On Saturday, March 16, WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley (29-0, 12 KOs) will return to action for the first time since his controversial split decision victory over Manny Pacquiao last June to defend his belt against Ruslan Provodnikov (22-1, 15 KOs) of Russia. The fight will be held at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California and broadcast live on HBO.
Provodnikov, ranked No. 10 at junior welterweight by The Ring, is a tough, pressure fighter. He's trained by Hall-of-Famer Freddy Roach and is a legitimate world-title challenger. Still, he remains relatively unknown in the United States, and with the surplus of big-name fighters in the 140 and 147 pound divisions, he is a definite step down in competition for Bradley, a fighter most people rank in the pound-for-pound top 10.
Tough but relatively unknown fighters like Provodnikov rarely get fights against champions of Bradley's stature. But "Desert Storm" spent the second half of 2012 watching from the sidelines as Manny Pacquiao opted for a fourth fight with Juan Manuel Marquez rather than a rematch with him.
Still in the prime of his career, Bradley knew he needed to get back in the ring, and soon.
"Provodnikov was available and he was willing to fight," Bradley said when I interviewed him last week. "He's a tough, tough kid. He's going to do everything in his power to take it from me."
Bradley sounded mildly frustrated but ultimately philosophical about his inability to land another big-name opponent after his victory over pound-for-pound contender Pacquiao:
There's a ton of guys out there at 140 and 147, but it's going to take some time and patience to get the business side into place, so I'll just keep winning and it will take care of itself...I think I'm at the front of the line, so guys are going to need to fight me.
For knowledgeable boxing fans, it's no secret why Bradley has had trouble landing another big-name opponent.
The undefeated champion has a bruising and awkward style. He uses angles and controls distance very well, making him difficult to hit. He is very physically strong for a welterweight and excels at muscling his opponents around in tight quarters.
"There were two reasons for that," Bradley explained to me. "One, it's hard to hit me. Two, I was a lot stronger than him."
Bradley continued: "If you look at him in the Marquez fight, it was like two completely different fighters."
The observation has merit. Although Marquez knocked Pacquiao down in the third and put him to sleep with one of the best right-hand counters in the sport's history, for much of the fight Pacquiao very much looked like his old self. He was up three rounds to two on all three cards when he was knocked out at the end of the sixth, a round he had been clearly winning up to that point.
It should also be noted that Bradley was performing on two badly injured legs for most of the fight against Pacquiao. While I am firmly in the camp that believes Pacquiao deserved the decision, the fact that Bradley gave him so much trouble with two bum wheels has always made me want to see a rematch.
Bradley would welcome the opportunity again, although he isn't putting his life on hold to wait for it:
It's a fight I definitely want to have. But I'm not going to sit around crying, begging somebody to fight me. So he'll go his path and I'll go mine and maybe some day they'll line up again. Until then, I'm thinking about me, moving my career forward.
While Bradley's style makes him extremely difficult to beat, it doesn't create the sort of fireworks that enthrall the more casual fans. The reality of the business side of the fight game is that opponents don't want to take a significant risk of losing and looking bad in a fight that might not even generate maximum revenue.
Bradley is unapologetic about his effective, but less-than-charismatic style of fighting: "You're not going to see some Rocky Balboa type of fighter with me. You're going to see a technical fighter who makes people miss him."
Still, beneath the surface, Bradley seems to accept the realities of the business. One of the big things he told me he had been working on in training was sitting down more on his punches, to generate more power.
If displaying improved punching power is part of Bradley's agenda, then Provodnikov may have been a good choice of opponent after all. The rugged and aggressive Russian will certainly be coming forward, getting into range to be hit.