'12 Days': Pacquiao-Provodnikov

Ruslan Provodnikov is still waiting for an opponent to defend his title against in June. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In the spirit of the holidays, ESPN is celebrating the season with our own "12 Days" wish list of the fights we want to see most, regardless of promotional or other entanglements. Keep checking back over the coming days to see new fights revealed, discuss our choices or even suggest some of your own in the comments section or via Twitter using #ESPN12Days.

On June 26, 1891, two boxers, incongruently dressed in tuxedos, boxed an exhibition on the stage of San Francisco’s Bush Street Theater. One was heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan and the other was upstart contender Jim Corbett.

It was supposed to be a friendly sparring session, but Corbett had an ulterior motive. He was on a scouting mission in preparation for a hoped-for title shot, and discovered that he could easily feint the lumbering Sullivan out of his patent-leather pumps, avoid his roundhouse swings and pretty much land his own punches at will.

A little more than a year later, Corbett knocked out Sullivan to win the championship.

It is difficult to know how much Ruslan Provodnikov has learned during dozens of rounds sparring with Manny Pacquiao, but if this wish-list fantasy turns into a real fight, at least the Russian slugger will know what he’s up against.

Although casual fans probably wouldn’t know any more about Provodnikov than they did about Brandon Rios, those familiar with the “Siberian Rocky” understand that it would in all likelihood be a tremendously exciting fight. While there are no guarantees in boxing, Pacquiao-Provodnikov would be as close to a sure thing as it gets.

Provodnikov only knows one way to fight: charge straight into the teeth of his opponent’s punches, hurling haymakers. Yes, he’s easy to hit, but so far he’s been impossible to discourage. His head gets knocked back, his face gets busted up and his knees buckle, but Provodnikov keeps coming, rumbling inexorably forward in search of his prey. And as anyone who has seen the Russian brawler dig to the body knows, when he lands, it hurts.

Pacquiao, however, not only knows more than one way to fight, he is currently in the process of making the transition that all aging fighters must make if they are to prolong their stay at the top. Of course he’s not the same old Manny Pacquiao. That’s an unrealistic expectation. Instead, he is tweaking his style in a manner befitting a 35-year-old veteran of 62 pro fights.

With a wrecking ball such as Provodnikov in the other corner, Pacquiao’s metamorphosis couldn’t have come at more opportune time. Trying to be the same Pacquiao who tore through some of the best fighters of his generation could very easily prove disastrous. Provodnikov is not Rios. He would attack with far greater ferocity and wouldn’t stop until it was over, one way or another.

Although Pacquiao is not the knockout artist he once was, his evolving style remains aesthetically pleasing. His ability to dart inside, unload, and evade counters by ducking under and pivoting away was impressive against Rios, as was the discipline he demonstrated in sticking to the fight plan instead of recklessly gunning for a KO. But none of that stopped Manny from throwing 790 punches and landing 281 of them.

In no way should the fight be considered a foregone conclusion. If Provodnikov catches Pacquiao early, the way he did Bradley, and forces Manny to trade, there could be an upset. Freddie Roach, who trains both fighters, said Manny had superior speed and combination punching, while Ruslan is the harder puncher with a single blow.

If, on the other hand, Pacquiao fights in the same prudent but busy manner he did against Rios, he should prevail in a fan-friendly fashion.

Fighters who have sparred together on a regular basis often learn to negate each other, but I’d be shocked if Pacquiao and Provodnikov turned out that way. Despite Manny’s relatively refined skills, it is not in either man’s nature to pussyfoot around. Two things would be virtually assured: There would be extreme violence -- and neither fighter would be wearing a tuxedo.