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The Rise of Ruslan

(Photo © German Villasenor)
(Photo © German Villasenor)

By Steve Kim

There was a time when Ruslan Provodnikov - who faces Chris Algieri in defense of his WBO junior welterweight title from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (HBO 10 p.m., ET/PT) - could walk into a room with his hair on fire and go unnoticed. Nowadays at least when he goes to fights or other boxing-related functions, he finds himself the center of attention from adoring fans. No longer is this hard man from Siberia the proverbial beige spot on the beige wall.
Provodnikov in turn, seems to enjoy the adulation from well-wishers looking to take selfies with him and get his autograph. He is now a somebody.

“I never imagined something like this was possible, that people would care about me that much. I’m very surprised that for Manny Pacquiao’s fight [against Tim Bradley], when I flew into Vegas, security had to take me out because I couldn’t get away from the crowd,” he said through his manager, Vadim Kornilov while getting his hands wrapped by Marvin Somodio on Memorial Day at the Wild Card Boxing Club.
By nature, Provodnikov is a reserved individual but as long as he keeps winning, it’s something he’ll have to get used to. “You can get used to anything in life but I’m kind of a shy person. Sometimes I get too much but I understand it’s part of my job now. I have to be open to everybody and that’s that way I am always,” he says.
Kornilov is amazed by the burgeoning popularity of his client. “It’s very impressive how many fans are paying attention to him and how much respect he’s getting. But really, I think a lot of it has to do with the Tim Bradley fight and the sparring with Manny because at Manny’s fight, a lot of the attention, most of it was Mexicans and Filipinos and all those people watch Manny’s fights, [Juan Manuel] Marquez fights, [Mike] Alvarado fights and they’ve all come to love Ruslan.”
After losing 2013’s “Fight of the Year” to Bradley, he then went to Alvarado’s hometown and toppled “Mile High” in 10 rounds. While in the ring, he expressed to his mother how he was still in disbelief that he had achieved his goal of winning a major world title. Has it sunk in now?
“I understand I’m a champion now but it’s not a big deal to me,” said the 30-year old with a record of 23-2 (16). “My life hasn’t changed much. Yes, it’s become a little bit easier; I have to admit. Overall, I live the same life and I’m still having to work hard. I forget my title [belt] a lot of the times when I go to press conferences and stuff.”
Kornilov says of his fighter’s personality, “I don’t see any changes at all.”
Provodnikov and his team had hoped to parlay their banner campaign into a big fight to begin 2014 and in the process, not only did they not land that assignment but they found their return to the ring backed up to mid-June. “I wasn’t so anxious because, really, 2013 was a tough year for me, so I wasn’t really anxious to get into a fight,” he explained. “It got to me a little bit that there was a problem getting me into one of the fights I was looking for. There was a lot of conversations about Manny and other people and I got a little annoyed with that and I just said, ‘Forget it. Just get me a fight with anybody and get in the ring because I don’t want to deal with this anymore.’”
And that “anybody” is Algieri, who, ironically like Provodnikov before he battered Bradley, is a graduate of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” The question is: After facing two high-profile names last year, can Provodnikov show the type of consistency that is the trademark of truly elite fighters by taking care of business against foes he’s expected to?
The job of keeping Provodnikov at the razor’s edge like he was for his past two fights is trainer Freddie Roach.
“Yeah, definitely,” said the noted cornerman. “The thing is he wanted a bigger fight but Algieri, while he’s not that well-known, he’s a good fighter. It’s a tough fight actually and if [Provodnikov] wants those bigger and better names, we have to win here.”
This is true. A loss here and any consideration of Provodnikov facing Pacquiao or another marquee name goes out the window. When you ask Roach if he senses any letdown, he states flatly, “Not really. He works hard.” As you observe Provodnikov ply his craft in the gym, you can see why he’s one of the most improved boxers in the sport. He truly is a workhorse.  When the “Siberian Rocky” came to this gym a few years ago, he was a hard-hitting, heavy-handed slugger but a bit crude and unrefined. “He’s made great adjustments. That’s actually why I took him on because when I hired him to spar with Manny, I saw him adjust to Manny and he was learning and he was making adjustments on his own. He’s a very clever guy and he knows how to make adjustments. He’s a great guy to train.”
There’s a marked difference now in Provodnikov’s demeanor since that Bradley fight. There was a time when he would walk into the gym and was a shy and introverted individual. He could barely look you in the eyes. But since the reception he received at the Wild Card after that back-and-forth battle in March of last year (, he just has a different persona. He now swaggers into the place.
“Oh, of course; he’s very confident in himself and he does have a different aura,” said Roach, who stamped Provodnikov’s arrival into the big time by taking him to the downstairs portion of the gym where he also works with the likes of Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto. Only his blue-chip charges get to sweat there.
So what lies ahead for Provodnikov in the fall?
Kornilov, a patient sort, says, “As we see in boxing, everyday something changes. Fights change; opponents change; dates change, so anything can happen. You never know. There’s still Marquez; there’s still Bradley; there’s still a lot of options out there. The division luckily is filled with great fighters and I’m pretty sure Ruslan’s going to get what he wants in the fall.”
But first things first; Provodnikov has to defeat Algieri, who has an educated left hand and possesses a height and reach advantage.
“I’m very focused,” insisted Provodnikov. “I’m 100 percent more focused for this fight than any other fight. I’ve got to defend my title and it’s my responsibility. Every day I come into the gym, I don’t think of myself as a champion. I think of myself as fighting for the title again because I know that’s the way to motivate myself and to keep focused on this fight.”
He’s come a long way in relatively short time. Just look at him; he’s now headlining a card on HBO at a billion-dollar venue.
“I don’t think about it. Again, not too much has changed in my life; especially mentally, I feel the same,” he insisted. “I do enjoy it right now. It is an honor. I’m getting some of the dividends for all the work I’ve put in throughout my life to get where I am today.”
Don’t know if you guys had an opportunity to see HBO’s “2 Days: Ruslan Provodnikov” which followed him in the lead-up to his bout with Alvarado. Quite simply, it was the best HBO production in very long time and should win some awards. It was the “Citizen Kane” of this genre. Yes, I think it was that good, that compelling and that well-produced. It will stay on my DVR for good.
“It was just unbelievable. It was unbelievable. I mean, I think they got some good material and the way they put it together and the way they put it on TV. The final version was just amazing. It touches you from inside out,” said Kornilov, who is prominently featured in it.
In watching it, Provodnikov says, “The feeling was that I lived it all over again, everything that I went through to get this fight. I actually cried when I saw it the first time.”
Here’s a condensed version of this episode (a 30-minute version on HBO) that was posted online by the network: 2 Days: Ruslan Provodnikov (HBO Boxing)
Here’s this week’s episode of “The Next Round” with Gabe Montoya and Yours Truly in which we talk about Miguel Cotto’s big victory over Sergio Martinez and his place in Puerto Rican boxing history:
And here’s the link to our iTunes app:
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