Familiar Ring: What must Devon Alexander "The Great" do to live up to his nickname?

Familiar Ring: What must Devon Alexander "The Great" do to live up to his nickname?
Jennifer Silverberg
Update: Devon Alexander defeated Marcos Maidana with a 10-round unanimous decision Saturday night at Scottrade Center. View a slideshow of the match here.

"Aaaaaaahhhhhrrrrr!" screams Devon Alexander. It is January 29, 2011, two minutes into the tenth round of the biggest fight of his career and, by his count, Tim Bradley has just headbutted him for the sixth time. This one was particularly painful.

The referee calls "time" and Alexander staggers into the neutral corner, grabs the ropes with both gloves and squats into a crouch, grimacing. Bradley has a reputation for being clumsy with his skull, and several times during the fight Alexander's trainer, Kevin Cunningham, called out to the ref to watch the headbutts.

The ringside physician climbs onto the canvas and looks at Alexander's face. Alexander squints.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

"Gotta open up your eyes," pleads Dr. Peter Samet.

Alexander takes a step backward and hops up and down a few times. Boos begin raining down from the Pontiac Silverdome stands.

This bout is one of the most hyped in years. It is the first time in nearly a quarter century that two undefeated American champions faced off to unify their belts. This morning, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell wrote, "A lot of people are comparing this championship fight to a potential redo of the slugfest between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns in 1985. But a better comparison might be the first Ray Leonard-Hearns battle."

The 27-year-old Bradley came into the fight as the 26-0 WBO light welterweight world champion, feared for both his Rottweiler tenacity and his awkward style. And Alexander, at 23, entered as the 20-0 WBC light welterweight world champion, christened as most promising boxer of his generation. ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael called him "the young American fighter who has the most Floyd Mayweather-like potential." HBO color commentator Max Kellerman declared that Alexander just might become the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world one day, a likely nominee to snatch the prizefighting crown whenever Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the current kings of the sport, decline or retire.

Alexander had the kind of Horatio Alger tale that made sentimental sportswriters swoon. The New York Times chronicled his path from north St. Louis' violent Hyde Park neighborhood to boxing champion. So, too, did Sports Illustrated. A win over Bradley would cement his status as the best 140-pound boxer on the planet.

But now it is all slipping away. The doctor wipes Alexander's left eye with a crumpled tissue. HBO's camera zooms over Samet's shoulder into a close-up of the boxer's face. Alexander's squint tightens.

"Can you open up your eye?" asks Samet.

"Nah, that shit hurt, man," Alexander cries back.

"Both eyes, open up. Both eyes, look at me."

Alexander raises his lids for a second then furiously blinks, his head tilted toward the rafters.

"Ah, fuck!" he exclaims.

"If you won't open up both eyes, everything's over. Your evening's over."

"Fuck. It burns," Alexander hisses, shaking his head from side to side as if he were trying to get water out of his ears.

"Look at me. Look at me. Open your eyes."

"Aaaahhrrr."

Still squinting; still grimacing.

Samet shifts his gaze toward the ref, waves his hands, and tells him to stop the fight. Bradley, ahead on all three of the judges' scorecards, is the new unified 140-pound world champion.

Later in the evening Alexander tells reporters, "If the doctor said I could go on, I would have gone on." Samet backs up that storyline, explaining, "It was more than a cut. I was worried that it was a nerve and that his eye was paralyzed."

Many in the boxing world saw something else, though.

The next day, ESPN.com's boxing section features a large photo of Alexander, right brow bleeding from a deep gash, left eyelids scrunched together. The caption reads: "Afraid of a little blood? Devon Alexander showed little heart in relinquishing his title to Timothy Bradley." The fight is so anti-climactic, in fact, that HBO chooses not to activate a rematch clause.

Rafael writes, "As much hype as the fight received and as much hope as there was for a memorable battle, watching a fighter essentially quit in the biggest bout of his life is disappointing." Eric Thomas of BoxingNews24.com writes, "It's hard to see it any other way than Alexander flat out quitting." Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz writes, "Alexander 'The Great' flunked his first national showcase, getting overwhelmed in an embarrassing loss to Bradley." Light welterweight rival Paulie Malignaggi tweets, "You quit like the punk most of us suspected [you] always were."

There is no worse stain on a fighter's career than to be labeled a quitter. A year later, Alexander is still trying to shake it.

"I could have continued the fight," he acknowledges now. "But I knew I had a rematch clause, so I decided to take that path."

Thinking back to that night in Detroit, Alexander's eyes — including the one temporarily blurred from the headbutt — fill with regret. Given a mulligan, he says, he would handle things differently.

"I would have definitely fought with one eye," he asserts. "This is boxing. You gotta put your life on the line. You put your life on the line every time you're in the ring."

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