It’s 3:30 a.m in Beryozovo, western Siberia, and a lone figure pounds footprints into the deep, unblemished snow.
The syncopated rhythm of his boots echoes only through his body, as the vast open road ahead of him widens to display its beautiful landscape. It’s minus-30 degrees celsius and every deep breath is conditioned by frozen daggers attacking the back of his throat, longing for warmth that a mythical finish line would bring. Specs of frost sit atop his eyelashes adding an icy border to his gaze, yet nothing can stop the steely-eyed local from completing his six miles.
“It’s a very different feeling to have to wake up and run, as opposed to wanting to,” Ruslan Provodnikov told me via translation. “But this lifestyle is a part of me. Sport is in my blood and I will always stay active for as long as I can. I just can’t get rid of that feeling.”
The 37-year-old retired fighter still looks the part. His rounded face has forever disguised his prime physical condition, yet under the many layers protecting him from nature’s cold grip, Ruslan is strong, chiselled, and durable.
“Right now, I’m as disciplined as I ever was throughout my career as a fighter,” he added, gleaming with pride able to explain the fruits of his retirement. “I’m weighing 150 pounds at the moment. When I was fighting I would walk around at around 158, 160, so I am in better shape now! It’s important for me that I am an inspiration to the kids around me that look up to me. Often I’ll announce where I will be in the coming days and whoever wants to turn up can run with me.”
Like a scene out of Rocky, Ruslan would run with a swarm of future generations all attempting to follow in his physical and metaphorical footsteps, his moniker of the “Siberian Rocky” operational even outside of the ring.
But Ruslan isn’t simply a motivator. This morning run ignites his internal fire ahead of a busy day as a congressman for the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region in Russia. Eight-ounce gloves and a chewed mouthguard have been swapped for a suit and tie over the past four years, with the end of his first term approaching in September.
“I have no time to be bored in retirement,” he chuckles, attempting to explain his government role in laymen terms. “The position is like a local council leader, representing my county. There is so much work to be done constantly and I am forever learning on the job. But my goal has always remained the same: to try and do whatever I can to help my people.”
His “people” are the Mansi people, an indigenous group of around 8,000 who live in Khanty-Mansia. The region is known for its controversial wealth gap between the very poorest and the richest that benefit from the vast production of oil. Over 50% of the oil produced in Russia comes from Khanty-Mansiysk, giving it great importance across the country. Ruslan’s mother was born and raised Mansi, and he feels completely connected to this unique collection of people.
“It was very difficult for me to agree to this the first time,” he added. “In my whole career of boxing my biggest fear was letting my team down. I was never afraid of losing for myself but for others. The more responsibility I would feel, it would be tough for the people that truly trust me. When I was getting offers for a career in politics I was a little skeptical. Here, thousands and thousands of people are going to depend and count on me and it’s so vital that I don’t let them down.
“As hard as it is, it’s important for the people to know that I am trying and that I truly care about them. No doubt it is difficult, but I am learning something new each day.”
Despite this obvious change of lifestyle, Ruslan still affords the opportunity to look back. Retirement came in 2016 accompanied by a 25-5 (18 KO) record, but the former world champion is reluctant to fully close that door behind him.
“I do miss boxing, sometimes,” he admitted. “Every week or so I’ll go to the gym where I started out as a kid. I’ll go 8-to-10 rounds with the kids in the gym and they’ll all want to spar me. I’ll bring a few of them in and do a number of rounds, sometimes 12-to-15, depending on how I’m feeling.
“Every time I get into the ring there is that spark of excitement again. Sometimes I’m sparring some young pro guys who are 10-0, 15-0, just working with them and giving them some advice, which I really enjoy.”
I pushed Ruslan to expand on his decision to retire and how he’s handled such an unforgiving change to his lifestyle. As happy as he was to speak politics, there’s an unabating, incomparable glint in his eye whenever we mention his former art.
“Listen, life is short, I understand that,” he answered. “Every time I go to the gym and I work out, someone is like, ‘Ruslan you’re in great shape, why are you not coming back?’ But to tell you the truth, I just lost the passion to compete. I was a warrior in the ring; that was how I chose to fight. To fight that way you have to have fire in your heart. You need not just to have a spark, but to have fire and be willing to go that extra mile.
“I’ve never been a glory or a money chaser. My career was never about that. I was always chasing pride for myself, my team and my people. I was always hungry and my family was hungry, too. When my eldest was born we had nothing. My wife, our first child and I were all living in one room without a restroom. All that we have now is because of boxing. I earned it all in the ring. When I wasn’t hungry it was very difficult to fight.
“But these rumours of me returning to the ring that came about last year weren’t simply rumours. A lot of people were pushing me to return and for the right fight I would have.”
It became hard to put Ruslan’s desire to return to the ring on a scale. I for one was not willing to add my voice to the chorus of support for him to do so, but I was more than willing to let him expand and explore the hypotheticals. His manager and I have previously had conversations about our fears surrounding a second stint, and I am confident that the voices closest to him are the ones that speak loudest.
“I need to have a clear goal if I am to return,” he explained candidly. “The offers I was getting weren’t interesting to me and that’s not because of the money, it’s because of the names. If I was to get an offer of a fighter that motivates me; sets my heart on fire, then I might consider it. But just to fight some kid who is 15-0, or some mediocre guy, that isn’t something that I’m interested in. I need someone to tell me, ‘This is impossible.’”
Ruslan seems incredibly happy. He’s patient with his time and open and honest with his answers. Often, reaching out to recently retired fighters can be a heart-wrenching process. With their fighting flame extinguished, many are forced to listen to the devil on their shoulder in an attempt to chase a suitable alternative. This isn’t the case this time. It’s a refreshing change.
“I cannot say that I struggled with the decision to retire,” he explained. “The decision came itself after the last fight against John Molina. Afterwards, we were out in the square by the hotel and my manager told me something that stuck: ‘At the end of every path is the beginning of a new one.’
“I really thought about this. Then, the stars aligned. As soon as I returned home after the fight, the local governor called me and invited me to their office. I was then offered the opportunity to become a congressman.
“I deliberated, and then realised that that is my new path. I’m very happy as a lot of boxers in retirement struggle in ordinary life. They get bored, they don’t know what to do and they turn to drink or drugs. That’s why a lot of fighters return from retirement because they have spent all their money and are bored. But this opportunity filled a hole for me immediately.”
I thought we were veering back towards a conversation surrounding his ambitions in politics, but he countered beautifully and pushed the hypotheticals of a ring return even further.
“If I was to come back, it would only be in a 12-round fight and for a title,” he expanded, referring to the recent Mike Tyson vs Roy Jones Jr exhibition. “I still think I can beat pretty much anyone at 140 pounds with a proper training camp. I can still create a lot of problems in that division.”
I swallowed a small nugget of pride and asked how he thinks he would fair against the division’s champions — of which he couldn’t name — Josh Taylor and Jose Ramirez. After a comical back-and-forth, he realised that he used to train with Jose Ramirez under Freddie Roach’s wing, but was still struggling to believe that Taylor held a world title.
“(Ramirez) would be a great fight,” he suggested. “We both have similar come-forward styles. I’ve never been afraid of fighting anyone in the world and nothing has changed. If Ramirez is the top guy then I am confident I can give him a great fight. I’m always confident I can beat anyone. I’ve never been hurt in the ring or touched the canvas as a pro. I respect them all but I am so far away from the sport now that I don’t follow who the champions are particularly. I still keep an eye on my friends, like Gennadiy [Golovkin] for example.”
We concluded with a trip down memory lane, revisiting the fight that made Ruslan Provodnikov, well, Ruslan Provodnikov. He’s humble enough to appreciate how his narrow defeat to Timothy Bradley in 2013 changed his life and is forever grateful for the opportunity he was handed. It was named the 2013 Fight of the Year, with Provodnikov within seconds of stopping the WBO welterweight champion in the final round.
“I’m very thankful to Tim for being the warrior he was that night. That’s probably the only reason you’re interviewing me, because of that fight,” he admitted. “Without that fight, the story of Ruslan Provodnikov would never have been known.
“Hats off to Bradley. It’s impossible to explain how much respect I have for him. In this fight, he showed in-human character. I don’t know how he did it. I would always enter the ring willing to die and ready to kill. That night, there wasn’t a human in front of me, it was an animal. Every punch I landed was with bad intentions and he kept standing.
“The character he showed, the way he came back and was able to box, it was something unbelievable. Could I have ever shown the character he did? I don’t know. I think he deserves everything he earned as he is a true, true champion. We aren’t friends or anything, but I will forever respect him for that fight. He is one of the best champions ever.
“I have no regrets. These experiences made me who I am today. Losses are always a hard pill to swallow but I wouldn’t change anything and am grateful for what this fight has given me.”
This loss to Bradley put Provodnikov in the shop window, and seven months later he stopped Mike Alvarado for the WBO title at junior welterweight. This signals the highlight of his career, and he was audibly moved by the memories it evoked.
“When Tony Weeks told me that Alvarado’s corner were stopping the fight, the emotion I felt was incredible. It’s never been matched in my whole life. I have three kids and even that hasn’t come close. I’ll always remember those words from Weeks. I have tears in my eyes thinking about it now. All my team lived through those emotions too. It was such a unique experience.”
Whilst it’s clear that there is still an itch to return that Ruslan is eager to scratch, it’s not one that controls him. Far too often retired fighters are led blindfolded back to the ring by self-interested, self-serving parties, happy to hand over the health of a fighter in exchange for a pound note.
Ruslan is surrounded by love, surrounded by sense and is spinning far too many plates to justify them crashing in order to make a hasty return to the ring. I asked him how he’d want to be remembered, and true to form, it had nothing to do with boxing.
“I have always strived to be remembered by a kind word,” he concluded. “Nothing else is important unless you are a good person and try to do everything you can for others. My place in boxing history is secure, I don’t care about that, it is only a small part of me. Who I am as a person is much more important.
“My former amateur coach had a good saying that always stuck with me. He’d say, ‘You have to live your life in a way that when you die, no one will call you a piece of shit,’ and that has always been my goal.”
Lewis Watson is a sports writer from London, UK, and a member of the BWAA. Follow or contact him on Twitter @lewroyscribbles