It should have been — no, it was — the greatest day in Timothy Bradley's career, but it sure didn't look like it.
It was June 9, 2012, inside a rowdier-than-usual media room next to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas: Bradley had just won a split-decision victory over Manny Pacquiao. At the time, Pacquiao was considered pound-for-pound one of the sport's two best fighters, and beating him should have catapulted Bradley into boxing's upper echelon. When Bradley heard ring announcer Michael Buffer read his name off the judges' scorecards that night, he could have reasonably imagined himself becoming a pay-per-view draw on par with Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., or Oscar De La Hoya.
But when Bradley arrived at the post-fight press conference, the scene was anything but triumphant. He had injured both ankles in the fight, so when Bob Arum, whose Top Rank Boxing had promoted the fight, announced that the new champion was arriving to answer a few questions, Bradley had to be pushed out in a wheelchair. There was no way to get him up on the dais, so instead Bradley was rolled onto a patch of carpet in front of the podium, where the assembled reporters, cameramen, and plain old gawkers had to stand and crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the 5-foot-6 welterweight. Bradley wore a black warm-up suit with "TB" monogrammed over his chest and a matching "TB" baseball hat with brim tilted high over his bald head. While the fighter fielded queries about his injuries, Pacquiao's power punches, and the rounds he believed he won, a couple of his handlers stood behind him and hoisted an oversize posterboard ticket for the Pacquiao-Bradley 2 rematch. The fake ticket had seemed like a clever gag days before, when Bradley waved it around while promising to defeat Pacquiao at the pre-fight press conference. But after the bout, after Arum had just said that he'd "never been as ashamed of the sport of boxing," it felt like a farce. And Bradley, wheelchair-bound and sporting a nervous grin, didn't look like the conquering hero who'd just handed Pacquiao his first loss in more than seven years; he resembled a seriously ill child posing in front of a giant novelty check at a charity event.
Of course, we all know why Bradley's big moment last June landed somewhere between underwhelming and shameful on the emotional spectrum. Although he officially beat Manny Pacquiao, hardly anyone who saw that fight (aside from Bradley, his corner, his family, and two judges) believed that Bradley deserved to win. But several boxers have received disputed or controversial decisions in major fights in recent history — from Julio Cesar Chavez's draw with Pernell Whitaker in 1993 to Felix Trinidad's majority decision over Oscar De La Hoya in 1999 to Pacquiao's decisions over Juan Manuel Marquez in 2008 and 2011 — and none of them fared as poorly in the aftermath as Timothy Bradley has.
Since winning a share of the welterweight title, Bradley has been mentioned as a possible opponent for some of the biggest names in boxing — Floyd Mayweather Jr., Juan Manuel Marquez, Robert Guerrero, Yuriorkis Gamboa, and Manny Pacquiao (the aforementioned rematch). But all of those boxers passed on Bradley, and four of the five wound up matched with each other while Bradley was forced to the sidelines with no one to fight. Pacquiao ended up meeting Marquez for a fourth time in December, Guerrero will challenge Mayweather on May 4, and negotiations fell through with Gamboa, a smaller fighter who wasn't willing to come all the way up to the 147-pound welterweight limit to face Bradley. Over the past nine months, it seems that every time an elite fighter has gotten a chance to take on Bradley, he has found a better opportunity elsewhere.
Instead of becoming one of the most marketable names in the sport, Timothy Bradley has become a pariah. You might say — as a figure of speech — that he has been shipped off to boxing Siberia, only in this case it would be true. When Bradley returns to the ring Saturday night in Carson, California, for the first time since his decision over Pacquiao, his opponent won't be Mayweather or Marquez or Pacquiao or Guerrero. It will be Ruslan Provodnikov, who is actually from Siberia — a town on the Ob River named Beryozovo, to be exact.
So what the hell happened to Timothy Bradley's career?
Boxing does not hand out rewards fairly. Bradley, who received a decision victory he didn't deserve and since then has been undeservedly kept out of big fights, is just one example of how illogical the sport can be. There are plenty of others: Antonio Margarito was barred from competing in California for attempting to fight with a plaster-type substance in his hand wraps, and then he turned around and received a license to fight in Texas; state regulators once just plain forgot to schedule drug tests for a major event involving Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Nonito Donaire; Erik Morales tested positive for PEDs and didn't have to forfeit his October 2012 fight against Danny Garcia; and Chavez Jr. was recently fined $900,000 for testing positive for marijuana. Followers of the sport accept its contradictions and hypocrisies, while casual sports fans tend to know little about boxing except for its supposed crookedness.
When Bradley beat Pacquiao, he tumbled into a new kind of boxing wormhole. Normally, a win over one of the best and most popular fighters in the sport would be a good thing. For Bradley, it nearly amounted to career suicide. There's no doubt that the manner in which Bradley won — by inexplicable, unpopular decision — has much to do with why no fighter of comparable ability seems interested in touching Bradley with a 10-foot pole, let alone a stiff jab. It's as if they don't want the stink of the Pacquiao decision to rub off on them. Earlier this week, while promoting the Provodnikov fight, even Bradley admitted the damaging effects of beating Pacquiao. "It would have been better for me," he said, "if I lost."
But in boxing, when isolated events don't make sense, there's usually a higher order at work. It has nothing to do with the intricate conspiracy theories boxing fans come up with to explain bogus decisions and positive drug tests. It's simpler than that — the overriding logic is money. When Margarito got his license in 2010, the Texas athletic commission broke the convention of honoring other states' bans on fighters and kept a lucrative pay-per-view fight at Cowboys Stadium on schedule. When Morales was permitted to fight despite his positive drug tests last October, it preserved the main event for the much-hyped first boxing event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
In Bradley's case, financial machinations were originally posited as one of the grand conspiracies behind his baffling win over Pacquiao. The promoters wanted to set up a rematch to double their money, insiders whispered. But if that had ever been true, the visceral negative reaction to the fight caused Top Rank to walk back talk of a rematch. It took less than a day for Bob Arum to warn that ticket brokers "are telling us if we make a Bradley rematch, no one will go." In other words, making another Bradley-Pacquiao fight wouldn't generate enough revenue to make it worth the promoter's effort or Pacquiao's trouble.
The damning lesson of Pacquiao-Bradley seemed to be that Bradley fights don't sell. Maybe it's because he has a low knockout percentage. Maybe it's because his fights tend to be marred by unintentional Bradley head butts. Maybe it's because he promotes pay-per-view fights on 24/7 by comparing smoothie mustaches with his baby daughter. The Pacquiao fight generated only 850,000 pay-per-view buys, according to the Los Angeles Times, far fewer than the 1.4 million buys for Pacquiao's previous fight against Juan Manuel Marquez. When Pacquiao sat down to choose his next opponent, his primary concern was making the most money, not righting the wrong of his split-decision loss to Bradley. For Pacquiao, then a 33-year-old on the back end of his prime, taking the fights that offer the largest paydays is smart business. If your job requires you to risk your life, you might as well milk it for every penny. Pacquiao chose a fourth fight with Marquez over a rematch with Bradley at the end of last year. Pacquiao got his pay-per-view numbers back up to 1.15 million buys, and yes, he also got knocked out cold and lost his foothold at the top of the pound-for-pound list, but that dramatic loss set up the chance for a fifth — and perhaps even more profitable — Pacquiao-Marquez fight in late 2013.
There is one person who seemed to reject the financial lesson of Pacquiao-Bradley, and he, of course, is Timothy Bradley. When Pacquiao and Marquez passed him over, Bradley was offered $2.3 million to fight junior welterweight titlist Lamont Peterson in Miami last December. That would have been the second-largest purse of Bradley's career, almost half what Bradley earned against Pacquiao. But the offer offended Bradley. He had spent the past five months listening to his promoter call for an investigation into what wrongdoing led to the biggest victory of his career. He had spent those months hearing the quote from Jim Lampley — the voice of HBO boxing, which broadcasts many of Bradley's fights — that said he was "disgusted enough by the [Pacquiao] decision to question my commitment to boxing." He had spent that time hearing his name come up as an empty threat in fight negotiations between his would-be rivals: OK, Marquez, you don't like the revenue split I'm offering? I can always fight worthless Tim Bradley instead. Or, No sweat, Manny. You want to fight Miguel Cotto again? I'll take a fight with Tim Bradley and win your belt off him.
Insulted by his promoter and shunted to the back burner for non-earners; sneered at by HBO; used for leverage at the bargaining table and viewed as a backup opponent by the elite fighters he believed he earned the right to be among — this was the story of Timothy Bradley's post-Pacquiao 2012. So when he was finally offered the fight against Peterson, an opponent he beat convincingly in 2009, it must have been hard for Bradley to accept that he had reached the highest level of the sport, won a fight against Manny Pacquiao, and wound up with a bout against some guy he beat three years ago. Bradley turned down the fight. He walked away from $2.3 million and angered Top Rank and HBO in the process.
And what did Bradley get for refusing to accept his lot, for rejecting boxing's financial hierarchy? A fight for less money against Ruslan Provodnikov, an expressionless Siberian brute of a fighter, who's best known for being one of Pacquiao's sparring partners and who experts agree stands little chance against Bradley's talent and experience. It's a tough lesson to learn — that no matter whom you beat and despite your undefeated record, boxing tells you how much you're worth, and if you don't like it, you're worth even less. But Bradley seems to be coming around. Last Saturday he appeared on HBO's The Fight Game for an interview with Lampley to announce his return to the network and discuss the Provodnikov fight. When Lampley asked why Bradley hadn't been able to land a rematch with Pacquiao, Bradley gave the right answer. "At this level of the game," he said in grim monotone, "it's all about business."