfamiliar role of betting favorite and television star. Perhaps those designations didn't agree with him, or maybe Algieri, though wholly unproven coming into the fight, is just a better boxer than we might have imagined. At the very least, the Long Island native has a bigger heart than anyone could have known, rallying back from two first-round knockdowns and a grotesquely swollen eye to win a shocking split decision in front of 6,218 fans at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
A 30-year-old clinical nutritionist with a master's degree who didn't start boxing until age 23 (though he was a professional kickboxer before that), the light-punching Algieri looked on paper like 140 pounds of moose liver for Provodnikov to devour at whatever pace he wanted. And for the first three minutes, that's how the fight played out. Provodnikov, coming off a violent stoppage of Mike Alvarado and a narrow loss to Timothy Bradley in 2013's Fight of the Year, came out of his corner like a bowling ball rolling downhill, his head down, arms banging to Algieri's body as the underdog kept a high guard. The first time the Russian shifted upstairs, halfway into the round, a left hook toppled Algieri, swelling his eye in the process. Algieri rose quickly with a clear head, but just as quickly went down again, a short left uppercut convincing him to take a knee. Provodnikov had a three-point lead on all cards after one round, and a knockout appeared only a matter of time.
But the former kickboxer, having learned to use his legs quite well in the ways boxing allows, moved and worked his proficient jab and four-inch height advantage to change the tenor of the fight. Was he actually winning rounds with his busy output, in the face of Provodnikov stalking and landing a handful of solid left hooks to that damaged eye every round? That depends on what a judge prefers. But Algieri avoided getting badly hurt and certainly boxed in the style that best suits him, particularly against a straight-forward aggressor like Provodnikov.
Oddly, the worse his right eye got, the better Algieri looked-and perhaps the more encouraged Provodnikov was to look for one big shot upstairs rather than utilizing a concerted body attack. You could give Provodnikov many of the rounds based on some of those clubbing hooks snapping Algieri's head to the side and on Algieri appearing focused on primarily survival in spots, but two of the judges were giving them to the guy who was jabbing, moving, and frustrating the Russian. The fifth round was perhaps Algieri's best of the fight's first half, until Provodnikov landed a crackling left hook just a second before the bell, making the scoring a matter of debate, like so many other rounds.
From rounds eight through 10, it got easier to give Algieri rounds as Provodnikov's flush connects became a rarity, and after the 10th, trainer Freddie Roach encouraged Provodnikov to go for the knockout. Provodnikov didn't seem to believe he really needed to go that route to win, but as it turned out, he needed to at least win the last two rounds by 10-9 scores to get a draw. Instead the last two rounds were as inconclusive as many of the nine that preceded them.
The CompuBox stats at the end of 12 rounds favored Algieri: He had a 288-205 edge in punches landed and a 993-776 lead in punches thrown. The difference was his jab (the power punch numbers were nearly even). The numbers that mattered most, though, were on a piece of paper held by ring announcer Michael Buffer. Max DeLuca's score of 117-109 Provodnikov came first, as he gave Algieri only rounds four, five, and seven. Tom Schreck's score was next, 114-112 for Algieri, with Provodnikov winning the sixth, ninth, and 11th rounds, along with the 10-7 opener of course. None of Algieri's punches stunned Provodnikov as much as that score, as he was left slack-jawed by the news that one judge had gone against him. However, the news would get worse for the prefight favorite when Buffer revealed that Don Trella had the same final score, giving Provodnikov only the first round and the final three, making Algieri the split decision winner and new junior welterweight champion. As it turned out, the first and 11th rounds were the only ones Provodnikov won unanimously.
"I have to admit, runners are not my style," Provodnikov (23-3, 16 KOs) said, seemingly coming to terms with the judges' decision rather quickly after the initial shock. "I like guys who stand there and fight me. This is the worst style for me ... He did a good job ...The judges made the decision, it was up to them." He did express some frustration, telling reporters in the post-fight press conference, "I don't see you can take a guy's belt by going to the hospital and running all night."
The week of the fight, Algieri was very nearly in a car accident, and as HBO's Max Kellerman pointed out to him, he looked like he'd been in a collision of some violent sort after 12 rounds with Provodnikov. But Algieri, who said his eye probably looked to the carnivorous Provodnikov "like a nice, juicy steak," persevered and prevailed. "Even the shots I was getting hit with in the first four rounds, they were few and far between," he said. "The only shot that hurt me was that first shot ... Round 12, I was fucking blind. I just kind of anticipated [the punches]."
Algieri (20-0, 8 KOs) told the press afterward that action icon Arturo Gatti was his favorite fighter in high school, but that he never intended to fight in a Gatti-like style. "I think I did for half of the fight tonight," he said.
Sometimes, stereotypes and aesthetics influence our perceptions, and with this matchup there was a primal destroyer from a frigid part of the globe most sane people would never willingly visit taking on a suburban kid from Long Island. It was only natural to assume Provodnikov would smoke Algieri. But the way it played out, and the way Algieri battled, didn't conform to such snap judgments.
"I don't fight because I have to fight," Algieri insisted. "I fight because I love to fight. If you didn't see passion in those 12 rounds, I don't know what to tell you."
In the televised co-feature, Demetrius (or "Demitrius," if the back of his robe is to be trusted) Andrade continued his transition from prospect to contender in the junior middleweight division with an undemanding victory over England's Brian Rose that, unlike Algieri-Provodnikov, did go according to script. The talent divide revealed itself in the opening round, as the 2008 U.S. Olympian dropped Rose with a southpaw straight left hand just a minute into the fight. The rout was on from there, with Andrade able to relax completely and display his offense without much fear of return fire. But he needed six more rounds to fully blast his way through Rose's tight guard, scoring one more knockdown in the third and doing all sorts of damage in the sixth and seventh. At 1:19 of round seven, with Rose (25-2-1, 7 KOs) bleeding from a cut on the bridge of his nose and just looking to survive, ref Michael Griffin called a well-timed stoppage, elevating Andrade's record to 21-0 with 14 KOs.
"Andrade is better than I thought he would be," Rose offered after the fight. "He might be one of the best in the game today. I just wanted to keep up with him. I couldn't keep him off me."