Devon Alexander was the talk of the boxing world after his knockout victories over Junior Witter and Juan Urango in 2009 and last year. He had talent, a perfect record and a compelling rags-to-riches back story.
The sky was the limit for the product of St. Louis, which warmly embraced its favorite son.
Then things began to go awry. Alexander struggled against capable Andreas Kotelnik in August, winning a disputed unanimous decision in his hometown. And, in January, he lost a 10-round technical decision against Tim Bradley in which he didn’t look good.
Suddenly, a rising star was battling to remain relevant. That’s why his fight against hard-punching Lucas Matthysse on Saturday in St. Charles is pivotal for him.
If he wins, he remains a major player in a deep 140-pound division. If he loses, well, it’s hard to explain away a controversial decision and consecutive losses.
“I am going to look spectacular,” Alexander said on a recent conference call. “I learned from the loss against Bradley. I want to beat [Matthysse] and beat him convincingly, not just go in there and it be an OK fight.
“I want to say, ‘OK, I lost the Bradley fight but now I am back on top’ and be one of the best in the division.’”
The fact that Alexander had trouble with Kotelnik is no disgrace. The tough, skillful Ukrainian is a very good fighter.
And his performance certainly didn’t harm his career: He landed a seven-figure payday to fight Bradley in a title-unification bout between what some believed were the two best junior welterweights in the world.
The fight turned out to be a colossal disappointment. Bradley won a unanimous decision in a bout marred by recurring head butts, the last which ended matters.
Neither the nine-plus rounds nor the ending did much for Alexander’s reputation. Bradley controlled the fight, forcing his opponent to fight inside and landing the cleaner, harder punches.
At least that’s how the judges appeared to see it. They scored it 97-93, 96-95 and 98-93, a clear victory for Bradley.
“If that's the best in the world, that's weak,” Bradley said of Alexander.
The fight was stopped by ringside physician Dr. Peter Samet, who worried that Alexander might have nerve damage in his eye after he was unable to open it upon instruction.
One can’t be too hard on Alexander under those circumstances. However, two minutes later, during the post-fight interview, his eye seemed to be fine. That left some wonder about his desire to continue with the fight.
In that moment, he was no longer a bright, young star. He was more like a flickering match with the wind picking up.
Alexander blamed his performance on straying from the game plan, fighting Bradley’s fight. And the criticism afterward? Just part of the deal.
“People want to criticize everything you do,” he said. “People criticize Pacquiao, Mayweather or Obama, everyone that is at the top of their game. It’s part of the territory. I didn’t read anything after the fight. I just stayed to myself. I knew there was going to be criticism. I just stayed away from it and blocked it all out.
“I know what I’m capable of doing in the ring and it only motivated me to get back in the gym and get back on top. So it didn’t affect me at all.”
So confident are Alexander and handlers that his performance was an aberration that they picked one of the most-dangerous 140-pounders as his comeback opponent.
Matthysse (28-1, 26 knockouts) probably doesn’t have the skills or athleticism of Alexander (21-1, 13 KOs) but he has tremendous punching power and is extremely tough.
Fighting the Argentine is a significant gamble.
“We know exactly the challenge we have in front of us and this is exactly what we want,” said Kevin Cunningham, Alexander’s trainer and manager. “This fight is a lot more dangerous than the Tim Bradley fight. Devon has to be on his game. He is prepared and he has to be focused.
“These are the type of fights that if you want to claim you are the best in your division, … you need to take on.”
Alexander’s career is on the line.