Of all the televised sports, boxing is arguably the most visceral, the most capable of transmitting the action on screen directly into the brain and gut of its viewer with straight line speed and deadly accuracy. Most everyone, after all, can appreciate and wonder at the artistry of a transcendent basketball player like LeBron James soaring some four feet off the ground and covering an eight-foot distance on his way to a ferocious slam dunk, though very few could imagine ourselves in the same position, except maybe as comic relief. Every American kid dreams growing up of throwing the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, or catching it, but the event itself, and the giant men who take the field for it, still seem otherworldly to us as adults. But almost every weekend, a cross-section of American sports fans sit on their couches, attentions fixed on in-ring competition between skilled and supremely willful combatants, men who are paid to punch each other until the other can take no more, and, once immersed, it takes a certain amount of will in itself to not react to particularly hard, clean, or thudding connects with a wince, an involuntary, spasm-like affirmation, or an audible indication of appreciation for the aggressor, or sympathy for the assaulted, or both.
Sometimes we scream, or shout; sometimes we ooh or ahh; sometimes we flinch, or dig in for closer analysis. Boxing and other combat sports make so many people uncomfortable because watching for any amount of time tends to either confirm within them a creeping, fundamental certainty that society is “sick”, or else confronts them with the knowledge, perhaps subconscious until that very moment, that they actually enjoy this sort of thing…although if boxing was only about two men beating each other up, it’d get old fast and would have no true staying power. Its results wouldn’t deserve to outlive the weekend, let alone be talked about and hotly debated over the course of a year, or decade, or century. Fans wouldn’t revere fighters the way they do, and there’d be no point except masochism to keep coming back for more, as we inevitably do. No, what boxing is really about is the simple intersection and continual, rapid fire interaction of two byproducts that occur quite naturally when talented athletes attempt to punch each other: 1) who lands the first punch, and how, and 2) what the man punched does next. Each action offers or is subject to a dozen different variations, and, on the very best nights, produces an equal and opposite reaction. Repeatedly.
Fights like Lucas Matthysse vs. Ruslan Provodnikov make joyful, reactive, unabashed enthusiasts of us all, whether we happen to be couch-bound in front of an HDTV or one of passionate thousands chanting and screaming in an arena. The crowd at Verona, NY’s sold out Turning Stone Event Center spent the entire first half of this fight hanging on its every blow, literally oohing and ahhing in force as each shot landed, almost in synch with the involuntary responses of all the folks experiencing the artillery volleys from home. It was kind of extraordinary. Boxing fans, of course, carry within their hearts a specific ideal for the level of action, drama, and intrigue a fight should produce*, though not all nights at the office are created equally. With the alternately enticing and destructive gravitational pull of the long-awaited Mayweather-Pacquiao ultra-super-megafight of the millennium, plus the rollout of robber baron Al Haymon’s “Premier Boxing Champions” series across so many platforms that it sometimes seems the only places you shouldn’t expect to see boxing any time soon are OWN and the Hallmark Channel, boxing is entering a period of virtually unprecedented exposure and potential media saturation. It’s a darn shame that on so many nights, despite the best of matchmaking intentions, the action in ring falls flat.
*The fight that made you a fan, in other words. For me, it’s the 2004 inaugural meeting of future intractable nemeses Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, in which the prodigious Mexican counterpuncher survived three first round knockdowns against a blinding, brutal, almost primordial version of the Filipino icon and stormed back to somehow force a draw. Honorable mention goes to Kelly Pavlik winning the Middleweight title from Jermain Taylor in a 2007 war in which the basic but powerful Pavlik, having tasted the canvas in the second round and trailing decisively on all judges’ cards, cornered Taylor in the seventh and, in a shocking outburst, punched the fluid, talented champion into oblivion. Pavlik-Taylor I was the first fight I was ever foolish enough to watch with a clear rooting favorite, which transformed what was already a rollercoaster for the impartial viewer into something more akin to skydiving without a parachute, especially when Pavlik went down so convincingly so early, then amazingly persevered through five rounds of Taylor’s expert onslaught until his moment of truth could arrive.
Though boxing fans do anticipate Mayweather-Pacquiao just like any sentient being would and follow both PBC’s growing pains and spare golden moments with interest (the NBC series has great production values but unfortunate, PS3 game-level commentary so far, though the SpikeTV date was a quality show in ring and out), neither of those productions is likely to provide the sparks and substance of Matthysse-Provodnikov, a matchup to which “fight of the year” consideration was widely ascribed by fans and writers before the opening bell had even sounded. Matthysse, the supremely confident Argentinian power puncher, was the A-side of 2014’s FOTY, an eleven round phone booth battle against rugged trial horse John Molina, Jr., in which it took five combined knockdowns before one finally proved decisive. Provodnikov, who got his start as a bull goring underqualified matadors on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights, eventually made it to the big time and was himself the B-side of 2013’s FOTY, a hard-fought decision loss in a war of attrition against pound-for-pound loiterer Timothy Bradley, who, with something to prove to heckling fans in the aftermath of his gift decision victory against Manny Pacquiao, picked the exact wrong opponent against whom to be brave and paid with updated street cred and a likely concussion. Matthysse-Provodnikov would pit boxer-puncher vs. brawler, two hungry, ultra-aggressive B+ fighters with established penchants for drawing opponents into pier six brawls. Fireworks were a given. The winner was far less predictable.
Matthysse, aptly nicknamed “The Machine”, set a fairly blistering pace from the onset, peppering a tight Provodnikov with his steady jab and using its success to set up accurate, forceful combination punching and landing practically at will. He unloaded multiple left-right-uppercut combos that, when they connected, were things of beauty, and took the first two rounds easily. In the second, an accidental clash of heads opened a serious cut above Provodnikov’s left eye. In between rounds, the HBO corner cameraman’s extreme closeup made it look for a second as if Provodnikov had an entirely other eye socket gaping just above his natural one. Now, any fighter who not only carries but has earned a nickname like “The Siberian Rocky” isn’t going to be easily deterred by opposing activity or shrink at the sight of blood, and Provodnikov continued his smothering pressure in the third and began making inroads for the first time in the fight. In between rounds, the HBO viscera-cam zoomed in again on what I thought for a second was a caulking gun applying Vaseline to Provodnikov’s cut, though it turned out, at regular distance, to be a hypodermic plunger minus the needle, which I thought was an interesting corner innovation, and, after so many years of watching cutmen attack wounds by smearing Vaseline into them with gloved fingers, a timely one as well.
In a telling move, Provodnikov began the fourth with a veritable wall of grease applied to the cut but, annoyed, wiped it almost completely away before rejoining combat. This set the standard that would prevail, more or less, over the remainder of the fight. Matthysse, who terrorized the 140-pound division before Danny Garcia finally derailed him in 2013, continued with his educated jab and combination punching, seemingly breaking through in some rounds and enjoying more measured success in others. Provodnikov continued walking him down, attempting to walk through him, winging haymakers with both hands and tending to connect, on the occasions he did, in sharp succession and with thudding impact. Galvanized by the blood and eerily undeterred by punches that would’ve put the vast majority of junior welterweights to sleep, Provodnikov turned the first of the fight’s several tides, taking the third, fourth and fifth rounds on my card before Matthysse rebounded to win the sixth and seventh. Halfway through the fight, the score was even in my eyes and neither man seemed the least bit interested in giving up ground. Several rounds were perilously close, with only a handful of landed punches to possibly separate them. Even as Matthysse seemed to lose steam somewhat in the face of the onslaught, he still deployed his power liberally, though it was lost on his opponent.
For his part, Provodnikov appeared to have taken a frightful beating. Dripping, ever widening cut notwithstanding, his face already looked like a topographical map of Mars by the middle of the fight, let alone the end, yet still he kept coming, increasingly forcing Matthysse, who traditionally prefers to force the issue and has the fearful punching power to support that approach, to fall back on his pure boxing skills, which are not insubstantial. Referee Benjy Esteves stopped the action at a crucial point in the eleventh so Matthysse’s corner could attend to a loose, flapping piece of tape on his glove. If Provodnikov felt at all gassed from the hard work of stalking Matthysse, catapulting right hooks at him, and blocking combinations with his face, the lack of urgency in the Argentinian’s corner may have given him an extended spot of unintentional, and vital, rest. The Russian accelerated from then on to the finish. All the while, the Turning Stone crowd, despite central New York being perhaps as equidistant a location from both Argentina and Siberia as possible, carried on in fairly spectacular voice, alternately chanting “Ruslan! Ruslan!” and “Matt-hy-sse! Matt-hy-see!” and, as I mentioned earlier, audibly oohing and ahhing during certain sections of the most hotly contested rounds with the landing of every punch. Gotta say it was a pretty agreeable way to spend a Saturday night – transfixed on ferocious in-ring trading and hearing each and every one of my own involuntary utterances in response to a landed punch (Matthysse’s heat-seeking straight right, Provodnikov’s concussive looping hooks…ye gods) mimicked ecstatically by the live audience.
In the end, Provodnikov’s ability to survive Matthysse’s precision frontal attack while taking him, to a degree at least, out of his game, was the difference for me. I gave the hard charging Russian the final three rounds on my card and had him winning 115-113, though part of me knew intrinsically he wouldn’t get the decision. Sure enough, when the scores were read, a 114-114 draw was overruled by the other two judges’ identical scores of 115-113 for Matthysse. This probably wasn’t quite a bona fide Fight of the Year contender, but it was still a stirring, massive effort on the part of both men, incredibly closely contested. Scores less than 115-113 either way would have been an insult. A 114-114 draw still makes more sense to me than an outright Matthysse win, though I recognize I’m in the minority. 114-114 honors both men, plus sets the stage for the rematch that’ll now never have a reason to happen. Alas, alas. From here, Matthysse looks pointed toward a potentially fascinating match up with Nebraskan chessmaster Terrence Crawford, who toyed with overheated former Puerto Rican prospect-du-jour Thomas Dulorme in tonight’s HBO opener before KO’ing him surgically in the sixth. Provodnikov, still reeling from his controversial 2014 loss to Chris Algieri, now has this additional indignity to suffer. His next opponent, assuming he is a step down from tonight’s high level, may well die of fright during the ref’s instructions, or be well served to consider it.