Devon Alexander's last two fights may have exposed a possible flaw in an otherwise perfectly-skilled boxing machine: He has trouble handling adversity. That may seem an outlandish thing to say about a fighter who overcame an incredibly nightmarish childhood to become a world champion. But after he struggled to eke out a lackluster victory over Andriy Kotelnik, and then lost his cool in a first career loss to Tim Bradley, it's a legitimate question. Alexander is looking to bounce back on June 25 against power puncher Lucas Matthysse, who carries instant adversity in both hands.
Few saw any flaws in Alexander as he cruised his way through his first 19 fights, all victories. Having had an illustrious amateur career in which he won 300 times with only 10 losses, Alexander was looking like the next big star on the horizon until he ran into Kotelnik, a former champion with a variety of skills and tricks. Kotelnik seemed to befuddle Alexander, and he abandoned both his game plan and usually solid defense. Alexander won a unanimous decision, 116-112, on all three scorecards, but many felt Kotelnik had done enough to win and was victimized by a home-town decision.
Bradley didn't have anywhere near the skill set of Kotelnik, but his constant pressure and habit of leading with his head clearly shook up Alexander. Three times over the first nine rounds, Bradley's head-lunging inflicted cuts, at least one that was major. As he did with Kotelnik, Alexander tossed his game plan and eventually lost a technical decision in the 10th round after another vicious butt gouged his brow. The ring physician examined Alexander and deemed him unable to continue. Some say Alexander flat-out quit. That is open to debate, with the answer known only by Alexander, but one unavoidable conclusion is that again Alexander seemed to get flustered. Even his trainer, Kevin Cunningham, doesn't deny that.
"After the third-round head butt, which was down to the bone, it mentally took him out of the fight," Cunningham says. "Devon has had small cuts before, but this was a bad one. You could stick your finger in it. With Bradley continually lunging with his head, Devon's focus become on avoiding head butts, not his game plan, which was to expose our opponent's weaknesses. Kevin just failed to execute."
Matthysse (28-1, 26 KOs) has a bunch of flaws, including mediocre footwork, lack of variety in punches and a less-than-stellar defense. But Matthysse does two things that could force Alexander (21-1, 13 KOs) to come unglued: He he hits with the kick of a mule and constantly applies pressure. Cunningham rejects the idea that his young fighter unravels when the going gets tough. "He has no problems with adversity," Cunningham says. "And bear in mind he don't fight no cupcakes. Name me one junior welterweight with a better resume than Devon. He went straight from Junior Witter to Urango to Kotelnik and then Bradley."
Taking on Matthysse with his 26 knockouts in 28 victories, certainly isn't an easier task. In fact, Cunningham says, "This fight is more dangerous than Bradley, because Bradley did not have the knockout punch Matthysse has. After Bradley, we wanted to come back against the best guy we could, and we got the biggest puncher at 140 pounds." Matthysse could also easily be undefeated; his only loss a split decision to Zab Judah, in which one point separated them on all three scorecards.
To get Alexander re-focused, Cunningham took him to train in the high altitude of Colorado Springs, 8,500 feet above sea level. In camp the trainer did not concentrate on exploiting opponent's flaws. His prime task was to get Alexander back to boxing like he is capable of. "He knows this time he has to go out and take care of business," Cunningham says. "He has more talent in one hand that Matthysse has in his whole body. Matthysse doesn't have any defense; he doesn't even move his head. Kevin wants to show he is the fighter everyone thought he was. We look at the loss to Bradley as being similar to the first Leonard-Duran fight. Duran got into Leonard's head, and [he] didn't fight to his abilities."
One punch from Matthysse could get into Alexander's head, too. If that happens, he will have to prove once more he can overcome adversity in order to regain lost stature.
TAVORIS CLOUD-YUSAF MACK
In the co-feature, unbeaten Cloud (22-0, 18 KOs) takes on rugged veteran Yusaf Mack (29-3-2, 17 KOs). Cloud only started boxing in 2004, and while he holds one of the belts in the light heavyweight division, he has yet to lure the kind of opponent for which a victory could elevate him to star status. So far, his best foe has been Glen Johnson. Mack is a solid opponent but he is not Bernard Hopkins, Chad Dawson or Jean Pascal -- targets Cloud covets. Those fights will come, but not if he doesn't take care of business with Mack.
BERMANE STIVERNE-RAY AUSTIN
Stiverne (20-1, 19 KOs) is a late blooming heavyweight prospect with devastating punching power. The Haitian-born Canadian started boxing at 27, but is being mentioned as a possible opponent for Wladimir Klitschko. The 40-year-old Austin (28-5-4, 18 KOs) was knocked out in two rounds by Klitschko in 2007 and then disqualified in his last fight against heavyweight contender and Olympic gold medalist Odlanier Solis. The main thing the aging Austin has going for him is a big edge in experience. Stiverne needs to show he can put away a trial horse like Austin if he is to move closer to a title challenge.