Fight fans rejoice. This Saturday, April 18th, HBO will roll out a stellar double-header as top welterweight Thomas Dulorme welcomes WBO lightweight champion Terence Crawford to the light welterweight division. However, completely overshadowing the Crawford's first step into the cutthroat weight class is the potential Fight of the Year match between hard-hitting light welterweights Lucas Matthysse (36-3, 34KO's) and Ruslan Provodnikov (24-3, 17 KO's).
Every so often, we are treated to electrifying bouts the likes of Hagler vs. Hearns, Gatti vs. Ward, and Corrales vs. Castillo; fights that send a jolt down the spine and stay with us as we witness the blood, sweat, and willpower of two warriors who slug it out and refuse to take a backwards step. Now, the clouds have parted once again, and the fight gods have blessed us with two hard-nosed fighters that will leave everything in the ring purely for the sake of putting their opponent on the canvas. No belts on the line, no inflated egos, just an honest fistfight between two contenders to see who hits the hardest at 140 pounds.
Lucas Matthysse is arguably the most feared man in the junior middleweight division. The Argentinian is a deadly puncher with a 94% knockout rate and an all-offense style. That ridiculous power and forward pressure tore through the top opposition like Lamont Peterson. After losing a close decision to light welterweight kingpin Danny Garcia, Matthysse had an absolute war with then-contender John Molina Jr that was considered the 2014 Fight of the Year by nearly every media outlet. The two men battered each other around the ring for 11 rounds before Matthysse finished the very game Molina. Since then, he beat Robert Ortiz within two rounds in a rebound fight and is now champing at the bit to climb the ladder for a rematch with Garcia.
Standing in the Argentinian's way, Ruslan Provodnikov is the immovable wall to Lucas Matthysse's unstoppable onslaught. As his nickname implies, the "Siberian Rocky" is a nigh-unbreakable destroyer of men. Relatively unknown before his blood-and-guts fight of the year match with Timothy Bradley, Provodnikov's forward-charging style and humble lifestyle, including his legendary raw meat diet, have made him a fan favorite. Since giving Bradley the fight of his life, Provodnikov brutalized Mike Alvarado in ten rounds to win the WBO light welterweight title, only to lose it in a 12 round, split-decision affair to the crafty Chris Algeiri. Rather than take a tune-up bout, it took the rugged Siberian less than half an hour to agree to a match with most dangerous man in the division.
This fight has so many people hyped because of how stylistically similar the two men are. Both Matthysse and Provodnikov are offensive pressure fighters and do their best work throwing vicious power punches in the pocket when their opponents are backed up to the ropes.
Matthysse, against Danny Garcia, did his best work when he was able to cut off Garcia on the ropes and overwhelm Garcia's single shot counters with varying combinations.
Cutting Off the Ring
By now, most opponents know that getting into a brawl with either Matthysse or Provodnikov is suicide, and thus will often try to outbox them and maintain strong range control. Thus, strong ring cutting is crucial for both men's ability to close distance on rangier opponents to implement their vaulted brawling game.
Of the two, Matthysse is slightly slower in terms of footspeed and is much more jab-reliant to corral his opponents into his power shots. Matthysse has an excellent straight jab and will often use it to set up either a long right hook to the body or a leaping left hook to the head. He is also quite crafty with using pawing feints to force his opponents back to the ropes and set up his devastating left hook.
In the bout against the technical and slippery Lamont Peterson, the hook that was the beginning of the end for Peterson was set up with a feinting jab. Peterson, before then, was the faster boxer, and had been peppering Matthysse with shots as he slowly backed up Peterson to the ropes. Once there, the Argentinian brawler feinted a double jab to get Peterson to raise his guard and lean back, speared him with a straight right to a midsection, and as Peterson naturally tried to turn out to his right to avoid the power of the right, Matthysse clipped him with a wide left hook that put Peterson on queer street. Peterson was trapped by Matthysse's punch selection; with the ropes cutting off a retreat, and a straight right sealing his left side, his only way out was turning to the right, only to get devastated by the hook.
Unlike Matthysse, Provodnikov has the tendency to forget his jab and relies on his continuous head movement and raw physicality to cut off his opponent and force them to trade at his preferred distance.
In his world championship bout against Mike Alvarado, a man who is not particularly known for his tendency to box at range, Provodnikov was on him like a bat out of hell right off the opening bell. In this sequence, Provodnikov's aggressive forward momentum, coupled with his twitching left hand and head feints, back up Alvarado to the ropes. Alvarado flings out a left hook and turns out to his left, but Provodnikov continues to step ahead of him-taking away Alvarado's angles of escape. As Alvarado continues to sidestep to the left, Provodnikov rips a right hook to physically block Alvarado's escape.
Infghting Strengths and Weaknesses
Brawling at close range is the bread and butter of Matthysse and Provodnikov's games. There is an art to boxing at close range; all the factors of boxing at range like chaining offense with a strong defense, maintaining strong posture and pressure, and hitting while not getting hit apply, but in close quarters, the stakes are significantly increased as distance is severely reduced as an offensive or defensive tool.
Provodnikov lives and dies by his left hook and overhand right. If he can get in on the inside with his aggressive forward pressure, he will rely on his strength to throw bombs over and around his opponent's guard. It is a do-or-die system that leaves his front extremely vulnerable to straight punches down the middle. In his battle with Bradley, Timothy Bradley spent the first few rounds slugging it out with the dangerous Serbian rather than use his superior speed and movement to keep him at bay.
In this sequence, Bradley initially lights up Provodnikov up the middle with jabs and straight rights, but right as he moves forward, Provodnikov dives in low and to his left and throws a murderous overhand right-left shovel hook combination that stuns Bradley. Another overhand right buckles Bradley's knees, and Provodnikov shakes off Bradley's attempt to grapple and smother to knock him down with a flurry.
Provodnikov's combinations are almost entirely hook-based combinations-curved punches to swing around the guard that punish the head and body. When he hurts people, Provodnikov overwhelms them with his suffocating power and flurries. However, if Provodnikov fights a disciplined boxer, like Chris Algeiri, the holes in his game become quite apparent.
Despite knocking down Algeiri twice in the first round, Provodnikov struggled against the technical Algeiri's machine-gun pumping jab and straight rights and ended up on the wrong end of a split decision.
Unlike Provodnikov's reliance on his hooking flurries, Matthysse's brawling style is characterized by punch variety and hard shoulder pressure. Whereas Provodnikov tends to hold a high guard and go "glove-to glove" and lean against his opponent's guard, Matthysse likes to get into a pseudo clinch and control his opponent's head with his shoulder while brutalizing the body. Matthysse's style of brawling was on full display in his war with Molina, as towards the later rounds, both exhausted men stood toe to toe and tried to take each other's heads off.
In this sequence, Matthysse first uses a left hook to fold Molina at the waist, and then controls Molina's constant ducking and rolling with jabs at mid-range to line up a nasty overhand right. Matthysse then closes the distance and angles his body into Molina's shoulder-first to control Molina's head. Molina's vision is cut off by Matthysse's back, and the Argentine goes to work with uppercuts to the head and body. As Molina tries to go in to clinch up, Matthysse smothers his hands, pushes him back with his left elbow and hammers a right hook to Molina's head. Matthysse's use of his shoulder to pry open Molina's arms allowed him to land punches without wasting blows on Molina's defense.
Matthysse's system of elbow and shoulder control is only effective his he can get his opponent to lean into him and trade. In his loss against Garcia, Matthysse repeated tried to initiate a close-ranged exchange by leaning on Garcia's guard, only to have Garcia step back and clip him with left and right hooks over Matthysse's shoulders.
Think of Matthysse's brawling as if his opponent is a physical wall. If the wall is sturdy, Matthysse can lean his full weight to control his opponent. If that wall moves back, like Garcia repeatedly retreating with a fadeaway hook and overhand right, Matthysse's support is removed and he is forced to recover his balance, and eats a punch for his efforts. An all offense-minded opponent like Provodnikov should give him an opportunity to make use of this system, but should Provodnikov break his stance and swing that dangerous right overhand of his, Matthysse could be in huge trouble.
The Final Verdict
Ultimately, this fight will be likely be decided by who lasts longer in the later rounds. In both men's recent losses, Matthysse to Danny Garcia and Provodnikov to Chris Algieri and Timothy Bradley, both fighters started well, faded and were outboxed in the middle rounds, rallied in the final moments, and fell to the judges' decision. On paper, Matthysse is the more technical boxer, more likely to gauge distance with his jab and keep his composure in a firefight, but Provodnikov's toughness and mental fortitude are otherworldly. Both men will try to establish their pace early, so get ready for a gritty affair of close-range, glove-to-glove brawling. At the end of the day, barricade your doors, hide your kids, and just enjoy the perfect storm that is about to unfold. Trust me, you won't want to miss it.