COMMENTARY | Timothy Bradley was almost the 2013 version of Zahir Raheem.
Wait, do you even remember Zahir Raheem?
Many casual boxing fans do not, so here is a refresher for them and a reminder to everyone else.
Zahir Raheem was the boxer nobody wanted to fight. As a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that included Floyd Mayweather, Zab Judah and David Reid who amassed an impressive record of 213-4 during his amateur career before deciding to turn pro. Raheem was an awkward fighter who didn't necessarily have a crowd pleasing style. However, the Philly fighter brought a 26-1 record to the ring -- with the loss being a highly controversial one to Rocky Juarez -- when he fought Erik Morales on September 10, 2005. As most fight fans know, Morales was fresh off of two legendary battles with Marco Antonio Barrera and had recently had his hand raised after warring with Manny Pacquiao. Raheem was little more than a warm up before the highly anticipated rematch with Pacquiao as Morales entered the fight being the prohibitive favorite. Those that had watched Raheem knew he was dangerous but figured that Morales would roll over him as he headed towards the Pacquiao fight.
Boy, were they wrong.
Raheem utilized excellent footwork and superior boxing to keep Morales out of sync en route to a well deserved unanimous decision victory. Unlike Bradley's victory over Manny Pacquiao, Raheem clearly earned the decision that was deemed the upset of the year by Ring Magazine and a victory many thought would propel him into the upper echelons of boxing supremacy. Unfortunately, it didn't quite play out that way. His next fight would end up being an ugly split decision loss to Acelino Freitas that derailed any momentum that Raheem gained with the Morales victory. Meanwhile, Morales continued to land big fights and moved along virtually unfazed by the loss. And just like that, Raheem faded into obscurity. His career would continue but a brutal knockout loss to Ali Funeka sealed his fight as a boxing trivia question for years to come.
Fast forward to 2012.
When Timothy Bradley scored a hotly contested split decision victory over Manny Pacquiao in June, Pacquiao walked away losing very little in terms of drawing power and status. The loss forced him to relinquish the throne he shared with Floyd Mayweather atop boxing's fictional pound for pound lists but there was no doubt that he remained the bigger star. Not so much for Bradley.
The Californian's victory over Pacquiao was eerily reminiscent of Raheem's big win over Morales in the way that it did little to help his celebrity. Even though Bradley's win came saddled with controversy, the fact remained that he upended one of the pound for pound kings of the sport. However, instead of seeing his star grow, Bradley's somehow dimmed. Rather than being the guy everybody wanted fight, he was the guy nobody wanted to step into the ring with because there was no benefit financially or otherwise in facing a tough guy like Timothy Bradley. To make matters worse, Bradley benched himself after the Pacquiao win. Rather than take a rematch with Lamont Peterson, someone he had already defeated but offered a large $2 million purse, Bradley opted to sit on the sidelines and pass up a huge payday for what appeared to be a battle of respect. Bradley was offended that a Peterson rematch was offered. Top Rank was offended that he turned it down. The boxing world was offended that Bradley wasn't fighting at all.
Instead of getting a big name fight with a Marquez, Mayweather or what seemed to be a likely rematch with Pacquiao, Bradley ended up on the outside of boxing royalty looking in. His name not big enough to command a large purse and propel pay per view buys and his style a little more risk than reward for the bigger names of the sport. That's a pretty crappy position to be in considering that you just beat the biggest name in the sport.
So who does Bradley end up fighting next? Ruslan Provodnikov.
Unless you watched a lot of ESPN's Friday Night Fights you likely haven't a clue who Provodnikov is. A fun fighter to watch, Provodnikov was likely best known for being Manny Pacquiao's chief sparring partner heading into the battle with Bradley. How ironic is it for Bradley that he beats "The Man" and in his very next fight he ends up facing the sparring partner of "The Man?" That's kind of like the Miami Heat winning the NBA championship and having to defend it against the Charlotte Bobcats. That's pretty deflating.
Most thought that Bradley would outbox the fighter known as the Siberian Rocky and earn an easy decision to get his career back on track. In the back of Bradley's mind, he had to prove himself and figured the best way to do that was go toe to toe with Provodnikov. Too bad Provodnikov had other ideas that didn't include getting steamrolled by Bradley.
On Saturday night, Bradley nearly found himself knocked out in the first three minutes of the fight and become just another boxing trivia question but endured some drama filled moments to put together easily the most memorable performance of his career. It was an excellent fight that is already being considered as a Fight of the Year candidate. Bradley was nearly stopped in the first, second and 12th round but managed to summon the heart of a warrior and put together an excellent performance to earn the unanimous decision victory and move his record to an impressive 30-0.
While it was a career defining performance, it has to be said that it was against a fighter that casual fans hadn't clue who he was and will swiftly contest that Bradley shouldn't have that much of a difficult time with a no name fighter. Quite honestly, Provodnikov likely saw his stock rise more than Bradley's; even on the wrong side of the decision. But the fight will help both fighters land bigger bouts in the future. For Bradley, a boring decision win would have done nothing to build his name. But this bar room brawl with boxing gloves ended up being the best thing that could happen to him. It was a huge risk exchanging punches at a freakish rate with a heavy handed Russian but the reward will hopefully pay off in dividends for years to come.
For Bradley, it appears he just may have exorcised the ghost of Zahir Raheem with a terrific follow up performance after a questionable win. More people know his name and likely respect him for the way he fought in his backyard at the Home Depot Center. Is this the kind of fight that separates the boxing trivia questions from those who have memorable and successful careers? That has yet to be determined but it seems that Bradley is on the right path.
Andreas Hale lives in the boxing capital of the world and has covered the sport for mainstream media outlets such as MTV.com and Jay-Z's LifeandTimes.com, as well as die-hard websites including FightNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@AndreasHale).