(Photo © German Villasenor)
Finding yourself is everything in life. So many of us work and hunt and root out a survival. Few of us discover what and who we are at the right moment and jump off towards a higher level of understanding and success than we ever dreamt. In boxing, as in any art, self-realization is the key to the artist’s magic. A successful boxer must be lucky and wise, technically sound and/or physically gifted. But if he does not know himself, none of those things matter. For in this game which is fought not played, if you don’t believe in yourself, who can?
Following his first camp with veteran trainer Freddie Roach back in January, WBO inter-continental junior welterweight titleholder Ruslan Provodnikov had a choice. He could fight in April for a title against Top Rank’s Mike Alvarado, a bout that Provodnikov, with the smaller but solid Banner Promotions, would certainly be an underdog in. Or he could join Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines and earn his experience and place in the pecking order the hard way: as the best fighter on the planet’s sparring partner.
“We were also talking about a fight in April with Alvarado but there was not a lot of time,” Provodnikov told me recently during a visit to the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA. “We talked to Freddie. We didn’t see the point of rushing it.”
“We thought that was a big opportunity and we wanted Ruslan to have that experience. So we specifically put off our next fights. We put that off until June to make sure he was sparring with Manny in this whole training camp,” said manager Vadim Kornilov.
The gamble was twofold. On one hand, Provodnikov would get great work in with Pacquiao. If he did well, he would raise his profile while gaining valuable fighter experience. It paid off as Provodnikov was mentioned throughout HBO’s 24/7. Arguably, the move did him more good than any non-title fight could have.
“The publicity he got training with Manny was bigger than a fight he could’ve had unless it was a some big fight but we didn’t have that. After being in training camp, he gets recognized more,” explained Kornilov.
For Roach, it was a chance to have a second camp where Provodnikov could grow and work on new tools. For him it was also a gamble. Putting in a fighter with Manny Pacquiao can be a trial by fire experience.
“I think that raised his game to another level,” Roach told Maxboxing.com. “Going in, thing is I knew he had potential and he’s obviously a good fighter and stuff like this but going into that situation, I don’t know. Will he come after Manny or not? Will he give up and go the other way? Which does happen. I was pleasantly surprised that he made the adjustments and the only one we can give credit to for that one is him. He made those adjustments on his own and that shows me [Provodnikov] understands boxing.”
Provodnikov, 21-1 with 14 knockouts, headlines ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights tonight taking on Jose Reynoso, 16-3-1 with 3 knockouts. The bout will be held at the Omega Products International in Corona, California. To hear Provodnikov tell it, the work with Pacquiao removed self-doubt.
“There is nothing I can say bad about what I did. I am very pleased with the sparring and what I did,” said Provodnikov. “Psychologically I feel a lot more confident. I feel on a different level after the Manny sparring. I am glad we made the decision we made. There is a big, big difference between the before and after. Not only the experience in working with him. Running and training with him, all of that is a big deal. What is more of a big deal is even just testing yourself, getting in the ring. Before the first sparring I didn’t know how I was going to go. After the first sparring I realized I can actually box with Manny Pacquaio. That gives me a lot of confidence. It is very important.”
Provodnikov explained the new tools he had to develop on the fly working with Pacquiao every sparring session from April 25 up to the fight.
“I think the one thing that I have definitely changed is a lot of head movement. Quicker head movement and quicker punching. Being able to adjust to Manny’s speed, whomever I fight in the future, he might be a lot of quicker than me but I have learned to adjust a little better after working with Manny. I knew I could do it before but I never got to actually try that. With Manny moving a lot and being very evasive all over the ring, I realized in order to catch up to him and catch up to his speed, I need to also move with quick punches and finish with hard punches sometimes. Most importantly, I learned to move my head a lot, move my body. Otherwise he’d catch me coming in a lot. I learned to do that, fake and then come in. My team also mentioned to me that they saw the improvement after I came back from the Philippines. I move a lot better and punch quicker when I have to.”
Provodnikov was always a hard worker who could grind out a long fight if need be. But working with Pacquiao, whose work ethic is prodigious, took him to a whole other level. Still, the mental aspect of the challenge is what has altered Provodnikov the most, he says.
“Definitely it raised my conditioning level. There’s no question,” said Provodnikov. “Even the running and stuff we did was not what I had done before. But I want to say what’s more important, and I said it before, was psychologically it changed me a lot. Working in the ring with Manny before I wasn’t sure. Can I do it? Can I fight a guy like Manny? What would happen in sparring with somebody on that level? I knew I was good but I didn’t know how good I was.
"Getting in the ring and actually getting that confidence, it really changed me a lot," continued Provodnikov. "Now I feel that confidence to get in with anybody else. Now in the Philippines they say if Manny and Ruslan fought it would be a great fight. To me, it was a very big deal. If I can fight at that level then I can I fight anyone else. Psychologically it gave to me more than everything else.”
Roach assessed the experience and gave Provodnikov flying colors for learning to adapt and grow on his own as a fighter.
“If you see him spar Manny from day one to day three, he is completely different fighter,” said Roach. “He moves his head a lot and knows how to handle the southpaw style, the speed of Manny. He made smart adjustments. That shows me the he is always thinking and always trying to learn. Obviously we have a little bit of a language barrier. He was making adjustments on his own. I was kind of just staying with Manny. He is learning as he is going. The adjustments he made were very sound and solid. Manny would make an angle on him and he would duplicate the angle. Most people follow you. He learned you can’t follow Manny. He paid a couple times for following.”
According to Kornilov, Pacquiao paid Ruslan the ultimate compliment which was just what the doctor ordered for the young Russian fighter.
“Manny said he felt Ruslan’s power and that’s good,” said Vadim. “It gives him a lot of confidence psychologically. That’s a thing that we needed.”
Should he win on Friday, Roach and Kornilov believe a title is there for the taking.
“After this fight, being ranked number 2 and the division clearing up a little bit, we think that Ruslan will be able to get his chance at a title in the coming months,” said Kornilov. “This is another ESPN date and we want to make sure he takes care of business and people are excited about him coming into a bigger fight.”
“Now I think he is ready for a title fight. He has had that experience. We have to take care of business on Friday night and if he does and someone asks me for a title fight I would say 100 percent yes,” Roach agreed
With everything in place, the task at hand is now Reynoso. Ranked #2 by the WBO and possessing a regional title, Provodnikov has new tools, confidence and momentum on his side. Everyone involved understands how dangerous that is.
“For us, realistically this is just another opponent but we [are] taking it very seriously because we fought against Thompson [Boxing, the promoter of the card] before with Herrera and we don’t want the same thing that happened in that fight to happen in this one,” said Kornilov.
Provodnikov lost a close decision to Mauricio Herrera. To this day the fight is a bone of contention within the Provodnikov camp. Lucky for the fans, that resentment has led to a determined ramping up of the violence Provodnikov has to do.
“We don’t want to leave it to the judges,” deadpanned Kornilov.
Provodnikov understands what is at stake here perfectly well. He considers it a great challenge to prevail in this situation.
“It’s a world title fight, this fight,” said Provodnikov. “It’s not just another opponent. I know they are coming to defeat me. It’s on TV and I know these guys are trying to do the best they can. But for me, there is a psychological barrier that I have to go over. Everybody is expecting a lot from me in this fight after getting ready working with Manny and Freddie. I know this is not just an opponent. The fighters from Thompson Boxing try to win these fights. That’s why I prepared for this fight the best that I can. I want to show I am able to overcome this barrier and come into the fight just like another fight. There’s some pressure on me and hopefully I am able to overcome that.”
Should he be successful, there are many avenues to take in the division. Tim Bradley and Amir Khan will be campaigning at 147, Lamont Peterson may remain at 140. Lucas Matthysse is looking like the clear threat and future moneymaker at 140. In any case, Provodnikov figures to be right in the mix should all of this improvement translate into the ring Friday night. The moment is there for him to make the most of. This is where self-realization comes into action.
“As everybody knows there is a lot of different movement going on in the division. There are a lot of political movements happening in the division right now. I think it doesn’t relax me because I think there are a lot of young prospects in the division right now. Some of the other top fighters have moved to 147. There’s a lot of young prospects fighting for those titles. There are some titles available and there is a lot going on. I think I am definitely going to be in the mix. I think there is going to be a lot of competition and I am happy to be a part of that.”