Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Opinions and Observations: Alvarado-Provodnikov

Falling apart.

I had a sour feeling leaving the 1STBANK Center in Colorado after the junior welterweight showdown between titlist Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov. Yes, Provodnikov was magnificent, landing damaging power shots throughout the match and gradually wearing down a tough fighter to earn a 10th-round TKO. There was tons of action, two knockdowns and all sorts of drama. Provodnikov cemented his status as a one of the must-see attractions in the sport, giving an inspiring performance. But I didn't fully enjoy the spectacle. 

For me, what was missing from the night was a battle between two warriors at their best, and for a variety of reasons I believe that Alvarado (with no help from his team) was fighting at a level significantly less than his optimum. I take nothing away from Provodnikov, who certainly deserves his title belt and its accompanying glory. He traveled to a champion's home town in high elevation, a situation that could lead to myriad prefabricated excuses from an athlete made of lesser internal fortitude. But Provodnikov was relentless with his pressure and power attack. Nevertheless, I was underwhelmed by Alvarado's performance.

The first official sign that things were amiss in the Alvarado camp was at the weigh in (there had been rumors of Alvarado undertraining in the lead up to the bout). The fighter stepped on the scale at 141.1 lbs., north of the 140-lb. divisional limit. Well, that's not necessarily a big deal, I thought. Fighters can often lose a pound very quickly under these circumstances. Yet, it took Alvarado practically the entire two-hour period to make weight and not lose his title on the scales.

Flash forward approximately 28 hours later and Alvarado walked into the ring according to the HBO unofficial scale (and disseminated by those on Twitter) at 156 lbs., 16 pounds higher than where he was just over a day ago. Provodnikov rehydrated to a more normal level of 147 lbs. Alvarado's 156 was not a sign of a fighter who comfortably made weight.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of boxers over the past decade who had success with gaining a lot of weight after the weigh in, such as Miguel Cotto, Brandon Rios, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Jermain Taylor and others. To me, Alvarado's weight was concerning, but not necessarily a death knell for his chances to win. 

After the fight, it was immediately leaked to press row that head trainer Shann Vilhauer was unhappy with Alvarado switching to southpaw during stretches of the fight – this was apparently at the suggestion of co-trainer Rudy Hernandez, who was instrumental in helping Alvarado defeat Brandon Rios earlier in the year. In addition, a number of reporters caught wind that Hernandez was disappointed with Alvarado's training and preparation; Team Alvarado's internecine was essentially complete after the fight. 

Even if Alvarado didn't train as effectively as he could have for the fight or perform as expected, a close-knit boxing team supports each other; it doesn't  throw its various members under the bus publicly. Ultimately, I believe that the team's fractiousness, which was on display after the fight, manifested during the match in Alvarado's performance.

Let's walk through some key moments of the fight. After three, Alvarado was up 2-1, winning the second and third rounds often out of the southpaw stance with his jab, movement and timely power punches, specifically with his right hook out of the southpaw stance and his straight right hand when fighting conventionally.

For some reason, Alvarado stopped moving in the fourth. Any combination of the following five factors might explain why: 1. it was a show of machismo, 2. his conditioning was too poor to keep moving, 3. he was instructed to hold his ground 4. Provodnikov's pressure psychologically ground him down and forced him to be more stationary 5. He didn't trust the guidance of his corner. From my vantage point, Alvarado willfully held his ground. He had some early success in the round, but Provodnikov soon landed chopping right hands from mid-range, and his shots had far more power than Alvarado's did. 

Over the next two rounds, the same pattern emerged; they traded at mid-range or on the inside. Although Alvarado landed a number of solid power punches, Provodnikov's offerings were consistently more damaging. As Alvarado remained more and more stationary, Provodnikov started to successfully incorporate body shots in his attack, including a punishing left hook. 

Finally, in the seventh round, Alvarado returned to movement and performed well during the stanza. But during the last five seconds, he attempted to punctuate the round with a right hand from distance and was met with perhaps the most savage punch of the entire fight, a short right counter shot that stopped him dead in his tracks.

The eighth round featured an early exchange with a Provodnikov left hook to the body and a right hand to the head that drove Alvarado back to the ropes. Alvarado soon went down from with a barrage of punches. A Provodnikov right hand sent him down again moments later. Alvarado somehow survived the round, but there was no silver lining. After two more rounds of assault, Alvarado had had enough. He was beaten to a pulp and had nothing left.

Even under ideal circumstances, I don't know if Alvarado would have beaten Provodnikov, but there were a number of tactical and strategic changes that could have keep it a closer fight. I'll give three.  

Alvarado was practically incapable of tying-up Provodnikov throughout the fight. Was it that Provodnikov was so elusive or kept distance so well? No. He was right in front of him, yet Alvarado lacked the wherewithal or technique to hold. Did his team tell him to tie-up during the fight? They should have. Along the same lines, why didn't Alvarado use his size to clinch or lean on Provodnikov in hopes of zapping his power? Instead of strategic clinching, Alvarado leaned forward when tired (but not on Provodnikov), exposing his head and chin for Provodnikov's power punches; he became target practice.

Furthermore, whether Vilhauer was right or wrong about Alvarado switching southpaw, the team (or fighter) wasn't confident enough to let the strategy play out. Alvarado won rounds, (not overwhelmingly, but won them) out of that stance. It seemed like the boxer and corner weren't fully prepared to fight in that style over the course of the match. Perhaps Provodnikov eventually overcomes Alvarado later in the fight out of the southpaw stance. But from my perspective, Provodnikov looked confused trying to land his shots from a distance when Alvarado turned southpaw. Maybe Alvarado didn't inflict enough damage as a southpaw, but he certainly got hit less when he featured that stance.

Provodnikov was damn impressive. He has improved defensively over the last year under Freddie Roach's guidance and did a nice job of slipping many of Alvarado's right hands. In addition, although his shots aren't exactly straight, Roach has shortened them up, enabling them to have more impact. Provodnikov also has incredibly heavy hands, underrated timing and a wonderful dedication to body punching.

I'm sure that these next few days won't be easy for Alvarado. One minute he's a world champion, a hometown hero, making life-changing money. With the blink of an eye, he's sitting in the dressing room, battered, defeated and full of recriminations and regret. In his heart, he knows that he let people down – his wonderful fans in the Denver area, his family, his team and himself.

Through a winding path that included imprisonment, bar fights, occasional promotional neglect and suboptimal training, Alvarado somehow willed himself to becoming a world champion. He has been tough in the ring, but ultimately, the sport isn't called "Tough." At the world level, conditioning, preparation and corner work all have to be top-notch. On Saturday, Mike Alvarado and his team just weren't good enough, and there's more than enough blame to spread around.  


During the eighth round, when the boisterous crowd was on its feet during the two knockouts, I started to hear loud banging from my left. Three sections over in Section 110, I witnessed the worst brawl that I have seen at a public sporting event (and being from Philly, I have a high threshold for unruliness). Dozens of patrons across multiple rows ferociously beat on each other. Waves of people were falling down rows. I saw men punching defenseless people who were lying on the ground. Bystanders were hit. I watched those in the section not involved in the fight scatter with panic. As Alvarado tried to valiantly survive the round to my right, I kept darting glances over my left shoulder towards the brawl, which showed no signs of ceasing. Hoping to see the green shirts of the security guards, instead I saw violence on a harrowing scale. Not until the round ended did security guards belatedly make their way into the melee.

After the fight, section 110 was in ruins. Whole rows of seats had been ripped out and debris scattered throughout that part of the arena. Maybe the remnants of Section 110 was symbolism for the hopes of Alvarado and his faithful following , but fuck the poetry and literary themes, it was scary stuff and I was spooked.

I wandered over to the first aid station where a number of the brawlers were receiving medical attention and more than a few cops were taking statements. A couple of the brawlers were in very bad shape.  I'm not saying that this melee was unique in any historical sense, but it rattled me on fight night, and has stuck with me in the 48 hours afterward. 

Yes, it's probable that the events of the brawl clouded my overall perception of Alvarado-Provodnikov and contributed to the sour taste in my mouth walking out of the arena, as well as my perspective in this column. I thought that this probability was important to disclose, so consider this piece accordingly.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter
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