Six months ago, while Timothy Bradley was valiantly absorbing a potentially career and life-altering punishment from a man he was supposed to outbox with ease, HBO announcer Max Kellerman gushed, "What is Tim Bradley made of?!", and partner Roy Jones exclaimed, "Steel!"
Bradley's dark voyage against Ruslan Provodnikov, still frontrunner for Fight of the Year honors, transformed him overnight into one of the sport's premier action stars. In the past, Bradley's propensity for volume punching had not always translated into crowd pleasing excitement. Lacking knockout power, and typically being unable to hurt or stagger most opponents, his strategy smartly relied on quickness, in-and-out movement, and a healthy dose of roughhousing in close. Stifling and avoiding his opponent's offense combined with quick-handed combinations and nimble footwork on the outside led Bradley to a series of notable wins on his way to being regarded as one of the best junior-welterweights in the world. His performance against Manny Pacquiao last year, general viewed as a losing effort despite the official verdict, was mostly written off to Bradley simply losing to a better fighter.
The list of challengers from 140 to 147 lbs. who could beat Bradley still appeared to be a relatively short one.
The fight with Provodnikov changed everything. Why did it unfold the way that it did? How did Bradley, a world-class guy with an edge in speed, skill, and experience get sucked into a war with a fighter thought to be a level beneath him? Was Provodnikov better than we thought? Were the prefight rumors true, that the fitness-obsessed Bradley had been so depressed by the negative blowback from the Pacquiao controversy he gained upwards of fifty pounds and didn't properly train? Whatever the reasons, Bradley-Provodnikov generated as many questions as thrills. At the top of that list, will Bradley ever be the same?
At junior-welterweight, Bradley beat everyone put in front of him by a wide margin. He avoided significant and unnecessary damage. But even with a solid and growing reputation, an undefeated record, and an introspective and charismatic persona, popularity remained elusive. The much-anticipated unification fight with Devon Alexander in 2011 became one of the most criticized and derided events in recent years, for a variety of reasons. Most damningly, the fight itself was a dreary, action-less, foul-filled mess. The technical decision win for Bradley left both men's stock plummeting. When Bradley won the official scorecards against Pacquaio, he left the ring better known, but fell well short of the adulation he lusted after. Had Bradley's dreams of skyrocketing to superstardom came true, he never would have ended up fighting Provodnikov in front of just a few thousand people eight months later.
In March at the Home Depot Center, Bradley was badly hurt in the first round and proceeded to fight with a maniacal possession verging on self-destruction. He didn't hit and move. He hit and hit and hit. He stood his ground in risky exchanges, often staying one punch too many, and when he was caught, shaken and staggered repeatedly, he never backed off, he threw more. Provodnikov, no slouch in the chin department, marched right through the oncoming fire, dropping one concussive bomb after another. Bradley's punches left Provodnikov a swollen and bruised blob of mangled Siberian features. Provodnikov's punches left Bradley with a concussion and slurred speech for two months. Provodnikov's punches had another, unintended, consequence: they brought Bradley back into the good graces of the hyper-critical empire of boxing fans.
Saturday brings the first appearance of the new, postmodern Tim Bradley, the cult hero. He will enter the ring as a bona-fide blood and guts warlord, not the light-punching, points-win specialist with a series of headbutt fiascos on his ledger. One fight changed everything. Bradley was showered with accolades after Provodnikov, praised for his courage and heart and glorified as an embodiment of the warrior ethos in boxers. Bradley has embraced it, speaking ominously about sacrifices he will make and lengths he will go. He has said he will do what he has to and deal with the consequences later. He is not fighting Provodnikov this time around. He's fighting Juan Manuel Marquez. If Bradley intends to stand his ground against Marquez, he may find use for the stretcher he constantly invokes being carried out on.
The last time we saw Marquez, he was knocking Manny Pacquiao into blackness with a single punch. Trading shots with Marquez, one of the sport's cleverest counterpunchers, is a recipe for disaster. Marquez will catch Bradley. Marquez will hurt Bradley. And Bradley's enormous heart won't allow him to bow out until an inhuman amount of violent bludgeoning has transpired.
Just like Victor Ortiz is not literally a tree, Timothy Bradley is not actually made of steel. He may be tougher than 99% of us, but he's flesh and blood, human and infinitely breakable. His outspoken willingness to put his physical health and longevity in jeopardy in pursuit of victory is a tried and true cliché in pre-fight boxing rhetoric, but Bradley delivers his defiant proclamations with chillingly realistic fervor. He has already exemplified those strong words once when he stood up to the unrelenting assault in March for twelve rounds. There is no reason to doubt him. He will do it again if he has to.
Hopefully Bradley takes at least one look back into the past, before he was getting career-high paydays, before he was hated for winning a controversial decision over an icon, before he was adored for getting punched in the head hundreds of times, for sacrificing his speech in pursuit of blood-soaked, sadistic glory, and asks himself how he got here. Think back to the guy who won and didn't care whether he looked good doing it. Can he go back to what he once was? Can he fight smart and defensive and use his speed and movement to rack up points? It would seem to be his best chance of winning, but will he do it? And after the toll taken against Provodnikov, can he do it?