Sometimes bouts come along that are interesting because of what they represent. Regardless of how exciting what happens in the ring is likely to be they’re bouts we tune into because of the stature of the boxers in question, the title on the line, the way it’s been hyped… a vast selection of reasons. Last week’s bout between Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez is a good example of that. While many looked to the pair’s last bouts and thought it would be a blood and guts war, I suspected different and while I think my view was correct I still enjoyed the highly charged technical and strategic chess match.
This one’s different.
Ruslan Provodnikov and Mike Alvarado are both coming off fight of the year candidates… hell, Alvarado’s coming off three in his last four and two in a row. And these weren’t one-offs or a strange quirk of fate. Both have throughout their careers put on exciting bouts that get a fan’s blood pumping. Both are aggressive, both are as much fighters as they are boxers, both hit hard, both keep up a high workrate, both look for offence over defence. And more then that their styles mesh. While boxing has a habit of making even the most sensible predictions look foolish, it’s hard to imagine this not being an exciting bout.
And let’s be clear, this isn’t just a bout which will likely be entertaining but represents nothing. Both Alvarado and Provodnikov are good boxers in their primes and near the top of their division. Golden Boy and their 140lbs tournament may have dominated the headlines regarding junior welterweight over recent years but the winner of this bout will have every right to consider themselves one of the best in the world at this weight… maybe a step below Danny Garcia but certainly on the level of say Lucas Matthysse (and the fact that we will likely never see Matthysse vs Alvarado, Rios or Provodnikov is one of the saddest consequences of the cold war between Top Rank and Golden Boy).
So, who wins?
For a long time Mike Alvarado was considered “one to watch” but for an equally long time he struggled to break out of the pack. Originally a high-school state wrestling champion, Alvarado came to boxing relatively late and turned pro after a fairly short amateur career (although he still managed to pick up a decent victory over Andre Dirrell). Turning pro in 2004 he went about the usual career path of a relatively unknown prospect, knocking off no-hopers in a couple of rounds and while he looked fairly impressive there wasn’t much to get excited about (although in retrospect a narrow victory over Carlos Molina in 2007 is a good thing to have) and his first chance to get a real “statement” win at the end of that year against perennial gatekeeper Michael Clark was underwhelming, with Clark retiring with an injured hand early one. That said the Clark bout was the start of a distinct improvement in opposition level for Alvarado and as 2008 he began he moved on from taking on boxers with records such as 8-3 to matching up with experienced journeymen, spoilers and gatekeepers. Prospect Jesus Rodriguez was beaten in 10, spoiler Michel Rosales was taken out in seven, gatekeepers Cesar Bazan, Manuel Garnica and Miguel Angel Huerta all fell in the fourth, Emmanuel Clottey lasted till the 10th and Juaquin Gallardo may have survived to hear a decision but still lost virtually every round. Quite clearly beating that level of opposition isn’t enough to elevate a man to the top of the division, but with those performance behind him it seemed that Alvarado was about to step up to start facing the top contenders and possibly champions.
Then, as it does for so many boxers, life outside the ring interfered. A combination of traffic/driving offences and an earlier domestic violence charge led to his probation being revoked and he was sentenced to an 18 month stretch. Opting to take part in a prison course that emphasised discipline and responsibility, Alvarado had his sentence significantly reduced and was back in the ring 11 months after his last bout but the wind had still been taken out of his sails.
Alvarado went about rebuilding his career the only way he knew how… by boxing and boxing well. The normally durable Lenin Arroyo was stopped in two rounds (the first time anyone had finished him), the no-hoper Joshua Burns made it three and British domestic contender Dean Harrison lasted four. And then Alvarado had the chance to really make a statement.
On paper, Alvarado couldn’t have asked for much more than a bout with Ray Narh. It was to be on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao vs Shane Mosley which guaranteed people would be watching. It was a bout between a 29-0 and 25-1 boxer. And with 21 stoppages in his 25 wins Narh looked to be the sort of aggressive boxer we’d expect to see fireworks from.
Instead, the bout was a damp squib, with Narh looking utterly uninterested for a handful of rounds before eventually withdrawing. No-one could blame Alvarado for that but much like the Clark bout years before, while Alvarado had picked up the victory he’d lost the chance to make a statement. He followed this up with a fairly routine victory over Gabriel Martinez before the stars finally started to align for him. “The Khanqueror” Bredis Prescott (possibly the worst nickname in all sports, let alone just boxing) still had some hype from the victory over Khan that gave him his (ridiculous) nickname (despite some underwhelming subsequent defeats) and his bout with Alvarado looked to have the same qualities the Narh bout did; two aggressive boxers with power looking to pick up a statement win and move on in the boxing world facing each other on the undercard of a major PPV (this time the third Pacquiao vs Marquez contest).
And unlike the Narh bout, this delivered.
Alvarado had finally had a bout that brought him to the world’s attention. It had been over a known boxer and it had been excellent to watch. He had shown heart, power and skill. Prescott started strong, coming out fast and arguably winning the first five rounds, swelling and cutting Alvarado’s face in the process. But round after round, exchange after exchange, punch after punch Alvarado clawed himself back into the bout and by the 10th he was in complete control, dropping Prescott and then finishing him with a barrage of clean uppercuts. Alvarado had arrived. He followed this up with yet another entertaining win, this time over prospect Mauricio Herrera.
And along came Rios.
There are whole articles in and of themselves to be written about the two bouts Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado had. So I’ll (for once) keep it brief. The first bout was an instant classic, a war where neither man gave an inch. Rios’ chin could take Alvarado’s offence and Alvarado’s couldn’t take Rios’; in the seventh, Alvarado was stopped on his feet. The rematch five months later was equally entertaining but this time Alvarado showed a little more guile and a little more cunning, using movement to frustrate Rios at times… although at other times he still had to fight like his life depended on it… and came away with a deserved decision which I had wider than the official judges.
Stylistically Alvarado is primarily an inside fighter. He’s competent from the outside with a solid jab, decent right hand and fairly good defence but his best position is when he can park his head on an opponent’s chest and work away with short punches. On the inside he’s active and accurate, hitting to the head and body with real power and building combinations well. His uppercut is excellent and he’s also adapt at the more rough-and-tumble, physical side of boxing on the inside, perhaps a throwback to his high school wrestling days. His defence is far from perfect and you’ll at times struggle to find a bout where Alvarado hasn’t suffered a cut or swelling but he’s shown great stamina, incredible heart and a solid chin.
Provodnikov resembles Alvarado in some ways. Like Alvarado it took him a long time for the wider boxing public to really pay attention to him. Originally starting his career in his native Russia after a long (albeit not internationally successful) amateur career but quickly started to box primarily in the US, again knocking off the usual level of competition you’d expect a prospect to face. His first real test was against Argentinian Victor Hugo Castro and he aced it, defeating him in two rounds. Next came the first of what would become regular appearances on Friday Night Fights, breaking down tough journeyman Javier Jauregui in eight followed by another Friday Night Fights bout, this time defeating “The Drunken Master” Emanuel Augustus in nine and then a routine win over a journeyman back in Russia. It was at this point that he first suffered some real adversity in his career as he faced the previously mentioned Herrera on Friday Night Fights. The bout was close, exciting and could have gone either way but in the end Herrera pulled an upset over the favourite Provodnikov.
To his credit, Provodnikov didn’t complain about the close decision and instead took it as a learning experience. His lack of technical polish had been apparent for a while but this was the first time his power and aggression hadn’t been enough to carry him through regardless. After a confidence building win back in Russia he teamed up with American trainer Buddy McGirt and soon found success again, defeating first Ivan Popoca in eight and then taking a wide decision over the veteran DeMarcus Corley in Russia. At this stage McGirt couldn’t give Provodnikov the time Provodnikov felt he needed to improve so he switched to Freddy Roach… the change did nothing to halt his rise, first gatekeeper David Torres was crushed in six and then Jose Reynoso couldn’t survive two.
At this point Provodnikov was at a good stage in his career, but much like Alvarado, seemeed to be treading water. His entertaining style made him a fixture of Friday Night Fights but Friday Night Fights is a place for prospects to face fellow prospects or journeymen and for contenders to pick up soft victories after losing a big bout. It’s not the place for a fighter to turn from an intriguing prospect to a legitimate contender and as impressive as those victories were, beating an ancient Corley and the likes of Torres, Popoca and Reynoso isn’t something that makes the boxing fanbase jump up and down in appreciation or think you’re about to become a champion.
And then along came Bradley.
Timothy Bradley was coming off his highly controversial win over Pacquiao and looking for his next opponent. Having already turned down a very lucrative rematch with Lamont Peterson he selected Provodnikov as his dance partner. Going into the bout few expected much from it; despite the fact that most people thought Bradley lost to Pacquiao they accepted he was a highly skilled, top level boxer and most thought he’d outclass the seemingly limited Provodnikov to a wide but fairly uneventful decision.
Barrack room psychology is always a mixed bag but I suspect Bradley was badly stung by the criticism he received in the wake of the Pacquiao decision (which went as far as death threats). He wanted to make a statement and he wanted to make a statement by destroying Provodnikov. Not just beating him, not just whitewashing him on the scorecards, not just outclassing him… by beating him up. And he came out with that mindset.
And paid the price.
The bout was a brawl. From the first minute to the last both fighters threw everything they had at each other. And while Bradley may have been technically better and more skillful, Provodnikov hit harder and had a better chin. Bradley was wobbled on multiple occasions, seemed to spend minutes at a time virtually out on his feet, was somewhat lucky not to be classed as going down in the first, was knocked down in the 12th and eventually won the narrowest of decisions, again controversially. Provodnikov had arrived as a serious contender at 140 and 147lbs, regardless of the eventual result.
Stylistically Provodnikov is a pressure fighter. He comes forward aggressively moving his head and upper body and looks to close the distance with either a pawing jab or an overhand right. The overhand right is his key punch which he supports with an effective left hook. He’s shown power throughout his career, able to stun opponents with single shots or break them down as the rounds add up. His handspeed is not particularly impressive but neither is it notably poor and while many of his shots are a bit wide they’re also accurate. Despite his reputation as a straight-ahead brawler, he’s got a little more craft to his game, generally being effective at countering over an opponents shots with either the hook or the right hand. His best position is in the pocket and he’s shown a bit of weakness when opponents have constantly been able to keep him on the outside through movement and when they are able to get to the inside (be it to spoil or to attack).
And now he and Alvarado face off with the winner likely moving on to bigger things (possible matches with the winner of Pacquiao/Rios as well as either Bradley or Marquez) while the loser has to rebuild again.
A number of commentators I’m aware of have picked Provodnikov on the basis that he hits hard and Alvarado was stopped by Rios and then hurt by a jab. I think that analysis is far too basic. Yes Alvarado was stopped by Rios… but he took one hell of a beating before the referee stepped in. Likewise, it’s not as if he was unconscious or even knocked down; he was stopped on his feet. Personally I didn’t think it was a bad stoppage, albeit arguably a tad early, but I’m not sure it’s enough to declare that Alvarado will be flattened any time anyone with heavy hands connects. Likewise, while Rios stunning him with a jab in the rematch is a worrying sign it’s not as if Alvarado collapsed immediately afterwards despite Rios landing some hard follow-up shots. Moreover, we’ve seen a lot of boxers get stunned by punches that we wouldn’t normally think of as hurtful and it’s certainly no indication of a bad chin in-and-of itself. Canelo was wobbled hard by little Cotto… a natural 135lbs boxer… and Margarito was knocked down by Danny Perez for example. Alvarado’s been in some good battles with pretty hard punchers… Bredis Prescott being the obvious one to point to… and come through them ok.
Likewise, it’s worth noting that I had Alvarado pretty far ahead in both his bouts with Rios (despite how the judges had it). Even in the first one, Rios would land two or three shots… but Alvarado would come back with four or five. The difference is that Rios’ iron chin was enough to take Alvarado’s offence and Alvarado’s own eventually cracked. The key point here is that Alvarado learned from that; the second half of the Rios rematch featured him using movement to frustrate Rios and then setting up exchanges on his terms and then winning them when they did happen before backing out again to avoid sustained punishment. It’s a sensible mindset and one he’s talked about during the buildup to this bout… at times he has to fight but at times he also has to box.
And Alvarado’s not bad when it comes to boxing. Rios is a pretty good pressure fighter and fairly effective at cutting off the ring, yet Alvarado (while not exactly being Pep reborn) did a solid job at avoiding him. Rios and Provodnikov use a stylistically similar method of applying pressure; it’s predominantly movement based without much use of the jab. Alvarado did a good job slipping Rios and moving around him… I think he’ll find at least some success doing the same to Provodnikov.
For Provodnikov, people obviously go back to his bout with Bradley and reasonably so. It was his most recent bout, it was his highest profile bout, it was against the best opponent he’s faced and it was an excellent bout to watch. But I think we have to be careful about reading too much into certain aspects of it. The reason it was so close (and the reason it was so exciting) was that Bradley made the somewhat foolish decision to fight Provodnikov’s fight. He came out aggressively trying to brawl… and even as adaptable as Bradley is, that’s not a style he’s brilliant with. He boxed Provodnikov’s bout and he paid the price.
There are also arguably actually some negatives in there for Provodnikov. Considering his reputation as a power puncher and considering how many times he hurt Bradley, is one knockdown very late in the bout (and one that could have been called early) really the return we’d hope for? Despite wobbling Bradley multiple times, despite catching him clean with overhand rights and left hooks multiple times, despite Bradley opting to stand straight up, abandon head-movement and brawl, Provodnikov could only knock him down once and couldn’t finish him. It’s impressive he managed to hurt Bradley… it’s less impressive he couldn’t really do anything when he did. Likewise, as well as Provodnikov performed in that bout, it’s worth noting how often and how cleanly he was hit. Bradley’s no-one’s idea of a power puncher and was often hurt himself during exchanges but he still wobbled Provodnikov a couple of times.
I’m aware everything I said above comes out as me being very negative about Provodnikov and that’s not my intention. He’s clearly a good, dangerous boxer and he’s not quite as crude as some people like to suggest. He’s got an excellent overhand right which he can (and does) throw from multiple positions, be it on the outside, on the inside during exchanges or as a counter-shot when opponents do come forward. It’s heavy, fast, fairly accurate and opponents don’t see it coming. Likewise his left hook is both powerful and sneaky. Defensively Provodnikov can have good head and upper body movement as he applies pressure although it’s clear he has to think about doing it, he has a bad habit of “resetting” while still in exchanges and it tends to disappear entirely when he’s being aggressive. Likewise he’s shown a solid chin and despite what I’ve said above about the Bradley fight has generally shown himself to be a competent finisher (although it is perhaps worth looking back to the David Torres bout… Provodnikov drops him with about a minute to go in the first round and then has 30+ seconds of complete freedom as Torres just covers up in the corner without hurting or dropping him again). He clearly hits hard with both a decent level of one-shot power and the ability to wear people down with sustained offence.
The reason I’m leaning towards Alvarado is two fold. The first is the reason given above about his movement. The second is that while Provodnikov is a good pressure fighter he’s not a particularly natural inside fighter. He does his best work from the pocket and only really steps to the inside when an opponent is already hurt. Alvarado in contrast is a good inside fighter, one who uses his state wrestling experience well in the physical side of it and one who works the body and head with speed, power and accuracy. If Alvarado can consistently collapse the pocket and get inside (either offensively or defensively) then it’s hard to see Provodnikov having that much success… he may have more power than Alvarado but on the inside he lacks the speed, workrate, angles or skill to compete with him. Alvarado targets the body in a way few of Provodnikov’s opponents have previously and Provodnikov himself is primarily a head hunter… he’ll throw a few rights to the body from the outside and occasionally put in a body shot but there’s no targetted aggression. Likewise Provodnikov’s tendecy to leave his head static at unfortunate moments makes it a perfect target for Alvarado’s uppercuts.
That’s not to say I’m particularly confident in Alvarado here. For all I’ve written above, Provodnikov may well be able to land one of his overhand rights on Alvarado, especially if Alvarado is coming forward, follow up with a barrage and get him out of there early. It may be that it’s a repeat of the way I saw the first Rios bout, with Alvarado arguably winning the rounds and getting the better of exchanges but Provodnikov’s chin standing strong while Alvarado’s is eventually worn down. I lean towards Alvarado but I’m not particularly confident. Both men also have a tendency to cut and swell… I hope such facial damage doesn’t end the bout in-and-of itself.
In an exciting bout where both men have moments and both are probably wobbled at least once, I think Alvarado picks his moments to brawl and wins a narrow decision… possibly as close as 115-113.