This past Saturday, the relatively inexperienced junior welterweight Chris Algieri took on mainstay Ruslan Provodnikov for the WBO Light Welterweight title. Anyone reading this is probably familiar enough with the sport and in particular, this division, to not need any enumeration of Provodnikov’s credentials, but based on the public reception of the decision, let’s go through some of his accomplishments anyway:
- Since Miguel Cotto has received so much credit for the fact that he merely trains with Freddie Roach, mark one up for Provodnikov too, who spars with Pacquiao and Cotto regularly.
- Add another point for fast rise to the top of the division, with only 26 fights, he’s already considered better than a gatekeeper by most fans.
- Provodnikov deserves at least one more point for quality of opposition. He’s fought solid competitors like DeMarcus Corley and Mauricio Herrera early enough in his career to constitute a sincere effort to make it to the top. Later, based on his exciting performances and promotional tides, Provodnikov landed big fights with Tim Bradley and Mike Alvarado, who had recently become marquee names in the division. While Provodnikov lost a somewhat controversial decision to Bradley, he dominated Alvarado and got a stoppage in round 10.
Queue Chris Algieri, an unrecognizable, if undefeated prospect with 19 fights. Up until November 2011, Algieri’s most experienced opponent had a total of 17 fights, of which he had lost 10. Before Provodnikov, his most notable opponent was probably Emmanuel Taylor. Emmanuel who? Exactly. Not completely off the map, but pretty far from marquee material. Suddenly, he’s got a match with the man who gave Tim Bradley everything he could handle and more, and who demolished Mike Alvarado in his last match. He’s tall, he’s lanky, his hands are fast enough and accurate enough. Could be a good fight, right? It was.
Provodnikov came out throwing bombs, as usual, and Algieri failed in his attempt to maintain distance, succumbing to the pressure twice and enduring knockdowns that could have easily ended the fight, the first of which immediately caused intense swelling of Algieri’s right eye. Recovering impressively, Algieri began boxing adequately despite Provodnikov’s consistent pressure, absorbing body shots and head shots, especially to the right side where his eye quickly progressed to a swollen mess.
In the middle rounds Provodnikov let up somewhat, sometimes taking more punches in the form of solid jabs and straight right hands than he was able to land in total. One of the things I’m sure the judges saw in these rounds, and probably focused on, was Algieri’s footwork. Not just impressive, I’d defy any knowledgeable fan to watch the performance and manage to avoid comparing his footwork (if only a rough approximation) to that of the great Muhammad Ali. Fighting moving backward is a difficult task, but when done well can be more than convincing enough to garner a decision victory. Provodnikov picked up his output in the late rounds, landing hard shots that sometimes staggered Algieri but never taking him off his feet. Though I thought it was only a trainer’s motivational technique, I very much approved of the strategy when cornerman Freddie Roach told his fighter in the late rounds “we need a knockout.” Provodnikov was resolute as always, but did not score such a decisive victory. Instead, the fighters returned to their respective corners, Algieri looking like he might need immediate medical attention, to await the scorecards.
The fight was close enough to warrant some nervous anticipation of the announcement, especially given the inconsistent scoring of recent years in fights at all levels of the sport. The first scorecard read as many expected, a wide margin for Provodnikov, and while the other two were much closer, they went to the wrong person. Scoring the fight 114-112, veteran judges Don Trella and Tom Schreck gave the split-decision win to Algieri. Given the two knockdowns, this means that these two experienced judges gave eight rounds to Algieri while he fought moving backward, almost never landing any power shots, and none with the significant effect we saw in his opponent’s punches. While effective punching necessarily consists partly of accuracy, Provodnikov’s statistics were only slightly worse than his opponent’s in this respect, finishing at 26% compared to Algieri’s 29%, according to ESPN’s Dan Rafael. Considering that no one disputes who threw the more physically punishing blows, these statistics make the decision surprising, even if you’re a sucker for the old-school dance footwork. Provodnikov was naive to say he didn’t know “how someone can win a fight going backward,” but in the heat of the moment, as an all-offense fighter, you can see why he did.
Provodnikov has been on a rough ride to the top since his loss to Herrera, but his performance against Bradley mitigated the result that might have otherwise forestalled his success. This fight, however, serves an unexpected stumbling block after a blowout against the well-known Alvarado. Algieri claims to be calling out Manny Pacquiao and feels ready for the challenge. Ready for the payday, more likely, as Algieri is likely to recognize the potential momentum he’s acquired from such a major victory at this point in his career. Having never faced, much less proven himself against, a skilled boxer, a skilled boxer-puncher, or an elite-level brawler, a claim that this fighter with a record of 20-0 is ready for Pacquiao is pathetically laughable. Hopefully, Pacquiao would never subject his fans to such a charade, much less accept the bad publicity that would come with choosing such an opponent. Even if the absurdity of facing a top fighter at his weight, and the world (although he’s currently fighting one class below), wasn’t enough, this inexperienced newcomer is suggesting the sport give him a pass on the dense layers of competition between the fighter he just defeated and the one he wants to call out next. Forget Tim Bradley, Juan Manuel Marquez (who recently dismantled Bradley), Marcos Maidana and a host of other challenges including Amir Khan, Devon Alexander and Keith Thurman, all at welterweight, what about the fighters at 140 who lead the division? Lamont Peterson, Lucas Mathysse, Danny Garcia? A fight with any of these much more well-seasoned competitors would be an incredibly hazardous opportunity for a fighter in his position, and yet he wants us to forget that, so we don’t think too much about how these matches would play out in reality.
Just because you won a decision over the guy who spars with the guy, doesn’t mean you deserve a shot. Provodnikov will have to take at least a fight or two to recover his reputation, and possibly attempt to avenge the loss to Algieri, but he’s the one of these two fighters who is meant for greatness. Bad decisions may never be eliminated entirely from the sport we love, but at least we know history will bear out the truth in the end.