CARSON, Calif. -- Timothy Bradley went down in the first round and again in the last, getting battered in every corner of the chilly outdoor ring by an unheralded Russian opponent with none of Manny Pacquiao's reputation or esteem.
Bradley absorbed every shot and countered nearly every blow with punishment of his own, fighting on wobbly legs to a victory that should boost his reputation and career in a way that beating Pacquiao never did.
Bradley overcame an early round thrashing and a last-minute knockdown to win a narrow unanimous decision over Ruslan Provodnikov on Saturday night, defending his WBO welterweight belt in dramatic style.
With steam rising from his shaved head on a frigid Southern California night, Bradley (30-0) barely survived a thriller with the Freddie Roach-trained Provodnikov (22-2) in the champion's first bout since winning a much-debated split decision over Pacquiao last June.
Few fans believed that verdict - but nobody could doubt Bradley's heart now.
"I gave it everything I had," Bradley said. "Every ounce I had, I gave."
Bradley appeared to be out on his feet at times the opening two rounds against his Russian challenger, even tumbling to the canvas in a first-round fall that was ruled an accidental slip. Bradley then was forced to take a knee with 10 seconds left in the 12th round after one last barrage from Provodnikov.
But Bradley also punished Provodnikov with multiple shots all night, causing huge cuts and swelling on the face of the "Siberian Rocky," who excelled in the biggest fight of his career.
Judges Marty Denkin and Jerry Cantu scored the bout 114-113 for Bradley, and Raul Caiz Sr. favored Bradley 115-112. The Associated Press also scored it 114-113 for Bradley on the strength of his middle-round dominance.
"He's much more powerful than Pacquiao," Bradley said. "He hits harder, and has shorter punches. He's a great puncher, and I take my hat off to him."
Bradley guessed he might have a concussion after absorbing dozens of big shots from Provodnikov, who pressed the action all night. Roach thought the ruling on Bradley's fall in the first round probably cost Provodnikov the decision, but praised both fighters' gutsy performances.
Provodnikov eagerly accepted this title shot after Cuba's Yuriorkis Gamboa turned it down. The aggressive Russian has been a sparring partner for Pacquiao at Roach's Wild Card Gym, but had never faced a fighter with Bradley's accomplishments.
"I was the clear winner," Provodnikov said through a translator. "I hurt him. I knocked him down. I don't know what else to do."
Bradley's tenacity and resourcefulness could redefine a fighter who got no credit for beating Pacquiao, the former pound-for-pound champion and global superstar. Few observers agreed with the two judges' decisive ruling in Las Vegas, and Bradley couldn't land a rematch with the Filipino congressman.
After beating Provodnikov with remarkable style, Bradley even might have won over his own promoter, Bob Arum.
"This is how the old-timers used to fight," said Arum, who ripped the Pacquiao decision last year. "You used to see these fights in the `50s and the `60s all the time. It's not only winning a fight in boxing. You have to be an attraction."
Bradley had a reputation as a headfirst, unexciting fighter with little power after stopping just one of his previous 11 opponents, but few decision victories in recent boxing history have been more spellbinding than the 12 rounds fought by Bradley and Provodnikov.
"He's going to be a world champion someday," Bradley said. "He's a very strong puncher because he steps into his punches and he hits really hard. It was a really difficult fight. I want to show him by those exchanges that I wasn't afraid of him. That's why I kept trading with him. I didn't want to show any fear. I can brawl and box with anyone."
The pro-Bradley crowd south of downtown Los Angeles was stunned when Provodnikov repeatedly rocked the champion in the first two rounds, leaving Bradley woozy and uncertain on his feet while the Russian whaled on him. Bradley didn't lose a point when he fell to the canvas in the first round in what appeared to be a knockdown missed by referee Pat Russell - and the champion appeared to be senseless on his feet again while Provodnikov pounded him into the ropes late in the second round.
"It was a very close fight," Roach said. "Bradley had some good rounds also, but I thought we had at least three 10-8 rounds in there. I can't complain about a close loss, but I felt that we had bigger punches."
Bradley finally got his legs in the third round and began fighting with more strategy and caution. It all disappeared again in the final minute of the sixth round, when Provodnikov tempted Bradley into a vicious brawl featuring dozens of punches with both hands from both fighters, leaving Bradley defiantly spitting blood while yelling at Provodnikov after the bell.
Provodnikov again attempted to force the action, but Bradley backpedaled and picked him apart, causing cuts and swelling across his face. Bradley opened a serious cut near Provodnikov's left eye, leaving the challenger apparently fighting on will.
But Provodnikov rallied for one last assault in the 12th round, and Bradley repeatedly staggered backward and bounced off the ropes. With Provodnikov desperately pressing forward, Bradley bent down and took a knee while the clapper sounded for the final 10 seconds of the round, allowing Bradley to barely make it to the bell.
"I'm just really proud of my guy right now," Roach said. "He's crying in the dressing room. I told him, `Go ahead, cry. At least you care.' I think he made himself a star in America and Russia tonight. People like fights like that. I know I do."
Earlier, welterweight Jessie Vargas (22-0) recovered from an early knockdown and won a unanimous decision over Wale Omotoso (23-1) in an entertaining undercard bout at the Home Depot Center.