To be polite, Huntington's Chris Algieri is "the opponent" against WBO junior welterweight champion Ruslan Provodnikov on Saturday night at Barclays Center. Algieri fits the bill as the perfect steppingstone guy -- undefeated record (19-0, 8 KOs), local drawing card, inexperienced at the top level, competent but not dangerous in terms of power.
The purpose of the fight on HBO's "Boxing After Dark" is to help Provodnikov (23-2, 16 KOs) build his reputation as a rugged action fighter and move him forward to bigger things. The hype for this match -- hungry Russian tough guy against highly educated Long Island suburbanite -- feeds the perception Algieri is in over his head.
But Algieri has been fighting and beating that perception for a while now. In fact, Emanuel Taylor was in line for the role of "opponent" until Algieri gave the world-ranked fighter his first loss by unanimous decision on Valentine's Day in Huntington. Suddenly, the opportunity Algieri worked toward after abandoning his kickboxing career six years ago presented itself.
"That's why we're here," Algieri said recently. "A lot of insiders are starting to realize this is a real fight. They look past the numbers and the glamorized Ruslan Provodnikov and they see those things. Look at what I've been doing under the radar, and it makes for a compelling matchup."
The road Algieri traveled to reach this point is a product of his competitive drive and intellectual curiosity. Algieri, from Huntington, won a Catholic League state title wrestling for St. Anthony's at the same time he was excelling in martial arts and amateur kickboxing.
He became a professional full-contact kickboxer at age 19 while in college and won the ISKA world welterweight title barely five months after graduating from Stony Brook in 2007 with a degree in health care sciences. But given his lifelong passion for boxing and the lure of much bigger purses, Algieri switched sports even as he earned a master's degree in nutrition from NYIT in 2010 and became a certified nutritionist.
"Boxing is the best sport in the world," Algieri said. "For me to be able to compete at the highest level is a dream come true. This is my passion.
"Technically, boxing is much faster, three-minute rounds versus two-minute rounds. I can throw three or four punches in the time it takes to throw a single kick. It's been a transition for me. I don't miss kicking people. Kicking hurts shins, feet and toes."
Algieri scored knockouts in five of his first 10 fights, but as someone with an appreciation for health, he chose to become more of a boxer than a puncher.
"Coming from kickboxing, you don't jab at all," he said. "I developed my jab, and it made fights easier. Knockout punchers get hit more. You've got to take chances to score a knockout. I'd rather hit and not be hit. That's the 'Sweet Science,' and in this fight, that's the exact plan."
Provodnikov believes his pressure makes it tough for boxers to sustain their jabbing. His taste for combat was evident while losing a close unanimous decision to WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley in what was voted 2013's Fight of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America. Then he moved down to 140 pounds to take Mike Alvarado's WBO title by 10th-round TKO.
"Every fighter I fought, especially recently, their plan was to break my will," Algieri said. "Everyone's game plan is to get inside, push me, break me down and eventually run me over. This is another fight like that. He's going to bring it. The preparation we've had in the past -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
A big part of Algieri's preparation for his first title shot took place when he served as a sparring partner for former WBA lightweight champion Brandon Rios and former WBA welterweight champion Marcos Maidana. Last month, Maidana lost his title by a majority decision against Floyd Mayweather Jr. but gave the top pound-for-pound fighter a furious battle.
"They're both killer punchers, especially Maidana," Algieri said. "I worked a lot of rounds with those guys, and they don't stop coming forward ever. Every round with Maidana in sparring is a fight. You're not in there playing patty-cake. He's looking to knock you out. So being with a guy like that is a big confidence boost."
What lesson did Algieri learn from Rios and Maidana that he can take into the ring against Provodnikov?
"I belong with the best in the world," Algieri said. "That's what I learned."