"I think of all the education that I missed," David Lee Roth once sang for Van Halen, "but then my homework was never quite like this." It's a real pleasure to write a preview for a fight like Mike Alvarado-Ruslan Provodnikov, because it means I was forced to study up on each man's ouevre. And it's an exceptionally violent body of film. Separately, each has been in one of perhaps the two best bouts of 2013 — Provodnikov in March against last weekend's big winner, Timothy Bradley, and Alvarado later than month against Brandon Rios. Saturday night on HBO, the two auteurs could produce their finest work to date.
Whether they do or not depends on what each of them took from their spring brawls. Did Provodnikov have success in his welterweight bout against Bradley because he has improved so much and can he carry that next-level confidence into a fight with Alvarado — or was the near-win an anomaly owing to a couple factors not at play Saturday night? Is the controlled puncher-boxer we saw in Alvarado's second and successful showing against Rios capable of a repeat performance — or does Alvarado lack the necessary discipline? What we know about the two top-10 junior welterweights is that they excel at throwing bombs with their fists and catching them with their face. At 140, Alvarado is more accomplished and Provodnikov probably needs a purely brawling version of the Denver native to thrive; but if Provodnikov is better than we thought he was before the Bradley fight, all bets are off no matter what Alvarado does.
What you won't want to do is miss it. The mile-high potential for action in Colorado Saturday makes Alvarado-Provodnikov one of the potential gems of a brilliant fall HBO season.
Besides sharing nominations for Fight of the Year candidates, both men have been in the ring with Mauricio Herrera. Both fights are instructive. Herrera troubled Provodnikov with a boxing style in a disputed loss for Ruslan, while Alvarado beat Herrera by brawling. Provodnikov said this week he hopes Alvarado boxes because he thinks Alvarado is better at brawling. That might be a bit of gamesmanship. Alvarado is indeed a better brawler than a boxer, but it's not clear whether he's a better brawler than Provodnikov. Alvarado is almost certainly a better boxer than Provodnikov, though.
One of the things that made Alvarado-Rios II dramatic was that boxing. We associate action with pure blood and guts, but by avoiding being lured into the pure brawl of their first meeting, a different kind of action emerged — a game of chase mixed with the intrigue of when Alvarado would be forced to stand his ground and what would happen when he did. Rios rocked him in the 2nd round with a jab, of all things, but Alvarado got the better of it with his strategy and hurt Rios a few times himself. The quality of the performance probably remains underrated, as it wasn't like others hadn't tried to outbox Rios before; Alvarado, of all people, is the one who managed to do it. In the first fight, Alvarado made poor use of his reach advantage and simply stood and traded. Standing and trading is what got Bradley in trouble with Provodnikov. Alvarado might know he needs to avoid a similar mistake to the one he made in the first Rios bout and that Bradley made with Provodnikov; whether he will is another matter. He's had some scrapes outside the ring that point to a problem with self-control, and he's the center of attention in his hometown right now, a factor that has done in its share of boxers soaking up the overall love, be it in the form of tequila shots or the affection of women or just juggling the ticket demands of friends and family, friends of friends, friends of family and family of friends.
His hometown does offer pluses for his chances. For one, there's the tendency of judges in a close bout to favor the man getting all the cheers, and since Provodnikov has only lost two close fights, that could be a big help. For another, Denver is famous for its altitude's impact on the stamina of visiting athletes. Take Alvarado's size advantage (5'9", 69 1/2" reach to 5'6", 66" reach) and his boxing advantage and combine it with the hometown edge and you're off to a good start for the victory prospects of Team Alvarado. Alvarado's capable of boxing and switching directions the way Bradley did when he won rounds, if not quite as well as Bradley can; but Bradley and Provodnikov were of equivalent height, which made it easier for Provodnikov to work into range than it might be against Alvarado. Alvarado's not uncomfortable on the inside, given his propensity for tossing uppercuts in there, he's just better off on the outside. He can be hurt and even stopped, although it took Rios and a disputed call by a referee to get him stopped. His stamina hasn't shown any signs of failing him that I know of, although his tendency to bruise and cut might lead to his downfall one of these days. His speed is adequate for the needs of this fight, and his power isn't super-elite but he hits plenty hard.
For as much as Provodnikov has talked up his boxing abilities coming into this bout, he can't win a pure boxing match. Against Bradley he was faster than I had previously perceived him, and perhaps working with Freddie Roach has made him sharper, because he didn't seem to lunge with wild punches quite as much. Or maybe that had to do with Bradley being so flat-footed and relatively shorter than some Provodnikov opponents. Once inside, though, he does tend to throw crisp shots. I'm not saying he's as offensively sharp as Rios — he's more like a lesser version of Rios in that regard. He likes his left hook and his overhand right, and digging to the body. He basically throws no jabs. CompuBox figured more than a hundred jabs against Bradley while I counted, I dunno, three to seven. He does have trouble dealing with changes of direction, though, and bites on feints. He also punched himself out against Bradley early, not a good sign stamina-wise, on top of dealing with altitude. Defensively he moves his head some, not that it keeps him from getting hit. That's OK — he can take a ridiculous amount of punishment with that thick head of his. He also probably hits harder with a single shot than Alvarado. A wild card is whether the man from the Wild Card gym, Roach, will even be in Provodnikov's corner this weekend, since he's working with Manny Pacquiao for his bout. That also can't help. Let's throw in one more issue: When Provodnikov moved up to 147 for Bradley, his team said he was a welterweight who COULD make junior welterweight. You have to wonder if he was more comfortable at 147 by way of explaining his better performance against Bradley than he has managed against any junior welterweights and how his best win at 140 is, what, DeMarcus Corley?
Where I come down on this is that Provodnikov needs to be about 20 percent better in this fight than ever before, owing to confidence from the Bradley fight, and Alvarado needs to be distracted and/or shopworn and fight stupidly, and Provodnikov still might not win because of hometown judges. Alvarado can't box like Bradley, but Bradley didn't box much at all and won rounds when he did, and Alvarado's size compared to Bradley's is going to make up some of the difference. I don't think Provodnikov hits harder than Rios, so a knockout here is less likely than Rios [edit: maybe I'm wrong and Provodnikov does hit harder, though, per the comments below]. I think that's what he'll need. Instead, I predict a clear Alvarado decision, one with less action than some high expectations but with enough to make everyone happy.