On February 25 at the Scottrade Center, Alexander will put his career, if not his life, on the line when he fights Marcos Maidana, the most devastating puncher in the division and perhaps his most daunting opponent yet.

An impressive performance will make Alexander a championship contender again, dumping him back on the path to the mega-fights. Anything less and he inches toward that long list of flash-in-the-pan fighters who captivated the boxing world for a shining moment before fading away into undercards and "Where Are They Now?" specials.

"This is gonna mean, does he have any place to go from here?" says longtime St. Louis boxing trainer Jim Howell. "Fighters live and die on these kinds of fights."


Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

It's time to get grimy!" yells Cunningham.

The trainer and his boxer have been holed up for weeks in the musty seclusion of this teal metal gym in suburban St. Charles.

"Just how we like it. Nothin' but steel beams and bags, sweat and blood," continues Cunningham. "Perfect. Yeah, 'cause that's what we're getting ready to do, get grimy with this dude. So it's time to get grimy!"

Medicine balls wrapped in duct tape, stray jump ropes, and rusty dumbbells litter the concrete floor. The only natural light streams through a small tinted window on the door. The door that remains locked at all times.

Camp is closed to the public. This is a big fight, carrying high stakes, and the last thing Alexander needs is some misguided fan wandering in to tell him how great he's looking.

"Bring that hook all the way across your chest," commands Cunningham.

Alexander lets off a better right hook, then wipes his brow with his wrist.

"Come on, don't worry 'bout no sweat!" shouts the trainer.

"Want me to see, don't you?" retorts Alexander. And there goes that sly grin.

The boxer's smile is as much a part of his persona as his hand speed and that Cardinals fitted cap he wears for every ring entrance. It persists through weigh-ins, pre-fight press conferences, and just about every interview he's ever done. So it sometimes seems as if he doesn't feel the immense pressure of a career-defining fight.

In the lead up to the Bradley bout Alexander and his opponent participated in a sort of roundtable discussion with Kellerman for HBO's promotional "Face Off" segment. Bradley spoke with a determined scowl, maintaining the stern monotone of a politician addressing a corruption scandal. Alexander seemed to get a kick out of the whole spectacle and within minutes was trying to hide his mouth behind his wrists to hold in the laughter.

"January 29th, you'll be dethroned, king," declared Bradley, with a look of forced menace.

"I'm a warrior," Alexander mockingly corrected with a smirk. "Alexander 'The Great' was a warrior."

Alexander's lighthearted demeanor should not be confused with indifference. Ask him about his ability and his usual humility is, for a few fleeting seconds, supplanted by statements like, "I wanna be one of the best of all time."

As he punches and shuffles around the ring, the stereo blares "Headlines" by Drake, the rapper who accompanied Alexander to the ring before he knocked out Juan Urango in March 2010.

"And they saying I'm back, I'd agree with that...

I had someone tell me I fell off, ooh I needed that/And they wanna see me pick back up, well, where'd I leave it at/I know I..."

Cunningham switches off the music. Now the trainer's voice serves as the soundtrack.

"Speed, quickness. Speed, quickness. That's what I want. Your hands stop, your feet should be moving. Your feet stop, your hands should be moving."

Cunningham has brought in hard-hitting sparring partners with similar styles to Maidana — a slogging pugilist with a nasty right hand. One of them plods toward Alexander like a water buffalo marching through a swamp. Alexander pops a couple of jabs that smack his foe's head. He sticks and slides, landing flurries every few seconds. Then the sparring partner pressures him into a corner and slams a wide-swinging hook right into Alexander's nose.

"Mmmhmm," says Cunningham. "See when you sit yo ass down in front of that right hand. That's what you gon' get."

Blood drips onto his shirt and his shorts. When the round ends, Alexander blows a red snotty mess toward a bucket under the corner post. But because he is hastily bouncing up and down on his toes, the globs fly errantly, spraying remnants onto his trainer. Cunningham thinks Alexander looks tense, anxious maybe. The big fight is just three weeks away.

"Gotta be more relaxed man," he demands, wiping his shirt. "You're all jittery. Using too much energy. You gotta settle down man. You're too wound up. Get yourself together."

In each of his last three fights Alexander's legs seemed to grow heavy as the rounds passed, often forcing him to abandon his fast-paced boxing style, which relies on constant movement and precise footwork. He and Cunningham say that this was because the frantic push to make weight drained his energy. He had outgrown the 140-pound division — the weight at which he has fought since he was a teenager. He walks around at 165 pounds and trains at 154. It was time to move up. He will fight Maidana at 147 pounds, in what will be each man's welterweight debut.

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