(Photo credit: Bob Barton, DKP)
In Saturday night’s HBO doubleheader, Devon Alexander-Andriy Kotelnik is about a fighter — Alexander — while Tavoris Cloud-Glen Johnson is about a fight. Alexander is a can’t-miss talent with physical gifts and wonderful skills, while Cloud-Johnson is a can’t-miss battle between two educated volume punchers near the top of their division.
The script could flip around some, of course. Alexander-Kotelnik could end up being a solid junior welterweight scrap, and if the light heavyweight Cloud puts on a great performance, he could join the ranks of up-and-coming Americans that Alexander already inhabits. And, not to discount either Kotelnik or Johnson, both would be thrust into the spotlight by upsetting the favored youngsters, the way middleweight Dmitry Pirog is suddenly a hot commodity for knocking out Daniel Jacobs last weekend.
That’s not to say this card is ideal: Alexander is the hungriest boxer in the game right now, willing to fight anyone, but the best opponent he could lure into the ring was Kotelnik, a borderline top-10 140-pounder; Johnson, at age 41, is a bit past his best days and might be cruising for a sad beatdown. But let’s say things go chalk. We would have the Fight of the Year in Cloud-Johnson, with Cloud advancing to a possible fight with Chad Dawson in a long-anticipated match-up of prime 175-pounders (if Dawson wins his fight NEXT weekend), and Alexander emerging unscathed against Kotelnik to tee up one of the best few fights in boxing, against Timothy Bradley in January.
DEVON ALEXANDER-ANDRIY KOTELNIK
Kotelnik didn’t make a good impression the last time we saw him in July of 2009, on the receiving end of a one-sided shellacking from a nearly fully-realized Amir Khan. Some of that had to do with Khan’s height and reach. Some of it had to do with Khan’s vastly superior speed. Some of it had to do with flaws in Kotelnik’s style. But Kotelnik is an accomplished boxer who, until that bout, had not cleanly lost a fight in close battles against four top-10 junior welterweights, which includes a win over Marcos Maidana.
Alexander did make a good impression the last time we saw him in March of this year, becoming the first person to knock out hard-headed Juan Urango, decking him with a ridiculously pretty uppercut that literally lifted Urango off the canvas then finishing him off when he got back up. And, after encountering some criticism that his fights are occasionally boring, Alexander did it by going right at Urango. But some saw vulnerabilities in Alexander — certainly, Urango was catching up to him in the fight prior to the knockout, and some at ringside scored the bout pretty even until its sudden conclusion.
Alexander and Kotelnik are both 5’7″. That’s about as much mystery as one can find in how this one is going to play out: Kotelnik has been good in the past against top-notch junior welters, Alexander had a touch of trouble in his last fight, and at least Alexander doesn’t tower over Kotelnik.
This might the easiest HBO main event to call all year, with Bradley-Luis Carlos Abregu the only real contender. Again, I can’t blame Alexander. The kid is dying inside for a big fight. He’s a 23-year-old in a hurry. He’s led a fascinating life, the subject of a special entitled “Gateway to Greatness: The Devon Alexander Story” that will air on Fox Sports Midwest at 7:30 p.m. CT Thursday (and that’s produced by friend of the site Bigmaxy; for more info on air times and such, go here). He couldn’t get the fight he wanted, so he’s taking the most viable opponent available. It gives him a chance to keep building his name — all week long, to generate attention, Don King’s had him hanging out with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, etc. and obviously there’s a billboard with his name on it in a prominent spot near the Mississippi in the Lou. He’s quickly become one of my favorites, and if you look at the top junior welters these days — Khan, Bradley, Maidana, Alexander — Alexander is the one who’s had the tougher strength of schedule in 2010.
But Kotelnik is lava running down a volcano where Alexander is the explosion that kicks things off. Slow vs. fast doesn’t usually go real well for slow unless slow has a big punch or something else in his back pocket, and Kotelnik doesn’t have that. Yes, Kotelnik’s technically very sound, with a nice high guard, a good jab, a nice straight right, some compact hooks and counterpunching skill. He’s a tough guy with a good chin. But unless Kotelnik has completely overhauled his game at age 32, his style — block block block, then punch back — is a nice fat rodent jogging across a stretch of desert with a hawk hovering overhead, that hawk being Alexander. Alexander will be able to get in and out at will. Alexander’s reflexes and Kotelnik’s slowness means that even if he stands in front of Kotelnik, he’s probably going to dodge three out of four Kotelnik punches.
With Alexander making an effort to sit down on his punches and bring them in volume in his last two fights — before Urango, Alexander beat up Junior Witter, a younger version of whom Kotelnik lost to in a close bout — the last remaining question is whether Alexander becomes the first to stop Kotelnik. Maidana, a much bigger puncher than Alexander, couldn’t do much to hurt Kotelnik. But then, Urango had stood up to the punches of mega-puncher Randall Bailey prior to getting KO’d by Alexander.
Give me Alexander by unanimous decision in a surgical pounding.
TAVORIS CLOUD-GLEN JOHNSON
The only thing keeping me from fully embracing this fight is that I have a real soft spot for Johnson, and it makes me worry for his well-being. That’s a new sensation. Johnson throughout his career has grinded with the best of them, stalking forward, putting hard combos together, blocking most of the incoming and acting like he doesn’t feel the stuff that gets through. But he’s slowed down some. Two fights ago against Dawson, some suspected Dawson could have knocked out Johnson if he’d applied himself more in the clear decision victory, and Dawson doesn’t hit that hard. Johnson was sluggish early against Yusaf Mack in his last fight before turning on the jets and knocking him out.
It’s nothing against Cloud. He’s an exciting fighter who hits extremely hard, throws a ton of punches and is a pretty savvy technician, too — including on defense. The only thing you can really knock about him is that his management and/or career decisions have been hideous. Since 2008, he’s fought once each August and that’s it. There are other goofy moves in between, but geez, if you’re a nice talent with a fan-friendly style who can’t get big paydays because nobody’s ever heard of you, you’ve got to do better than three fights in three years. Maybe signing with King will cure that, but if you’ve followed King in recent years, you know he doesn’t keep his fighters in the ring every other month. The two wins he earned over the last two years are good ones, against aged but still-tough veterans Julio Cesar Gonzalez and Clinton Woods. But in the “aged but tough” genre, Johnson is well beyond those two men. He batters people with relentlessness.
That’s how it figures. How much does Johnson have left? And given that any version of Johnson is still Cloud’s toughest opponent, will he be too much for a potentially rusty Cloud?
Physically, Cloud has most every edge. He’s not exceptionally fast, but he’s faster than Johnson by quite a bit. Johnson hits hard, but he wears people down more than anything, and Cloud has a significant power advantage. Johnson slowing down isn’t just about speed — it’s about how many punches he throws, a key way he wears people down, while Cloud has big reservoirs of energy that allowed him to throw more than 1,100 punches in his decision against Woods. It’s not entirely one-sided here; Johnson’s chin is a long-established fact, while Cloud’s is a bit of an unknown, and Johnson tends to build up steam over a fight while Cloud has faded late in the past.
Mentally, Johnson has it over Cloud. It’s not that Cloud has revealed much mental weakness inside the ring, it’s just that he doesn’t have much of a track record and Johnson does. I don’t doubt Johnson’s willpower in any way — at 41, he still burns for another shot, and he probably knows that if he wants a belt and doesn’t win it off Cloud Saturday, another chance might not come. I do wonder about Cloud’s mental strength in one way. If Alexander is hungry to succeed, Cloud is practically a monk about it. He has to be talked into doing publicity for fights, and at the rate he gets in the ring, he hasn’t exactly shown he’s hungry to even fight at all. And while both have good boxing skills, Johnson knows more tricks of the trade.
Part of me thinks that the old man can pull it off, that Cloud might not be ready for the kind of heat Johnson can bring and that Johnson’s more intelligent punching might trump Cloud’s more voluminous punching. Another part of me thinks Johnson might get knocked out for the first time since facing Bernard Hopkins in 1997. Most of me, though, is thinking that if Cloud can’t KO no-defense Woods, he won’t KO the some-defense Johnson — but I have a hard time seeing how the slower (in speed and in work rate) Johnson doesn’t lose most rounds of this fight, maybe mustering a late rally that will amount to his career’s last hurrah. Cloud, by UD, is most likely.
[TQBR Prediction Game 3.0 is in effect. Don’t forget the rules.]