Let’s grant the wishes of promoters Don King and Gary Shaw and set aside chatter about the marketing and the business of Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander and talk about the fight. Because there’s plenty to talk about — this is the first big bout of the year, one of the most important bouts in boxing period and we could be discussing afterward how the winner is one of the five best boxers alive.
Saturday on HBO, two of the three men who stand atop the junior welterweight division — a division which, in and of itself, very nearly stands on top of the sport when it comes to talent and depth — will meet in Pontiac, Mich. in a bout that we’ve been talking about for years. For all the deserved criticism about the things Shaw and King don’t want us to mention, in a roundabout way this fight is what the business of boxing should be: It’s the best fighting the best. As the UFC has shown for mixed martial arts, that in and of itself is a great foundation for a combat sports business model.
Some of the conventional wisdom about the match-up hold that it might not be a very entertaining bout. I think it will be. While both Bradley and Alexander are more technicians than sluggers, they both have some mean in them. Look at the most exciting fights each of them produced: Bradley against Kendall Holt and Lamont Peterson, and Alexander against Juan Urango and Andriy Kotelnik. What did they share? Peterson, Urango and Kotelnik took it to ’em, and Bradley and Alexander proved they were the kind of guys who, when under duress, just fire back that much harder.
I like the chances of Bradley or Alexander driving the other nuts, then vice versa.
Bradley comes in as the #1 man, by virtue of a longer resume. He burst on to the scene with an upset of the highly-regarded Junior Witter, and also beat a similarly-regarded Holt. Outside of those wins, he’s also thrown in quality victories over Peterson and Nate Campbell, and has some good victories over Edner Cherry, Luis Carlos Abregu in a brief visit to 147 and a then-unknown Miguel Vazquez. That’s a long list of B+, B and C+ scalps for a 27-year-old.
Bradley’s game is solid across the board. He does most everything well. Physically his speed and conditioning are his biggest assets. Despite that ridiculous physique, he is a stern puncher more than a hard one. When he’s at his best, he’s a disciplined, varied offensive fighter capable of leading or countering with some herky-jerky tricks up his sleeve, like that deceptive overhand right or that counter left. Defensively, he disrupts his opponents with his jab, movement and glove positioning, and has good reflexes.
What really stands out about Bradley is his willpower. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t lose his composure, and responds to pressure by getting better and smarter. Combined with his enormous reserves of stamina, he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to disappear if you give him some static, and if you don’t give him enough of it, he’ll outwork and overpower you anyway.
That he has only fought once in more than a year is potentially damaging, though. And he’s shown a tendency to have issues with the kinds of things Alexander brings to the ring, which are thus:
Alexander is significantly taller and longer, no matter their measurements — just check out the pictures of them standing next to each other. Unless Alexander has lifts on and Bradley is going barefoot, there’s no way these two are their listed 5’7″ and 5’6″. Then, look at the difficulty Bradley had connecting on the defensively ungifted yet tall Abregu and the struggles he had with the also-tall Holt, and you begin to get an idea of why this matters. Holt’s speed also gave Bradley some issues, and Alexander is one of the fastest couple guys in the sport.
There are tactical things that hinge off this stuff, too. Alexander is the straighter, crisper puncher, whereas Bradley every couple fights gets stupid sloppy. With Alexander demonstrating a nasty uppercut against Urango, and with Holt decking Bradley with an uppercut in the 12th round, you can see how Bradley’s tendency to reach against a bigger opponent could be fatal. That Urango win put Alexander on the big map, but he was a nice-sized blip after beating Witter more impressively than Bradley did, another potential edge for Alexander unless you consider the version of Witter he beat to be inferior to the version Bradley beat, which would be fair.
At age 23, Alexander does have significantly less experience than Bradley. Aside from the Urango and Witter wins, there’s the Andriy Kotelnik win that was, at minimum, a good deal closer than the 116-112 scorecards would indicate. Kotelnik’s solid overall boxing ability — defense, timing, in particular — thrust Alexander on the brink of losing his undefeated record. You can write that off to a learning experience with Alexander truly fighting in the spotlight for the first time (Alexander does and so do I, to an extent), but it put some dings on the perception that Alexander was one of the brightest young talents in the sport. Often, he seemed to just be trying to outwork Kotelnik, and it was moderately effective, but there were defensive lapses in there and an inability to deal with Kotelnik’s superior timing that pointed to vulnerabilities. It did give Alexander a chance to show that he would fight back when in trouble, though.
This is a predictable tack for me to take, but when things are fairly evenly matched as they are here, I tend to go with the boxer who is the sharper of the pair. That’s Alexander. I absolutely can see Bradley getting to Alexander mentally, because if somebody’s going to break in that way it ain’t going to be Bradley. The worst thing that could happen is if the bout ends prematurely because of Bradley’s grade-A battering ram of a noggin, but I think if this fight goes to a decision after 12 rounds or an unlikely knockout it’s Alexander most likely to emerge victorious.
In the end, regardless of the outcome, this fight really is what boxing should be about: Two talented guys who aren’t afraid to put their undefeated records on the line for the sake of proving who’s best. That they’re American with a personality (Bradley) or story (Alexander) that can sell means the winner could become a big name, especially if a showdown with the division’s #2 man, Amir Khan, awaits on the other side. You can knock the strange decision to put the fight in Pontiac, Mich. despite Alexander being a draw in St. Louis and Bradley hailing from California. You can knock how much money HBO spent on the fight and a potential sequel. You can rightfully wonder whether the style match-up will make for an exciting affair.
What you shouldn’t knock or wonder about is whether this fight is a good thing. It’s the best fighting the best, or very near it. You can ask for more, but at its core this battle is exactly what boxing needs to start 2011 off right.