Sunday, January 8, 2012

Devon the Not-so-Great

Eighteen months ago, there was hope that Devon Alexander would become one of the emerging, young stars of American boxing. Only 22, Alexander had already captured two titles, stopping durable guys like Junior Witter and Juan Urango. His picture-perfect left uppercut that finished Urango supplied the type of excitement that melted most cynical boxing fans. Could this kid from the tough streets of St. Louis actually be the real thing?

Time has been less kind to Alexander. He survived a tougher-than-expected contest against Andriy Kotelnyk. Alexander built an early lead with his technical boxing skills and ring generalship but Kotelnyk won many of the final rounds with his crisp right hands. More than a few thought Alexander lost the fight. The match was also the first demonstration of Alexander's defensive shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the win set the stage for a showdown against two-time junior welterweight champion Tim Bradley. There had already been animosity between the two; Bradley gave up a belt earlier in his career instead of facing the lesser-known Alexander. HBO invested millions of dollars for the fight and it was supposed to be the centerpiece match of its early 2011 programming. During the huge build-up to the fight, Alexander's trainer, Kevin Cunningham, was all over the internet lambasting Bradley.

Finally, the fight arrived – and it was a dud. It was a failure at the box office, with only a few thousand turning out for a fight in January at a dilapidated football stadium in Detroit. Alexander looked so passive in the ring. He was uncomfortable with Bradley's pressure and refused to let his hands go. In theory, he had the perfect weapon against Bradley, the left uppercut, but he wouldn't throw it, even with impassioned pleas from Cunningham. The bout featured a plethora of head butts and when a second cut opened up over Alexander's eye in the 10th round, he claimed he couldn't see. The referee stopped the fight and Alexander lost an anti-climactic technical decision.

Alexander was excoriated in the media for his performance in the ring and the manner for which the fight ended. In addition, Cunningham was flustered with Alexander's unwillingness to throw his uppercut. This time, Cunningham didn't offer any excuses for Alexander's subpar performance. (After the Kotelnyk bout, he blamed the pressures and obligations that Alexander faced with fighting at home for his boxer's sluggishness during the last part of the bout.)

Thanks to a deal negotiated with HBO, Alexander was guaranteed a return fight on the network. The tough Argentine, Lucas Matthysse, was selected as his opponent. With Matthysse, HBO clearly was not babying Alexander. They essentially said, "If you're the next big thing at junior welterweight, prove it."

In my opinion, Matthysse dominated Alexander in the ten-round fight, with his intelligent pressure, stinging right hands and sharp body punches. Matthysse also knocked Alexander down in the fourth – the first time Alexander hit the canvas in his career. I scored the fight 97-92, or seven rounds to three with the knockdown. One of the judges scored the fight similarly, while two had Alexander winning. Somehow, one judge gave Alexander seven rounds in the fight, an absolutely ludicrous scorecard.

Alexander may have won the fight but he didn't acquire any additional career momentum. Next month, a full eight months after his last match, he faces hard-punching Marcos Maidana. It will be Alexander's first time at welterweight in over four years and it perhaps may be for a vacant title. It's also his first fight under the Golden Boy promotional banner.

Maidana is the perfect opponent for a fighter in need of career resuscitation. Golden Boy was also kind enough to place the fight in St. Louis, where Alexander will get yet another opportunity to impress the judges with his home crowd's intensity. Think of this bout as the first of a two-fight package. Barring an early KO loss, Alexander will be in an exciting fight. He'll be able to hit Maidana. Hell, you and I can hit Maidana. With his performance, win or lose, he'll most likely get another assignment on a premium cable network. This is an example of great matchmaking from Golden Boy, but the question must be asked: Is Alexander worth it?

Reviewing his career, perhaps we should look at his early victories from a different perspective. Neither Witter nor Urango had a significant victory after their fights with Alexander (Urango has yet to fight again). Perhaps Alexander caught two veterans on the downsides of their career. Kotelnyk, who was soundly beaten by Amir Khan prior to facing Alexander, has also not fought since his match with Alexander and has talked about retirement.

Those were the three best wins of Alexander's career and, with hindsight, they can all be viewed with some question marks. From the outside, it looks like Alexander was the beneficiary of perfect timing, facing older fighters whose hearts weren't really in the sport anymore.

But, what about Alexander's heart and desire? To this point, he has seemed uncomfortable with the big stage. In an odd twist, the majority of Alexander's correspondence with the media is transmitted via Cunningham, who serves as Alexander's mentor and watchdog, as well as his trainer. It's strange for a fighter to duck behind his trainer as much as Alexander does. Additionally, Alexander hasn't matched his best opponents' intensity in the ring (Bradley and Matthysse) and has been disturbed by fighters that apply any type of effective, sustained pressure. 

In short, Alexander has not convinced me that he has the requisite maturity in the ring to defeat elite opponents. In his biggest fight against Bradley, he seemed like a scared kid against a more experience fighter who systematically executed his game plan. Alexander shrunk from his big moment.

To this point, Alexander's prominence in the sport has been built off of the backs of older fighters looking for one last, big payday and some inexperienced judges who gave Alexander the benefit of the doubt in hometown matchups. Obviously, that won't be enough to sustain a career.

Maidana will be Alexander's judgment day. Alexander will be forced to enter the lion's den and fight for his survival. Although Matthysse had substantial power, he lacked Maidana's sustained ferocity and concussive punching ability.

The beauty of boxing is that one fight, one moment or one punch can change everything. If Alexander can put together a solid performance against Maidana, he places himself in a great position in boxing's marquee division. However, I'm not convinced that he has the passion, fire or maturity to tame the beast, and the beast is certainly coming for him.

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