Remember when Devon Alexander was near the top of the world? You don’t have to think back too far. It wasn’t so long ago. Last year, there was a front-page New York Times story about him — unheard of for a boxer in this day and age — prior to his bout with Andriy Kotelnik. Things took a downward turn with that fight, when the majority of people who watched the bout believe that Alexander didn’t deserve the decision win. But still, he scored a coveted big-money bout against the world’s #1 junior welterweight Timothy Bradley, and both men were guaranteed return bouts on HBO, win or lose. Things hit pretty close to rock bottom with that fight. Alexander fought poorly, and reluctantly, in a bout that oddly ended up in the Pontiac Silverdome and sold very few tickets. The ugly bout came to a conclusion with Alexander appearing to beg out of fighting after a head butt, only to seemingly abandon the histrionics moments after the referee signaled that judges should hand in their scorecards.
Saturday comes that HBO return bout for Alexander, and it’s no easy bounce-back fight. The original idea was to face Marcos Maidana, but in Lucas Matthysse, Alexander might be going to war with the more dangerous of the two Argentinian power punchers. Maidana struggled with crafty veteran DeMarcus Corley, and arguably didn’t deserve the decision win. Matthysse demolished Corley, knocking him down eight times. Some also thought Matthysse beat Zab Judah in a close fight, and between rounds Matthysse complained to his corner about cramping up, so it’s reasonable to wonder whether we have yet to see the best of Matthysse.
That Alexander and his team took this difficult opponent — even if HBO had some role in making sure Alexander was in tough — speaks to the likelihood that they still believe in Alexander “The Great.” Devon has said this will be the first of 20 wins in a row for him. You’d like to believe him, since he could be good for the sport: He’s got an interesting story of being one of the few people at his boxing gym to be alive or out of jail; he’s a talented black fighter from America; he’s a ticketseller in St. Louis, one of the few American ticketsellers out there. But if he doesn’t get back to his former glory Saturday night, Matthysse could establish himself as the rising talent in the division.
It’s hard to say how Alexander went wrong. Against Junior Witter and Juan Urango, he was a crisp puncher with a good jab and sharp overall technique. He didn’t knock out Urango with power — he knocked him out because he landed such a flush, well-timed shot. Against Kotelnik, he appeared overeager and nervous and got outboxed a good deal. At least he threw a ton of punches, though, which helped him win the fight. Against Bradley, he hardly did a thing, and what he did looked sloppy and slappy with his punches.
At his best, Alexander owns one of the fastest pairs of hands in the sport, stays busy and avoids getting caught with much in return. But mentally, he’s on a two-fight slide. I’m not of the mind he was never any good. He had beaten all the trial horses, beaten a pair of top-10 caliber 140-pounders with ease, knocked out a man who’d never been knocked out and was legitimately the #2 or no worse than #3 junior welterweight. I just think he’s lost his way.
Matthysse isn’t the kind of opponent for Alexander who’s going to give him much slack mentally. Matthysse hits hard. He doesn’t flat knock people cold, but he decked and/or repeatedly hurt the two best opponents he faced, Judah and Corley. He’s fairly basic on offense, but he uses what he has well. He has a straight right and a left hook that he fires to the head and body, and he’ll vary up what he does and when, like when he’ll double up the left hook to the noggin and midsection. He’s not bad on defense, either, for a big puncher.
Where he’s vulnerable is that he’s not the fastest guy out there, although he’s not actively slow, either. And because he’s basic, he can be outboxed. Judah did it for long stretches, although Matthysse was either unwisely inactive early or he truly was experiencing cramps.
I think this fight boils down to a couple things. Is Alexander’s head in this? If it is, and he has regained his focus, he has the tools to outbox the Matthysse we saw against both Judah and Corley. He’ll also need to have his heart in the right place, because Matthysse will test it.
But there’s another variable I wonder about, too. Even though Alexander is the younger of the two fighters — age 24, to Matthysse’s age 28 — Matthysse is the less experienced fighter against top-notch opponents. There’s a chance he’ll keep getting better, and that he’ll spring a surprise on us Saturday night that shows he’s advanced his skill set. If an improved Matthysse shows up, it’s a wild card.
I’ve gone back and forth on this fight all week. I’m at the point where my head says, “Matthysse.” But a part of me wants to believe in Alexander. I do like the kid, and Alexander at his best is my kind of fighter. I’m picking him by decision Saturday, although what kind of decision, I cannot guess. This is a faith pick in a toss-up fight. Hopefully, Alexander is back to believing in himself.