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 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.
With Provodnikov seemingly needing a knockout to win in the 12th round, he staggered Bradley with a left hand, hurt him again with a right and sent him to the canvas with a flurry of shots with 15 seconds left in the fight. A dazed Bradley (who said afterward that he had suffered a concussion early on) beat Russell's count and the fight ended before another punch could be thrown.
Talk about drama.
"What a spectacular fight, what an amazing performance," Lampley said. "What a war!"
2. Mike Alvarado W12 Brandon Rios II (March 30 at Las Vegas):
In October 2012, Rios stopped Alvarado on his feet in the seventh round of a rock 'em, sock 'em battle that was the fight of the year runner-up. They did it again five months later in an even better fight in which Alvarado turned the tables by tight unanimous decision (115-113, 115-113, 114-113) and won a vacant interim junior welterweight title. This easily could have been selected as the fight of the year and had all the action a fight fan could ask for. It was even better than the first fight. It was intense brawl featuring nonstop clean punching and ebb and flow throughout. How this went the distance will forever remain a mystery because they were crushing each other. Alvarado was nearly knocked down and was badly hurt by a left jab in a ferocious second round that was so good that Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who promoted the all-time classic Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns middleweight championship fight, said that Round 2 was the best he had seen since Round 1 in Hagler-Hearns. Even Mike Tyson, who was ringside, was on his feet cheering during the round and the fight. Alvarado buzzed Rios in the third round with a brutal right and they traded shots on and on and on, round after round. Alvarado fought most of the fight with a bad cut over his left eye, but although he looked worse when it was over than Rios, he was the heavier puncher and earned the victory, a fight so exciting that there is likely to be a rubber match.
3. Marcos Maidana W12 Adrien Broner (Dec. 14 at San Antonio):
Maidana, no stranger to action fights, not only won a welterweight world title in a thoroughly exciting and dramatic fight, he also pulled the upset and knocked the brash Broner from the undefeated ranks in the final major fight of 2013. While it was a tremendous brawl, Maidana largely kicked Broner's rear end. For all of the nuttiness that surrounds Broner outside of the ring, he showed himself to be a pure fighter inside it, doing everything he could to hang in there against a fearless opponent who would not be denied. Maidana attacked Broner from the opening bell and simply would not let up. His constant pressure and power punching was something to behold. He cashed in during the second round, dropping Broner with a clean left hook. Maidana scored another knockdown in the eighth round, nailing Broner with another left hook. But Maidana also turned dirty in the round, purposely head-butting Broner in the chin and losing a point to add to the drama. Maidana rocked Broner all over the ring in the ninth round, but Broner dug down and hurt Maidana in the 11th round and finished strong in a memorable fight.
4. Omar Figueroa W12 Nihito Arakawa (July 27 at San Antonio):
This interim lightweight title bout was the most unexpected of gems. Figueroa's reputation is that of an all-action slugger but Japan's Arakawa was totally unknown in the U.S., at least before he showed incredible heart in this stunningly violent fight. It was an absolutely enthralling battle. While Figueroa was the clear winner on the wide scores of 119-107, 118-108 (twice), those scores do not do this fight justice. Every single round was exciting, especially the awesome third that was three minutes of nonstop action. Figueroa did a lot of damage with his right hand, including using it to score knockdowns in the second and sixth rounds. But Arakawa, whose left eye was badly swollen, never stopped coming forward and neither did Figueroa, who suffered a bloody cut on his nose from an accidental head-butt and it bled for the rest of the fight. The brutality that they inflicted on each other was amazing. They combined to throw 2,112 punches but Figueroa did much more damage, landing 51 percent of his shots, including an absurd 57 percent of his power shots. The fight was so brutal neither man fought the rest of the year.
5. Giovani Segura KO12 Hernan "Tyson" Marquez (Nov. 2 at Hermosillo, Mexico):