Don’t worry, everybody. Sometimes there’s a thing that happens in boxing where the conventional wisdom gets upended about a fight, and suddenly what once looked like a stellar match-up becomes a lackluster one, or vice versa. Lucas Matthysse’s declaration that he wouldn’t just purely brawl with Ruslan Provodnikov Saturday night on HBO inspired the first kind of fear. So let me get you your favorite blanket, some hot cocoa, and put on a Sex and the City marathon: It’s going to be OK. Lucas Matthysse vs Ruslan Provodnikov will still kick an awful lot of ass. Mainly, it is the asses of Matthysse and Provodnikov who will be kicking and getting kicked.
If you were looking to pick a better action fight in the sport, you’d have a hard time. Think about it. I’ve tried, and not gotten very far (Roman Gonzalez vs Juan Francisco Estrada II, perhaps?). And it doesn’t matter how much Matthysse tries to box Provodnikov — Provodnikov is going to get his, because he always does. And Provodnikov’s faced better boxers than Matthysse, that’s for sure.
What he hasn’t faced is anyone who hits as hard as Matthysse. And that central dynamic — Matthysse hits super-hard, Provodnikov’s moose liver-devouring face just eats up whatever punches come its way — is still the central dynamic, no matter how much Matthysse boxes. Even though some people’s 2014 Fighter of the Year Terefnce Crawford is fighting on the same HBO card, there’s a reason Matthysse-Provodnikov is headlining: It’s so fucking good.
What we have here is a race to the finish. Here’s what I mean:
Provodnikov wears everyone down. You hit him and you hit him and you hit him and you hit him and still he comes. Better boxers than Provodnikov (Chris Algieri, say, or Timothy Bradley, or Mauricio Herrera) and better punchers (Mike Alvarado, say) have all had to deal with Provodnikov’s Juggernaut routine eventually. Better boxers slow him down, sure. Provodnikov has gotten better at the boxing part, thanks to trainer Freddie Roach, but he’s still a slugger through and through. He’ll work his way in with head movement and foot positioning to land his thudding blows, but no matter how hard he tries, he gets hit a ton. He struggles so that after his loss to Algieri, he actively whined about not wanting to face boxers like him anymore.
With one recent notable exception, Matthysse, too, has struggled more with quick boxers than anything else. He deserved wins over Zab Judah and Devon Alexander, perhaps, although Danny Garcia beat him more cleanly. Lamont Peterson, last seen giving Garcia hell, was cannon fodder for Matthysse, because he didn’t box enough. The exception mentioned just above is John Molina, who is more of a slugger than Matthysse, even, who gave Matthysse everything he could handle last year, knocking him down multiple times before succumbing to Matthysse’s late charge. The reason Matthysse eventually won is, he figured out how to deal with Molina’s height, then got sharper defensively and set up his punches better, which allowed his natural power to take over.
So here’s how the race goes. Matthysse is going to be able to outbox Provodnikov, if he cares to do so. The guess here is that he’ll also be able to hurt Provodnikov in a way nobody else ever has. But it’s not going to be on the first punch, or even the 100th. It’s going to take some time.
In the meanwhile, Provodnikov is going to be Juggernauting all over Matthysse, who’s not slick enough to avoid the bulk of Provodnikov’s reckless charges the way Algieri could, or the way Bradley could when he bothered. That means that Matthysse, who was hurt early by Molina but recovered, might get hurt by Provodnikov early and have less opportunity to recover. Molina’s a fun fighter, but he tends to disappear for stretches of fights, even stretches of his career. Provodnikov never goes away.
What we have here is a situation where Matthysse needs to outbox Provodnikov long enough to start accumulating the kind of heavy damage that can crack Provodnikov’s legendary punch resistance and avoid getting KO’d before then, and where Provodnikov needs to deal with Matthysse’s movement and withstand his punches in hopes of wearing down Matthysse late and taking over the fight.
With those two conditions pitted against each other, it’s easier for me to imagine Matthysse winning, possibly by knockout but more likely by decision over a very battered Provodnikov. But, remember, don’t worry: You’ll get the fearsome battle you signed up for. It’s hard to imagine anything other.