After Timothy Bradley Jr. was given a tremendously controversial split decision victory against Manny Pacquiao to claim a welterweight world title in June 2012, he was widely ridiculed for the undeserved win and even received death threats, even though he had nothing to do with the scoring.
A proud man, Bradley was deeply stung by the criticism of the victory as well as his somewhat boring style. So when Bradley came into his first title defense against Russia's Ruslan Provodnikov on March 16 at the Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center) in Carson, Calif., he did so with a huge chip on his shoulder. Bradley was determined to change what people thought about him and put the Pacquiao fiasco behind him. He wanted to prove two points, that he could excite fans and prove that he was worthy of his title belt.
Provodnikov, who was stepping up to face a world-class opponent on HBO after years of fighting barnburners against lesser opponents on ESPN2, was the perfect opponent. If Bradley wanted a war, Provodnikov, the epitome of a straight-ahead brawler, was all too happy to give him one.
The result was an absolutely epic battle as Bradley changed his style and engaged Provodnikov in a thrilling toe-to-toe slugfest filled with drama, clean punching and ebb and flow.
In a year overloaded with tremendous fights, Bradley's close unanimous decision win stood above them all and is the 2013 ESPN.com fight of the year. That is saying an awful lot when you look at the caliber of the four fabulous runner-up fights below, not to mention these other sensational slugfests: Guillermo Jones-Denis Lebedev, Darren Barker-Daniel Geale, Marcos Maidana-Josesito Lopez, Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler II, James Kirkland-Glen Tapia and Sakio Bika-Marco Antonio Periban.
The fight started fast and rarely let up as Provodnikov caught Bradley with a right hand in the first round and Bradley went down, even though referee Pat Russell blew the call and ruled it a slip, a decision that ultimately cost Provodnikov a draw on the scorecards. Provodnikov continued to hurt Bradley after the "slip" and had him in huge trouble. He nearly ended the fight again in the second round with another onslaught, but Bradley somehow survived.
From the third round on, with Provodnikov having punched himself out a bit, Bradley was able to collect himself, get back into the fight and begin winning rounds. There was a ton of back-and-forth action, especially late in the sixth round, which was absolutely sensational as they simply pounded each other nonstop. "They're putting on an amazing show," HBO's Jim Lampley exclaimed after they closed the sixth round in an extended toe-to-toe exchange.
Provodnikov suffered a bad cut on his left eyelid in the ninth round and both fighters had taken so much punishment that at various times their trainers, Freddie Roach (Provodnikov) and Joel Diaz (Bradley), threatened to stop the fight while Russell was busy checking both corners between rounds.