Alexander on the brink of stardom

Thu, 27 Jan 10:31:00 2011

There was the photo opportunity at City Hall with the mayor. There was the 30-minute documentary television program. There was the first pitch at the St. Louis Cardinals’ game. There were the dozens upon dozens of interviews.

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There was the hero’s welcome. There was the hope of delivering a birthday present to his Mom. There was the super fight hanging in the balance.

There were the crushing, almost overwhelming, expectations.

It wouldn’t be enough for Devon Alexander, hometown hero and unbeaten world champion, just to defeat Andriy Kotelnik. He needed to live up to the hype and adulation that surrounded him as he prepared to defend his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation super lightweight belts against Kotelnik, an Olympic silver medallist and, himself, a former world champion, on August 7 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

For a humble, unassuming 23-year-old man who prefers the peace and tranquillity of a night at home with his family over the glitz and glamour of a night on the town, it was a bit much.

“I wanted to impress the crowd, my family members, my Mom,” Alexander said following a training session at the Barry Boxing Center. “It was her birthday. I had a big thing at City Hall. Everybody was rooting for me. I never experienced anything like it in my whole life.

“I’m just a kid who came up from nothing to something so big, you want to impress everybody. You want to live up to the expectations everyone has. It did kind of overwhelm me. I didn’t follow the game plan and I was rushing. I wanted to get the crowd all riled up and screaming and give them the best performance I could.”

By his own admission, he was “OK. Just OK.” It was a tougher than expected bout and, even though Alexander won, Kotelnik left believing he’d been robbed and many fans that hadn’t seen Alexander fight before were wondering how this young kid could be so hyped and audacious enough to call himself “The Great.”

Even if it wasn’t his best effort – though he threw 350 more punches than Kotelnik, Alexander was outlanded by 23 – he still won going away. All three judges scored it 116-112, giving Alexander eight of the 12 rounds.

If that was a bad performance against an Olympic medallist and ex-world champion, Alexander’s trainer, Kevin Cunningham, would hate to see a good one.

“I don’t know where all that was coming from,” Cunningham said of the notion that Alexander somehow struggled against Kotelnik. “What do they want the man to do?”

The Kotelnik fight did what it was supposed to do, however. Alexander attended the post-fight news conference with a t-shirt laid in front of him that read, “Bradley U Next.”

The winner of Saturday's bout pitting Alexander and Timothy Bradley will clearly be recognised as the top man in the deep 140-pound division, which is saying something considering the division includes the likes of Amir Khan, Marcos Maidana, Victor Ortiz and Zab Judah, among many others.

If Alexander was bothered by the pressure of fighting in his hometown in front of friends, family and an adoring crowd, it only seems logical that the pressure would be tenfold in such a significant fight against a talented and hard-nosed opponent like Bradley.

Alexander, though, said things are different this time around. He’s not worried about pleasing anyone and he’s learned plenty about dealing with expectations.

He spent nearly three months in Las Vegas preparing and was away from his children on Christmas Day, with the idea being to be as ready as possible for the battle on Saturday.

“That last fight, people were putting me up high, on this great big pedestal, and that was the first time I ever had to deal with anything like that,” Alexander said. “I’m glad I went through that experience in that fight, instead of the Bradley fight.

“I learned a lot about how to handle all that the last time. Now, I don’t have to worry about it. All I’m worrying about is beating Timothy Bradley.”

There have been reports that the fight isn’t selling many tickets and clearly, neither man is a big draw yet. Alexander, though, isn’t concerned.

As promoter Don King pointed out, those who are concerned about the ticket sales are doing boxing fans a disservice. This is a fight that the boxing media demanded for about a year.

When it was finally made, most of the attention has been on the ticket sales and why the fight is in Detroit when neither fighter has a tie to the area.

“These two undefeated American world champions (are) going into the high-risk zone (where) the greater the risk the greater the reward,” King said. “They both have something to lose, but they both have something to gain, showing in this sport that the best fight the best. That’s how you get the acclaim of a Muhammad Ali, a Joe Frazier, a Roberto Duran, a Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Leonard. Those are the ones who come in there and fight the best. We have an opportunity to establish the heroes in boxing by claiming ‘I am the best.’ Saying and doing, talking the talk and walking the walk.

“We then need to put these fighters on, and you know we lost terrestrial television, the ABC Wide World of Sports and CBS Sports and NBC colour, where the community could be involved in whatever area of the country that fighter was in. To be able to see them every Saturday or Sunday and then the super fight is an extravaganza. Here, you have an extravaganza of the two top junior welterweights in the world, undefeated, fighting each other. It plants the seed and restores boxing to its rightful place.”

Bradley is the more accomplished right now, based upon a slightly better calibre of opponent. He’s ranked eighth in the current Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings. Alexander is not yet ranked, but knows he’d likely vault into the Top 10 with a win.

And Alexander’s advantage, like the advantage that Manny Pacquiao has over most opponents and like Floyd Mayweather Jr. has had throughout his career, is blinding speed and unreal quickness.

Alexander can let three or four punches go and then dance out of danger before an opponent has time to react.

“Bradley’s been a more consistent fighter, but this fight is so close and so tough, that I might go toward Devon because of that speed,” Hall of Fame trainer and HBO Boxing analyst Emanuel Steward said. “I know the last fight, a lot of people are talking about maybe he didn’t look that good, but in the fight before he fought Sonny Liston (for the heavyweight championship) the first time, Cassius Clay fought a real close fight with Doug Jones.

“Everyone was convinced Liston was going to kill him, particularly after they saw that fight with Jones. But that speed was such a difference (between Clay and Liston) and I think if there is anything you can look at in this fight to separate these two guys, it’s their speed.”

Former undisputed welterweight champion Cory Spinks, who was a teammate of Alexander’s growing up in the Hyde Park Boxing Club in St. Louis, said the Bradley fight is coming at the perfect time of Alexander’s career.

Like Steward, Spinks believes Alexander’s speed will be an advantage, but he believes that Alexander’s will, desire and motivation will ultimately be the difference.

“Devon isn’t going to be bothered by facing a tough guy, because he’s been facing tough, nasty guys since he was 7 or 8 years old,” Spinks said. “That’s something he is used to. He’s not scared of anyone and he was born to do this. He learned from the environment he grew up in and the gym he learned how to box in to not fear anyone.

“He’s ready for this moment. I know Bradley is an excellent fighter, but I know what Devon has gone through, not just in this training camp, but throughout all the years. He’s put in the work to get to this point and I think this is his time to shine. There is a time in a guy’s life when he steps up and shows he’s the best and I think Devon is going to do that.”

Alexander’s older brother, Lamar, is now one of his trainers, but was once a highly regarded prospect himself. He quit boxing on the day in 2004 when he was supposed to fight on the same card as his brothers, Devon and Vaughn. The day of the fight, the brothers received a call that their father, Lamar “Chico” Alexander, had lost his battle with cancer.

Lamar Jr. couldn’t fight that night, and he couldn’t fight any more. He retired on the spot with a 9-1 pro record. But Devon fought on and won his fight that night, and has compiled a record of 21-0 with 13 knockouts.

He stands on the precipice of greatness and Lamar Alexander expects his brother to cross that threshold on Saturday.

“Devon was always determined to be the best from the first time he fought,” his brother said. “But my Dad, when he called us into the room and he told us that his body was filled with cancer, since that day, Devon has been on a mission. He wants to be the best in the world to honour my father.

“He’s worked and he’s sacrificed and he’s made himself into one of the best. He’s right there and knowing him the way I do, I think he’s going to bust out (on Saturday). I think you’re going to see things from him in this fight that are going to make you shake your head and go, ‘Wow. That guy is good.’ It’s his destiny.”

Kevin Iole / Yahoo

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