On the night of March 16, 2013, trainer Joel Diaz was in the corner with welterweight titleholder Timothy Bradley Jr. as he survived to win an unforgettable war with Ruslan Provodnikov in the fight of the year.
A lot can change in 2½ years.
Diaz, who had trained Bradley for his entire career, was fired a month ago and now is the head trainer for Provodnikov, who came to him two weeks ago after parting ways with Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach.
“Things fall into place when you least expect it in this business,” Diaz told ESPN.com on Tuesday from Manchester, England, where he's with lightweight contender Diego Magdaleno, who challenges world titleholder Terry Flanagan on Saturday night.
Diaz has been a big fan of Provodnikov’s for years and struck up a friendly relationship with Vadim Kornilov, Provodnikov’s manager, after the Bradley-Provodnikov spectacle.
“I always come with respect, and I approached Vadim after the fight with Tim Bradley and told him, ‘Hell of a fight’ and that I was a big fan of Ruslan’s,” Diaz said. “Since that moment, we’ve always run into each other at different fights and been friendly. I would always ask him how Ruslan is doing.”
At one point, when there was the possibility of a Manny Pacquiao-Provodnikov fight, Kornilov began exploring the possibility of having Provodnikov change trainers because Roach also trains Pacquiao and was not about to leave him for Provodnikov.
“He told me there were some talk about that fight, and that if it comes through, I was at the top of the list to train Ruslan,” Diaz said. “I told him I appreciated him considering me.”
Then, three weeks ago, Diaz said Kornilov texted him out of the blue asking him when he would be at his Indio, California, gym. Diaz told him, and Kornilov replied with another text asking if he was interested in training Provodnikov, either in Los Angeles or Big Bear Lake, California.
Diaz, with a gym full of other fighters, including Magdaleno and junior welterweight contender Felix Diaz, both of whom were training for important fights, told him that while he would certainly be interested in working with Provodnikov, he could not leave his fighters.
Eventually, Kornilov texted him to ask what time Provodnikov should be there. Diaz has been training Provodnikov for the past two weeks and will prepare him for a fight later this year, although he has no set date or opponent and both HBO and Showtime have interest in his next bout. Wherever and whomever Provodnikov fights, Diaz said he will have him ready.
“Ruslan is a very strong fighter, a lot of heart, a lot of pressure, but he needs to work a little more on defense because he gets hit a lot,” Diaz said. “My point is not to change him but to improve him on defense, teach him how to cut off the ring a little more. I also want to teach him that Mexican style -- go to the body. He’s a head hunter. I want to teach him to work the body from the beginning of a fight and work his way up [to the head].”
Kornilov said Provodnikov needed to switch things up, which is why they left Roach.
“He needs a change, and that's the only way he can try to achieve it,” Kornilov told ESPN.com. “Ruslan told Freddie before he started to look for anything else a couple of weeks ago. And he has been training with Joel for two weeks. Freddie is OK with it. It had to happen. Ruslan takes too much punishment in fights and his last chance to change is a big change in his training.”
Russia’s Provodnikov (24-4, 17 KOs), 31, is 1-2 in his last three fights. He lost his junior welterweight belt by controversial decision to Chris Algieri in June 2014 and then returned to Russia for an easy knockout win against long-faded former lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo. But in April, he lost a majority decision to Lucas Matthysse in an epic slugfest that is a leading contender for fight of the year. Provodnikov took huge punishment in the fight and got busted up.
“We considered many different options,” Kornilov said. “Our goal was to make Ruslan a better fighter defensively. Our team cannot watch Ruslan take the type of punishment that he usually takes in his fights. We need to consider his health first. I think that Joel can make Ruslan a better boxer and improve his defense. It's already happening.”