Heroes Don’t Need Zeroes

It sounds ironic, but two fighters who aren’t huge draws will trade fists this Saturday in a nearly-deserted stadium for what could be one of the biggest prizes in boxing.

Unbeaten junior welterweights Timothy Bradley (26-0-0) and Devon Alexander (21-0-0), widely considered the top two fighters at 140 pounds on the planet, are dueling Jan. 29 in “The Super Fight” at the Pontiac Silverdome in suburban Detroit.

The stakes are high even though the ticket sales, rumored to be less than 1,000 last week for the bout at the newly reopened Silverdome, are not. The WBC and WBO belts are on the line. This is a bout between unbeaten American fighters in one of the deepest weight classes in boxing. OK, it’s not Tyson-Spinks, but it’s still a big fight for American boxing.

The winner also probably will have a date with Amir Khan to decide the lineal junior welterweight champion of the world, as Khan held off Marcos Maidana in December in the “semifinal” of what is shaping up to be an unofficial tournament at 140 pounds.

Or Bradley and Alexander could fight a quick rematch if this bout is a classic. The contract includes a rematch clause.

But there may be an even greater prize at stake.

“The winner is going to be a superstar,” Bradley said in a recent conference call with reporters.

Possibly. Both Bradley and Alexander have the in-ring credentials for superstardom. While neither packs nuclear knockout power, both are fast, multi-faceted fighters with high work rates and great fitness. They’re true pros at the relatively young ages of 27 (Bradley) and 23 (Alexander).

But there is the question of marketability. Bradley has been a weak fan draw in his last three fights, all which took place at the Agua Caliente Casino not far from his home in Palm Springs, Calif.

It remains one of the great oxymorons in boxing: Bradley is unbeaten, telegenic, outspoken while tip-toeing on the correct side of cocky and always gives maximum effort during his fights, yet he draws fans in his hometown about as well as limburger cheese left too long in the buffet line.

Alexander draws five-figure crowds in his native St. Louis but is not a marquee name elsewhere despite his flawless record.

But it’s still hard to imagine that the profile of the winner of this fight won’t escalate in the upcoming months. Boxing never has enjoyed more global appeal than today, but American fans remain parochial as hell – they want to root for their own as much or more as any country.

And there won’t be an active American fighter (sorry, Floyd, you’re not active) with stronger future credentials than either Alexander or Bradley after this fight. Unbeaten. Younger than 30. Telegenic. The king of the most stacked division in the sport. A definite top-10 pound-for-pound fighter. The potential of a mouthwatering rematch or showdown fight against Khan.

“This fight is just like the old days,” Alexander said. “It brings back a lot of the roots of boxing, and it means a lot to have two undefeated champions (in the ring).”

How can the winner lose?

But the loser could face a tougher path to commercial success, such as pay-per-view riches and name recognition, because he will lose something that receives far too much emphasis today in boxing – his zero.

Boxing media, fans and promoters – and even most fighters – have an unhealthy obsession with unbeaten records these days. Promoters and fighters duck and dodge certain foes to safeguard their zeroes, with Floyd Mayweather often accused as one of the primary practitioners of this protectionist scheme.

Joe Calzaghe also never received full credit for retiring at 46-0 at super middleweight because just two of his 46 bouts took place in the United States, where the top-flight competition usually comes for the big purses, Vegas casino bouts and big pay-per-view money. Calzaghe also was accused of staying in Europe against softer competition to protect his zero.

Top Rank boss Bob Arum continues to “marinate” unbeaten featherweights Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa instead of putting them in the ring against each other in what shapes up to be one of the three most desirable matchups available in boxing, the others being Pacquiao-Mayweather and Bradley-Alexander.

Whether Mayweather and Calzaghe are guilty as charged of protecting their records or not, it’s silly that boxing’s climate forces an unbeaten fighter into such a corner, playing rope-a-dope with a number.

As recently as 20 years ago, a fighter’s first loss wasn’t considered a career crossroads. Ali lost to Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” in a battle of unbeatens in 1971, yet his career turned out OK.

Joe Louis’ loss to Max Schmeling in 1936 didn’t end the “Brown Bomber’s” career. It only set up a titanic rematch and first-round demolition job by Louis.

The same can be said for Sugar Ray Leonard’s consecutive bouts against Roberto Duran in 1980, during which Leonard avenged his first loss with a TKO victory in the infamous “no mas” fight.

More recently, Khan has rebounded nicely from his shocking first-round knockout at the hands of Breidis Prescott in September 2008.

Bradley seems to understand his boxing world won’t shatter with a loss Jan. 29, an old-school approach. Alexander is much more possessive of his spotless record, mirroring what I think is the misguided conventional wisdom of the sweet science today. Especially if that loss comes in what Teddy Atlas likes to call “deep waters.” And the Bradley-Alexander fight definitely is being waged in the deep end of the pool.

“In the past, day-to-day, month-to-month, you think a little different,” Bradley said. “Last year I was asked what I wanted for 2010, and I said I wanted to remain undefeated. This year, I just want the best fights. The zero on my record doesn’t matter to me. My biggest goal in boxing is just to be remembered.”

Said Alexander: “My zero means a lot. It means that I have a perfect record, and I have been victorious every time. Work hard and train hard and do what I had to do my whole career. I want it to be like my name says: Alexander ‘The Great’ warrior. He was undefeated like the record say.”

The clashing philosophies about protecting their perfect records could be one of the few differences – other than Bradley’s orthodox and Alexander’s southpaw stances – in an otherwise too-close-to-call bout between fighters with similar styles, with superstardom possibly beckoning for the winner.

Paul Kelly can be reached at kellycny@gmail.com or on Twitter @pk500.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.