Ruslan Provodnikov was smiling like the proverbial Cheshire cat that ate the canary at the 89th annual Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand on May 1, 2014, where he was a recipient of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier Award for having been a participant in 2013’s Fight of the Year.
But that wide grin masked an inner pain. The FOY Award was nice, sure, and a testament to the incredible two-way action he and Timothy Bradley Jr. had engaged in on March 16 of that year. But, although Providnikov registered a knockdown in the 12th and final round, a gassed Bradley retained his WBO welterweight championship on a razor-thin but unanimous decision at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. That left Provodnikov feeling like Miss Congeniality at the Miss Universe pageant, winner of nothing more than a very nice consolation prize.
It is a situation that is apt to be repeated at the 91st BWAA Awards Dinner, at a date and site yet to be announced in the spring of 2016. More than halfway through the current calendar year, it is highly likely that Provodnikov’s most recent ring appearance, against Argentina’s Lucas Matthysse on April 18 at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., will be one of the five nominees for the Ali-Frazier Fight of the Year Award. But it was Matthysse who came away with the another close victory, by 12-round majority decision, and Provodnikov is less likely to smile for the cameras if he again is obliged to be the “B” side of the year’s best fight.
There is still time to flip the script, however, which is why Provodnikov, the 31-year-old known as the “Siberian Rocky,” was in Philadelphia Sunday night to meet with selected members of the media and to announce his plans for the remainder of 2015, and beyond.
Art Pelullo, Provodnikov’s Philly-based promoter, said that his fan-friendly fighter is a free agent who made this latest trip to America from his hometown of Beryozovo, Russia, to negotiate the best deal possible for his next bout. The preferred opponent is Matthysse, and if a rematch comes to pass – Pelullo is targeting November or December — it would not surprise anyone if Matthysse-Provodnikov II joined Matthysse-Provodnikov I on the BWAA ballot, as well as on the ballots of other boxing entities that select a Fight of the Year.
“He’s never done less than 1.1 million viewership (on premium cable),” Pelullo said of Provodnikov’s firm grasp on the loyalties of fight fans who see him as a reasonable facsimile of the late, great action hero Arturo Gatti. “Everybody wants to see Ruslan fight.”
But whether Provodnikov fights Matthysse, Brandon Rios, Adrien Broner or whomever, it’s possible his chief second will not be Freddie Roach, who was in his corner for the first Matthysse scrap and all fights since. And even if Roach, a seven-time BWAA Trainer of the Year honoree, is still a key member of Team Ruslan, it’s a good bet that the Provodnikov we see when next he steps inside the ropes will not be the same version that fight fans have come to love for his brawling, mauling ways.
Provodnikov, after finishing off a fine steak and his first-ever crème brulee at the Capital Grille in Center City Philadelphia, said he needs to make certain adjustments to his constantly-attacking style if he is to continue in a sport where those who take two or three to land one usually have short shelf lives. He has a wife and a young son whom he loves dearly, and he would like to be as undamaged as possible for them whenever it is that he decides to step away from the ring wars.
“I realized from the first fight (with Matthysse) it was coming to this,” Provodnikov, with his manager, Vadim Kornilov, translating, said of the realization that what has worked so well, all things considered, in the past might not be good enough moving forward. “Now I know I have progressed only to a certain level. Any opponent that comes into the ring with me knows I have the character, the determination and will do anything to win. But they also know exactly what I’m going to do. My progress has stopped. I haven’t been bringing anything new into my fights. People know if they’re going to fight me, they’re probably not going to survive. They know their only chance is to box and get away from me.
“Now, I have decided to either hang up my gloves or make significant changes, serious changes, in the way I fight, if I’m going to continue fighting. I very much believe the Matthysse rematch is going to happen because that’s what everybody wants to see. But the only way I can win is to make the changes that are necessary, which I’m working on right now.”
Could one of those “necessary” changes be a switch to a trainer other than Roach?
“For now, I’d like to leave that question at `no comment,’” Provodnikov responded. “Time will tell. But for right now, I’m with Freddie.”
Interestingly, Matthysse – a power puncher who usually is only too glad to engage in slugfests – came out sticking and moving against Provodnikov. He built an early points lead in that manner, although he was obliged to trade at close quarters from the middle rounds on as Provodnikov exerted so much pressure that the Argentine had no other option than to meet fire with fire. And Matthysse’s flame nearly was extinguished in the 11th round, when Provodnikov buckled his knees with a thudding shot.
“In the lobby of the hotel after the fight, Matthysse grabbed me,” Pelullo said. “He told me, `Artie, you know he had me out in the 11th, right? If I don’t hold on, I go down and I don’t get up.”
“That was a tactical loss,” Provodnikov continued. “(Matthysse) started quicker because his tactic was to box and jab. Mine was to break him down and get to him, which I started to do after a couple of rounds. But it was getting later and later, and I didn’t have enough time (to finish him off).”
But can an alteration of strategy, this deep into Provodnikov’s career, pay the envisioned dividends? It should be noted that Gatti, after he went with a new trainer, Buddy McGirt, added some stylistic nuances to his familiar full-frontal attacks. As it turned out, the ultimate warrior did have a few tricks up his sleeve that he hadn’t shown before. But when the heat was turned up, and cuteness wasn’t cutting it, it didn’t confuse Gatti in the least to return to what he knew best.
“No matter what, I think knowing how to box is a positive,” Provodnikov said. “But brawling is something that can’t be taken away from me, and it wasn’t taken away from Gatti either. The brawling part is always going to be there, but being able to adjust can only add to my ability to win fights.
“I know that I can box, but I never really train in that sense. I never really developed that. In none of my last several fights did I have a goal of trying to box, even though I think it could have worked. Obviously, I’m not going to become a boxer-boxer, but if I can move a little bit and add certain things, it’s going to add to my arsenal.”
If he fights Matthysse again, and wins, Provodnikov, a former WBO super lightweight champion, will be hotter than hot again. What does he envision happening in 2016 and possibly beyond? There was some talk of his possibly getting it on with Manny Pacquiao, but Pelullo doesn’t see that happening.
“Of course we would fight Pacquiao,” Pelullo said. “We’d fight him in a heartbeat. But in my opinion, (Bob) Arum is going to keep Pacquiao away from Ruslan. Ruslan would knock Pacquiao out. Everybody knows that. Pacquiao would be right in front of Ruslan, and that’s the right style for him. He murders Pacquiao.”
That is an opinion that is not universally shared, but it makes a nice conversation-starter. Who else might be on Provodnikov’s radar and has a big enough name to qualify that matchup as a must-see attraction?
“Danny Garcia,” Pelullo said of the former WBC/WBA super lightweight champion who moves up to welterweight to take on veteran former titlist Paulie Malignaggi Aug. 1 at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. “We’ll give Garcia $2 million to fight Ruslan at 144, 145, 147, whatever he wants. But Danny wants no part of him, I don’t think. We’d even fight him in Philly. It’d be a megafight. It’d be unbelievable. Can you imagine that fight in Philadelphia? It would be incredible.”
Such is the stuff of which dreams are made. For now, the dream of Ruslan Provodnikov is not only to be in the Fight of the Year, but to win it.