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If you had told most boxing fans last year, or even last week, that on St. Patrick's Day of 2013 the clear early front-runner for Fight of the Year would have included Timothy Bradley, you would frankly have been met with cynical snorts of derisive laughter. Even the sort of fans who appreciate his rugged, technical style would have been highly skeptical.
As the many empty seats in the Carson, Calif., Home Depot Center testified last night, the undefeated Bradley (30-0, 12 KOs) just hasn't consistently demonstrated a fan-pleasing style.
But after last night, boxing people are going to have to start looking at Desert Storm a little bit differently. Because his tilt with Rusland Provodnikov (22-2, 15 KOs) last night wasn't just the best fight so far in 2013, it was among the most compelling fights to take place in recent years.
Naturally Provodnikov deserves a large amount of the credit. Making his debut at 147, the Russian presented Bradley with a rare challenge, an opponent able to match him in physical strength.
When I interviewed Bradley in the final weeks before the fight, he told me he had been trying to develop more punching power during his training camp for this fight, and he made no secret in any of his pre-fight interviews that he wanted to knock the challenger out and send a message to the boxing world.
So he came out aggressively from the opening bell last night. It almost cost him the fight.
Provodnikov hurt Bradley badly in both of the first two rounds; the fact that Bradley even survived them is a testament to his other-worldly durability and heart. He finished both frames looking like he was out on his feet.
But Bradley came back strong in the third and appeared to take control of the fight. While the action was non-stop and relentless, the WBO champion continually controlled distance and angles and slowed Provodnikov down with a brutal body attack.
While his punches upstairs never seemed to badly hurt Provodnikov, they caused significant swelling around both his eyes and opened up a brutal cut on his left eyelid.
Still, Provodnikov showed that his nickname, the Russian Rocky, is well-deserved, as he continued to come forward relentlessly. In the sixth, he touched up Bradley again, prompting Bradley's trainer, Joel Diaz, to threaten to stop the fight.
After 10 rounds, Bradley appeared to have compiled at least a 7-3 lead. Provodnikov's trainer Freddy Roach told the Russian "We need a knockout to win and if you don't show me you can do it this round, I'm going to stop the fight."
Provodnikov proceeded to go out in the 11th and hurt Bradley again. Then, in the final frame, he pulled out all the stops and dropped Bradley inside the final 10 seconds of the fight. Bradley barely made it back to his feet before the final bell.
The last-second knockdown pulled Provodnikov to within a point, 114-113, on two of the three judges' cards. If a first-round slip that replays revealed to be a clear knockdown had been ruled correctly, the fight would have been a majority draw.
It was the type of fight that will enhance both men's standing with the paying public, though it was also the type of war that takes a heavy physical toll.
Bradley spent the second half of last year hoping in vain for a rematch with Manny Pacquiao. But Pac wasn't interested in giving it to him, and the public expressed little interest in seeing it.
After last night, a rematch with Provodnikov could be one of the most anticipated fights for the second half of 2013. And the next time around, it's a safe bet that there will be a whole lot fewer empty seats.