Most Russian amateur standouts dream of one day winning an Olympic gold medal.
Not Ruslan Provodnikov. The ambitious kid from the small, secluded town of Beryozovo in the Khanti Mansiysk region of the country didn’t care to chase the trophies and medals of international tournaments, desptie being talented enough to win 130 of 150 amateur bouts.
Provodnikov always fought like professional boxer and desperately wanted to be a pro. His dream was to get paid to knock guys out on his way to winning a world title.
That dream almost died one year ago when the rugged junior welterweight prospect lost a unanimous decision to Mauricio Herrera in the 2011 season opener of Friday Night Fights. It was a good, competitive fight that featured a lot of back-and-forth action as the battered and bruised faces of both combatants attested to.
Provodnikov (20-1, 13 knockouts) did well enough to win on the scorecard of ESPN2 commentator Teddy Atlas, but that didn’t make suffering his first professional loss any less painful.
“That loss made me think a lot about what I would do next,” Provodnikov said through manager and translator Vadim Kornilov. “Immediately after the fight, I wondered if I should even continue to box.
“I didn’t think Herrera was at the world-class level, which is where I wanted to be. If I couldn’t beat him, what business did I have in the sport? I thought to myself, ‘Maybe all these years in boxing has been a waste of time.’ But that was emotion. When I settled down, I realized that the loss was just one of those moutnains that every fighter must climb.”
For Provodnikov, who faces David Torres in the main event of this week’s Friday Night Fights from the Northern Quest Casino just outside of Spokane, Wash. getting to the top of the mountain meant learning the proper climbing skills – in his case, better defense, footwork and a more consistent jab.
True to his Siberian roots, the 28-year-old pressure fighter is as strong and durable as they come. However, Provodnikov’s Central Asian features, which include slightly slanted eyes and very high cheek bones, make him susceptible to facial swelling that can impeded his vision during a fight.
If he wanted to hold on to that dream of winning a world title, he knew he would have to add some techinique and finesse to his rough style of fighting.
“Losing wasn’t a reason to give up,” Provodnikov said, “it was a reason to improve.”
After beating a journeyman in his hometown, he hired Buddy McGirt and trained with the former two-division titleholder in Los Angeles prior to his ESPN2-televised fight with unbeaten (15-0-1) prospect Ivan Popoca last April.
After only one month of training with McGirt, the improvements were evident. Provodnikov dominated Popoca with his jab, which set up the big right hands that eventually dropped the game Chicago-based Mexican for the count in the eighth round.
Provodnikov was pleased with his performance but he wanted to continue to improve, and he soon found out that McGirt had too much on his plate – professionally and personally – to give the hungry student all the attention and instruction that he craved.
“Buddy started my technical improvement, but I needed more time with him, time he couldn’t giv eme,” Provodnikov said. “I needed a more dedicated training situation.”
He says he’s found it at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., where he’s now training under the watchful eye of the respected gym’s famous owner, Freddie Roach.
“We’ve only had a few weeks together, but he’s making me think more in the ring,” Provodnikov said of Roach’s instruction. “I’m being introduced to a lot of new things. I can’t catch on quick enough, to be honest, but I’m trying new things and I try to absorb as much as I can.”
That’s OK. He won’t need to emulate Kostya Tszyu to defeat Torres, a tough but limited 33-year-old veteran from Orthello, Wash.
Torres (21-2-2, 13 KOs) has only lost to capable gatekeeper Reymundo Beltran, who stopped him in seven rounds, and former two-time lightweight beltholder Julio Diaz (Provodnikov’s original opponent), who knocked him out in five, but he hasn’t notched a victory since an eight-round decision over Zaid Zavaleta in 2008.
His last two bouts were 10-round majority draws against solid-but-ordinary veterans Santos Pakau and Michael Stewart.
Provodnikov is confident of extending Torres’ steak of non-victories after watching a few of his opponent’s fights on tape.
“He has a typical Mexican style, which I like,” he said. “I do well with fighters who are aggressive and forward moving. We get in the middle of the ring and nobody’s running away from anybody.”
If Torres tries to flip the script by employing a stick-and-move strategy, Provodnikov says he will do his best to make adjustments.
“The reason we came to Freddie and the Wild Card gym was for me to get used to different styles,” he said. “My problem against Herrera was that I did the same thing over and over. Here, I work on my movement and cutting off the ring with Freddie and the sparring is better than anywhere else. I spar with different styles every day.”
If Provodnikov wins on Friday he hopes to get back in the ring, and back on ESPN2, as soon as possible. Although he’s well known in his isolated corner of Russia, where all of his fights are broadcast on a national sports network, he yearns to make his name in the U.S.
“His promoter (Banner Promotions) wants to keep him busy in 2012 with the goal of getting on HBO Boxing After Dark by the end of the year,” said Kornilov, who also also manages WBO middleweight titleholder Dmitry Pirog.
If all goes well this year, they will go for a title in 2013.
“By then I think people will see real improvement in my style,” Provodnikov said. “I think I’ll be ready for a title shot at junior welterweight or even lightweight if the opportunity is there.”
The dream is still good.