Provodnikov eyes politics
Danny Wayne Armstrong
Ruslan Provodnikov gained notoriety as one of the most feared fighters in his division with thundering wars against some of the world’s best boxers, picking up a major title belt on the way. But after losing three of his last five fights, the 'Siberian Rocky' tells Danny Wayne Armstrong that his future may well lie in politics, rather than pugilism.
Without any doubt, Ruslan Provodnikov is a throwback fighter. The punch-happy pride of Beryozovo - a small rural town nestled in the unforgiving Siberia region of Russia - the welterweight exploded on to the world boxing scene as a fearless, pressure-fighting whirlwind in his challenge to Timothy Bradley’s WBO title in 2013.
Despite being scored as a unanimous decision victory for the American, The Ring magazine’s ‘fight of the year’ honour which was bestowed on this explosive contest helped propel Provodnikov into public attention.
The bludgeoning blows he poured onto Bradley, the way he hauled 'Desert Storm' into a white-hot war zone, his searing right hands and clubbing hooks, his never-say-die attitude despite lumps and cuts scattered across the periphery of his brow, all endeared him to fight fans.
He was, from that point, known as 'The Siberian Rocky'.
Provodnikov's stock soared further still when he snatched the WBO light welterweight championship from Mike Alvarado in an equally devastating war of wills by snapping 'Mile High''s spirit in round ten.
Fast forward three years though and Provodnikov, having lost his last fight to John Molina Jr to make it three defeats and three wins in six contests since the Bradley war, has taken time out from the ring, returning to the small commune in the Russian outback where his ‘Rocky’ story began.
“I started boxing here in Beryozovo, where I was born, where I and all my relatives currently live. But there weren't any gyms here, we just trained where we could,” the 32-year-old tells me.
It’s true that there isn’t much about the bleak Beryozovo landscape to suggest it could produce a world class pugilist, let alone one that could force crowds to sit bolt upright at their electric intensity. But then the roughest terrain usually produces a different beast: a fighter whose desire defies comprehension, with an indifference to violence and a readiness to suffer in order to find a way out.
Beryozovo, a popular spot among exile revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia, is such a place, akin to the harsh habitat that produced perhaps the greatest light-welterweight of all, Kostya Tszyu.
Provodnikov was raised Christian, and is ethnically one of the Mansi people who are indigenous to northern Siberia, a fact which brought confrontation from other youths who viewed him as lower class.
Nevertheless, Provodnikov possesses a great affection for his hometown and is determined to repay a debt he feels he owes to its people.
“I grew up on the street," he explains. "I didn’t even know anything about professional boxing. We hadn’t even seen it on television. Boxing was the only time I could do what I liked and nothing bad came of it. I wasn’t afraid to take punches - for me it was like eating bread.
“We’re now trying to build a sports complex on the site of a boxing gym. It will be named after me, and has been provided by the governor of Beryozovo for when I became world champion. I hope that next year it will be built. I’m really proud of the fact I earned it through my victory, sweat and hard work so my people and my kids can go there.
“In childhood I didn’t really have any kind of option, I grew up on the streets. Then boxing lessons came up. I went there, because I really loved to fight on the streets and at school it was always a big problem.”
A certain irony lies in the fact that the toughest of sports wasn’t considered a viable way out of the tough streets of Beryozovo, and Provodnikov wants to give the next generation a better start than his own. Although he knew nothing of the noble art growing up in a Russia in the haze of a Soviet hangover, Provodnikov fostered his natural fighting instinct in the basic boxing gym in his town.
He acknowledges that as an amateur he “never really shined”, but as his fighting fire was fanned by the need to feed his family, Provodnikov persuaded himself to try his hand inside the paid ring.
“For me [the gym] was a place where I felt useful and needed, because I did well there. Either I found boxing or boxing found me, I don’t know. Over the years it dawned on me from my progress that boxing was growing into something to continue further, like a profession. I decided to try turning professional because they paid you and it was an opportunity. I decided to risk, turn over, try it.”
The opportunity to turn professional was by no means a quick ticket to a better life. Rather, it began as a ticket for a 24-hour journey by rail from his home in Beryozovo to participate in gruelling ‘sbori’ training sessions at a professional gym in Yekaterinburg.
With no money to travel back to Beryozovo, Provodnikov lived where he trained for four or five months at a time, relying on locals to feed him. When fight night came around he would earn enough money for a ticket home.
“I couldn’t go back home because I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything. I needed to feed my family but to go back home there was no point so I stayed at the training base. It wasn’t easy, it was difficult, but nevertheless that hardship forged me. I became what I am today thanks precisely to that. Now I have the chance to travel, to help, we open gyms, I support and travel to a lot of villages, orphanages, foster homes. Anywhere where I can help someone, I will help them. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything. I needed to feed my family but to go back home there was no point so I stayed at the training base.”
Provodnikov’s road to professional prizefighting was long, but soon the sacrifice began to pay dividends. Just after he had embarked on the paid ranks, American promoters arrived in Yekaterinburg hoping to unearth a prospect they could mould into a star stateside. They took a gamble on the raw, 2-0 Provodnikov and shipped him to the US where he won his first three fights by first round KO. But the differences of life in America soon hit Provodnikov hard.
“I’ll give you the simplest example of how America differs from Russia,” Provodnikov starts, his voice carrying no hint of acrimony. “In America, this is not meant as an insult, everything is tied up with money. They don’t have any kind of understanding of doing things as a friend, for the sake of respect. Everything is for money. You want something, you pay. Let’s say here in Russia, there has never been a time where I ask for money for hosting people. It is never about money. If there’s something I can do to help, I do it. In America they don’t have that kind of understanding, they rarely just visit for the sake of seeing someone, for their duty of respect. I love Russia for that.
“I’m a Russian guy. Genuinely I like America as a country, I have a lot of friends there, I get a lot of respect from people. I can always go to LA and there’ll be people in the gym who come up to meet me. I love it very much but I could never live there, because we have a different mentality. When I train over there like in July I took my son and family there, because we can learn a lot from how this country has developed.
“Here in our town we live simply - fishing trips, hunting. We’re happy, simple, open people. People don’t earn much money, but we have a saying: 'we’ve never lived rich, why the hell would we start now?' That’s how we live!”
Provodnikov signs off that sentence with an warm cackle. His desire to help and influence those in his sphere is undeniable. It has inspired him to host a children’s boxing tournament The Ruslan Provodnikov Cup, the sixth instalment of which will be held from 23-25 September, something he proudly tells me many people will visit out of respect. It also drives an ambition to serve his people in a more official capacity and a political career is an avenue that Provodnikov is keen to explore.
“On September 18 there’s going to be a local election. I decided after all that boxing doesn’t last forever and in any case I’ll soon have to settle down,” he says, pensively. “It’s now you have to think about what you’re going to do later in life. I received an offer to go into politics. My home fans were really fond of the idea, so I thought hard about it and decided that it’s probably the right decision.
“I haven’t put a definite stop to the end of my [boxing] career. I think I will again set foot in the ring. I want to be in another big fight, possibly an important fight. But at the moment I’m tied up with other things, locally and politically, and spending a lot of time with my family. Therefore, if a chance suddenly presented itself, if I am ready, I will see.”
Provodnikov still trains every day and is keen to tell me that he recently ran 18.5km, setting off at 5am to achieve his goal because he “just wondered if I could run that distance”. Outside sport, a life in politics, akin to that of his former training partner Manny Pacquiao who has recently found staying retired as big a battle as any he had when an active boxer, appeals to Provodnikov.
“I hope to God that I succeed in these elections. I just have one objective: to become a productive person for the people, to do something helpful for them, to make some kind of impression. Of course I’m anxious and still doubt whether I’m doing it right or not because when I am in the ring I am doing it all myself, even if I experience a bit of bad luck, it is my own personal misfortune, I can’t lay it on anyone else. But here you have a responsibility not for yourself but for your people.
“That’s what I worry about more than anything: I don’t want to let my people down. If it would be for my own personal interest and I didn’t achieve it, it would affect only me. I wouldn’t worry about it because it’s my decision. But in this case you already have to take responsibility for those who put their faith in you. For me, to let down my people is the worst thing.
“That’s why I step into the ring and give every bit of myself, any kind of damage or if I get beaten up isn’t important. For me it’s important not to let down the people who cheer me on, who made the journey to support me, so that after the fight they don’t complain that they came to watch,so that they’re not disappointed in me.”
For a fighter known as a crowd-pleaser, that last sentence might sound silly. But it is the reason Provodnikov devotes himself so earnestly to his craft and everything he does besides it. His caring attitude outside the ring comes in stark contrast to his rambunctious style in it.
At his peak, Provodnikov invoked a fear of the unknown. He spoke only Russian, he seemed unnerved by confrontation, he carried himself in a matter-of-fact manner, able to switch from jovial to sinister in a flicker. He fooled around at weigh-ins, grimacing, screaming, posing, all signs of pure delight that he was about to go to war. He walked to the ring as if he was walking into one of the family gatherings he fondly talks of.
But underneath that exterior Provodnikov was driven by a fear of bringing shame upon his people. It still drives him.
“[In politics] you have a responsibility not for yourself but for those who put their faith in you. For me, to let down my people is the worst thing. That’s why I step into the ring and give every bit of myself, any kind of damage or if I get beaten up isn’t important.
"Even when I lose, I know that I gave my all and I have no shame. And not once has anyone complained about coming to watch me fight. For me the most important thing is to give something for the people so that they’re not disappointed in me.
“Every TV station wanted me, no matter if I had a title or not, I always fought in the biggest fights on the biggest cards on the best stations. A Russian boxer is fighting top of the bill against the champion of the world and he has a war with the American champion. And what do they say? They say they love me for it, they respect me for it. I was boxing top of the bill without having a title, for that I say thank you to my fans. Because everything I do in the ring I genuinely do so that they will not be ashamed of me.”
Provodnikov’s popularity saw him become challenger to Timothy Bradley’s WBO welterweight championship on March 16, 2013. The fight was a modern classic, with Provodnikov bludgeoning Bradley with right hands and scoring a heavy knockdown in the final seconds of the 12th stanza, from which the champion suffered a concussion. The fight was scored a unanimous decision in Bradley's favour but it thrust Provodnikov into public prominence, as he became the first and only Russian boxer in history to feature in the coveted The Ring magazine 'fight of the year'.
“That fight made me known as the 'Siberian Rocky', how I’m known today. That fight paved the way to big time boxing. Despite the fact I lost that fight for me it was a huge victory nevertheless. It’s the fight where I became what many people dream of becoming. In terms of psychology, in terms of a life-changing event, that fight was probably the toughest. Because I knew it was now or never. Such an opportunity, for me I thought that the first chance is probably the only chance and if you don’t give it your all, then you won’t get another one. Therefore in terms of a psychological battle, mentally and physically, it was probably the hardest.”
The way Provodnikov fought in that fight gave him a platform. He learned that the belt was secondary - his style won him fans. It also earned him a shot at Mike Alvarado’s WBO belt in Denver, Colorado, at his more comfortable niche of light-welterweight. This time he took his chance, hammering the hometown champion and knocking him down twice in the eighth before attrition forced Alvarado to mutter he had nothing left 30 seconds before round 11 began.
Provodnikov was finally world champion and one of the longest journeys in boxing had reached its intended destination.
However the fighter himself insists that the hard work started immediately after that victory.
“You know, the feelings I experienced then I’ve never experienced in my whole life. The feelings that my team felt, we’d made it to that point together, they were the most exciting feelings in my life. On the whole, I’ve stayed the same guy that I was. I became more serious, let’s say, as regards my behaviour. It’s a great responsibility, an added job, when you become champion of the world. It doesn’t mean that you’ve made it, that your number one. In terms of fame and popularity my life altered. More people came to know about me but I’ll say it again it is a responsibility.
“It’s a difficult job being champion of the world, to be famous, it’s hard work and subsequently, you have no right to behave amorally. You have a duty to carry yourself correctly, wisely, cultured. Kids look up to you. I don’t drink, I do sport, I read poetry, thereby the youngsters are motivated to become more educated, well-mannered, to get involved in sport. In that way everything changed because I had to work harder on myself. Becoming champion of the world doesn’t mean you’ve made it, that all doors are open to you.”
Winning the world championship was the ultimate gift to his people, perfectly illustrated when, after the fight, a tearful Provodnikov screamed for his mother. She entered the ring, wearing traditional Mansi dress and they embraced. “I became champion of the world, I can’t believe it,” he cried on to her shoulder.
The support of his fans is also something that humbles the fighter. “I want to say that I am very thankful to my fans. I believe that if there wasn’t their love, I wouldn’t have become what I am today. The fact that they were ready to travel for me, no matter where I fought, in Europe, in Russia, many people flew to watch. Even from Argentina. If it wasn’t for them, you know they did all that for me, for the fact they love me.”
Provodnikov would lose the title in a contentious loss to Chris Algieri in his first defence despite knocking the New Yorker down twice in the first round, the first of which causing grotesque swelling to Algieri’s eye. Provodnikov characteristically didn’t offer any complaints, but the fight precipitated a slip in form.
In his last fight he was outboxed by fellow fan-friendly fighter John Molina Jr., in a bout where the spirit of the 'Siberian Rocky' seemed to be waning. The desire that dragged him to the brink in his timeless wars with Bradley and Alvarado was suddenly lacking.
“I won’t make any excuses; I’m a strong person. Yeah I lost the fight but I didn’t lose because I am weaker than him. There wasn’t that fire there. I thought I just had to get in there and play around, enjoy it. I am a very disciplined boxer. I understood that I didn’t reach my goal, I got in there and tried to do it, but there was something missing, there was no passion. There was no fire, I wasn’t prepared to take risks.
“When you aren’t that hungry you start to ask yourself the question ‘what is all this sacrifice for?’ You aren’t risking your health for anything. And so I was fighting without that desire. I just wanted to get in there and mess around. But I don’t blame anyone, I’ll say that again. I take the blame for myself. It was clearly psychology. Psychologically most likely I didn’t want to beat him, let’s say. I’m not making excuses, I’ll say again that I’m at fault because I just didn’t want to win. That’s it.”
Against Molina, Provodnikov was nothing like that bustling whirl of intensity that vacuumed energy from fighters, that ground fighting spirits to dust. But Provodnikov doesn’t count it as something lost. He has gained more than he ever thought possible in the ring. His career could easily not have hit those heights from that old, dank gym on the Europe-Asia border.
Now, after the wars, the championship fights, the big TV contracts, the training camps with Freddie Roach in LA, politics is at the forefront of his mind.
Perhaps it is the best, most logical step. Nothing yet is certain, but then nothing ever was.
If the next step is one to start another long journey then at least Provodnikov is well-schooled in that area. His world title route began as ordinary, but his cosrucating performances were anything but.
“I believe that I was lucky, because an American promoter arrived, he wanted to take boxer to try and build him up in America, exactly in my weight division,” Provodnikov ponders, before switching his view. “You know, I believe there is no luck in life, because if you fall that’s not luck.”
It’s simply put, but nonetheless cognitive. Whatever the next step may be, as luck would have it, the last journey led the Siberian Rocky to becoming one of the most beloved, fierce and intriguing fighters around. Where his next journey takes him remains to be seen.