Updated at: 03/19/2013 9:09 AM
By GREG BEACHAM
(AP) CARSON, Calif. - Timothy Bradley is a two-division world champion and an exemplary citizen. Yet he never sparked much passion in the boxing world.
Not until he finished his 30th fight with wobbly legs and glassy eyes Saturday night, barely staying upright to the final bell against Ruslan Provodnikov.
A classy boxer became a raw fighter for one thrilling bout. Once Bradley heals, he could reap the benefits for years.
"The warrior instinct started to come in," Bradley said in the ring, after guessing he had a concussion. "Just heart and determination, the will to win. Even though I got rocked, I still fight hard. I still come back. That’s just the warrior in me."
Bruised and bloody, Bradley (30-0) narrowly kept his perfect record and his WBO welterweight belt, winning a unanimous decision by a tiny margin despite being on the verge of getting stopped in the first, second and 12th rounds, even taking a knee in the waning seconds.
Yet the crowd at the outdoor tennis stadium south of Los Angeles roared through chattering teeth for both fighters, cheering and booing Bradley with a passion he has rarely inspired in the ring.
After the most exciting performance of his career, Bradley is likely to receive much of the love he was denied after his unconvincing decision over Manny Pacquiao last year. Bradley also made himself exponentially more attractive for a rematch with Pacquiao if a fifth fight with Juan Manuel Marquez falls apart over money disputes.
Top Rank’s Bob Arum, who promotes Pacquiao and Bradley, refused to speculate on Bradley’s next bout immediately after the spectacle of his punishing win.
"Any time you plan something right after a fight, you screw up," Arum said. "There are plenty of fights to do."
Marquez and Pacquiao both haven’t announced their next bouts, but Marquez is expected to make a decision in the next few weeks. Bradley has been a nightmare matchup for any big name in recent years because of his meager fame and low action potential, but his win over Provodnikov can’t help altering his image for the better.
Freddie Roach, who trains both Pacquiao and Provodnikov, has scoffed at the idea Pacquiao would grant a rematch to Bradley in the past, saying Bradley can’t sell a ticket and pointing at the first fight’s unimpressive pay-per-view performance. With highlights from Bradley’s win over Provodnikov on the ads for his next bout, it’s tough to imagine Bradley would be an unattractive draw any more.
Roach even complimented Bradley _ whose trainer, Joel Diaz, ripped Roach before the fight.
"He’s a very tough guy," Roach said. "He’s a very good boxer. He’s everything he’s supposed to be. He fought a great fight also."
Although the fight was close, with the three fighters separated by a total of five points on the three scorecards combined, the judges saw the fight nearly identically.
All three agreed on Provodnikov’s victory in the first, second and sixth rounds, while giving the rest of the first 10 rounds to Bradley. Two judges gave the 11th to Provodnikov, while Raul Caiz Sr. favored Bradley. All three scored the 12th for Provodnikov 10-8, leaving the Russian agonizingly short of a decision.
"I didn’t feel his punches at all," Provodnikov said through a translator, the area around his left eye bleeding and grotesquely swollen. "He was feeling my punches the whole time. I was going after him all 12 rounds."
The "Siberian Rocky" nearly closed out Bradley in the final minute, forcing the champion to take a knee under a withering assault that staggered backward into the ropes. But Provodnikov took enormous punishment of his own in the middle rounds, and trainer Freddie Roach strongly considered stopping the fight before Provodnikov started his final run in the 11th.
Provodnikov, a sparring partner for Pacquiao at Roach’s Wild Card Gym, didn’t get the belt he coveted, but still earned much more than his second career defeat. After spending most of his career fighting in rural American casinos and Russian outposts on ESPN and other second-tier boxing outlets, he has cemented a reputation as a ferocious, defense-deficient brawler in the mold of Brandon Rios, Mike Alvarado or Marcos Maidana _ the kind of fighter adored by fans and television networks.
The 29-year-old Provodnikov is likely to take a significant step up in money and matchups with his next bout. A rematch might even be a possibility if Bradley’s performance scares off bigger names.
But both fighters earned time to heal from a bout that stretched their endurance even while burnishing their reputations.
Bradley thanked his supporters on Twitter shortly after the fight: "Hope you enjoyed the show. It was a great night for boxing!"
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)