LAS VEGAS • In the scorching haze of another early morning sunrise in the tranquil Nevada desert, a blazing ball of sunshine peeks up spectacularly over the eastern horizon. Rare is the visitor to this modern American Sodom who actually gets to witness this sort of breathtaking scene, because quite frankly this is definitely not a "get up early" kind of town.
So as the long, white SUV grinds its way through the city — zipping by the groggy "going home late" night crawlers staggering their way down the Strip, past the gaudy glass pyramids, exploding fountains and the blaring marquees that beckon you to "the World's Largest Topless Showcase!!!" — Devon Alexander is that rare soul who actually does take the time to soak in this marvelous setting.
It is a little past 6:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday and Alexander, the 23-year-old unified junior welterweight champion of the world, is on his way to work. He sits in the back seat of the SUV as it rolls up the long, winding asphalt ribbon that leads slowly toward Spring Mountain National Park. As he peers out the tinted glass window, the shimmering towers of Sin City have faded in the distance; in front of him, dramatic Mount Charleston looms larger through the front windshield. For Alexander (20-0 record, including 13 KOs), going to work means a grueling four-mile run in 90-degree heat up the eastern face of that mountain, assaulting a road that goes up a frighteningly steep incline from 6,000 feet above sea level at the base to 8,000 feet near the summit.
As the SUV approaches the mountain, there are already at least 15 or 20 runners on the two-lane highway, a steady stream of brightly clothed joggers on a casual journey from the luxury resort and spa that rests at the base of the mountain.
"Yeah, but do you notice that they're all running away from the mountain?" Alexander says with a devilish grin. "I'm about to go face The Monster. And you know what? This mountain ain't no joke."
He has faced this mountain three times a week for seven consecutive weeks in preparation to defend his WBC and IBF world junior welterweight boxing titles next Saturday night on national television (HBO) against former WBA champ Andriy Kotelnik (31-3-1, 13 KOs) on promoter Don King's "Gateway to Greatness" card at Scottrade Center. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning — long before that brilliant desert sunrise — he hears a violent pounding on his bedroom door, as trainer/manager Kevin Cunningham bangs on the door and shouts "GET UP!"
Cunningham does not have to ask him twice.
Alexander — the kid who against all odds survived the mean streets of North St. Louis to become the improbable champion of the world — is up and at 'em. The daily routine never wavers and Alexander never looks for the easy way out. You discover this quickly as you observe his rigorous daily regimen. Every afternoon when he arrives at the gym, Alexander has plenty of company. There are training partners and sparring partners and any number of young boxers who stand near the lip of the ring to carefully observe the champ doing his thing.
But on these early-morning trips when Alexander must face "The Monster," the crowd seems to thin quickly. No volunteers. No running partners. No grinning sycophants.
When someone asks him if this bothers him, if he wishes the workload weren't so intimidating, if the journey weren't so lonely, the 140-pound ball of tightly wound muscles grins with obvious pride.
"Nope, not at all," he says. "I love it because I know it's going to pay off in the long run. I don't sweat it. This is what I do. You gotta like it. I've been doing it since I was 7. I was born to fight, I think. Everyone has a gift, and I believe my gift is boxing. I have skills. Everyone can't do this. As you can see, it's rough and rugged. You have to have the heart. You have to have the determination. You have to have the discipline. You have to have all of that because everybody can't get in there and train like this. They think they can. But that's until they find out that there is pain. Why cheat yourself? If we're going to do this, then do it. There are no shortcuts. If you take shortcuts now, it will show in the ring. This is a one-man sport. So whatever you ain't doing — whatever you ain't supposed to be doing — it will show in the ring.
"This stuff is hard," he says without hesitation. "You have to be willing to sacrifice. Look, today I don't feel good. You think I want to run up that mountain? I don't. But I'm willing to get up and face that Monster. You have to be willing to go."
Cunningham, the man who knows Alexander best, who has seen him grow from that eager kid who tagged along behind his older brother Vaughn and found his way into a gym in his rugged Hyde Park neighborhood, smiles proudly when he hears the kid whom they now call "Alexander The Great" speak. The 45-year-old former St. Louis narcotics detective who now serves as the champ's trainer and manager says, "Lots of people say they want to be in this position. They all say they want to be the champ. But very few actually want to pay the price to get here."
Devon Alexander has been paying the price for nearly 16 years, ever since the day he was a skinny little 7-year-old who walked into a dilapidated old police station turned into a makeshift boxing gym, one of 29 other neighborhood kids trained by Cunningham, a good Samaritan cop who was trying to save these boys from the gang violence and drugs that were ravaging their streets.
"Now he's the only one left," says Cunningham, his voice dripping with a depressing sadness. "Thirty boys started, nine of them are now dead, and I think eight to 10 are in prison."
What happened to the rest, he was asked.
Cunningham shakes his head sadly.
"Lost 'em to the streets," he says. "They're all in the streets."
As he talks, Cunningham is behind the wheel of the SUV, slowly following behind Alexander up the mountain. If you are into metaphors, this journey up Mount Charleston is as good as any to describe the young boxer's dramatic life and times. Alexander was all by himself on that mountain, methodically attacking this imposing task with his head down, his arms pumping and his well-muscled legs churning at the same unwavering pace. He was focused and determined to complete the task.
Would it have been nice to have someone running by his side as he attacked the mountain? Absolutely. But there's a big difference between nice and necessary.
The truth is, attacking this beast pales in comparison to the far more imposing beast he's already conquered: growing up in a neighborhood where if the gangs don't get you, the drugs will.
THE SPECIAL ONE
Alexander — who is on the verge of true fame and fortune with a $2 million purse for the Kotelnik fight that could lead to a string of bigger and more glamorous fights because HBO officials are eager to promote him as one of boxing's rising young stars — just keeps trudging away at the same resolute pace.
He's become the embodiment of an old saying that speaks to the shameful cruelty of poverty: Crush a thousand men and 999 may die. But the one who survives will be special.
Devon Alexander is that Special One.
"This is an amazing story when you truly understand and appreciate what he's really done in his life," says Dr. Darryl Bradley, who was Alexander's seventh-grade science teacher at Webster Middle School and now serves as his chiropractic physician at the Vegas camp. "To come out of that environment … (Devon) wasn't necessarily better, he was just more disciplined, more dedicated. He had no interest in the streets. He had no interest in the gangs, the drugs, the violence that was always just outside our doors.
"To see him now, I'm just so proud, so pleased," Bradley says. "Kevin worked so hard with so many of those kids, good kids, nice kids, talented kids. But no matter how much direction he provided, those streets, man … those streets. They just pulled on so many of them. What a shame that Devon was the only one who resisted. But it tells you a lot about what sort of young man Devon must be to be the one who made it when so many others couldn't."
'MILLIONS OF DOLLARS'
They try not to talk about it, but it's impossible to ignore. If Alexander wins this fight against Kotelnik, the big-money fights are just beyond the horizon. HBO president Ross Greenberg has made it clear that if Alexander wins his title defense, there will be a Jan. 29 fight against WBO title holder Tim Bradley (26-0, 11 KOs) that could bring Alexander the largest payday of his pro career. HBO knows that the 140-pound division might be the deepest, most talented division in boxing now. Along with Bradley and Alexander, there is England's 23-year-old WBA king, Amir Khan (23-1, 17 KOs), and Argentina's 26-year-old WBA interim champ, Marcos Rene Maidana (28-1, 27 KOs).
If Bradley and Alexander face off in January and Khan and Maidana duel shortly after that, perhaps the last man standing in the 140-pound bracket could end up cashing in on a mega-fight against welterweight studs Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao.
But first, Alexander has to win Saturday. "I think about (what's beyond the Kotelnik fight) all the time," Alexander admits. "But I stop myself and try to stay focused on what's right in front of me. That's motivation in itself. I'm on the verge of making millions of dollars."
Surviving SIN CITY
Las Vegas is a curious choice for a training camp for a young man like Alexander. The house where he, Cunningham and Devon's older brother Lamar are staying is in a gated community a few blocks off the Strip. It is owned by promoter Don King, and it is the same house he used to loan to former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. There is an irony there, too. Alexander, the ultimate disciplined man, following in the footsteps of Tyson, perhaps boxing's most tragically undisciplined ex-champ.
Every afternoon, Alexander ends up at Barry's Boxing Gym, a quaint, old cinder block building that sits just about a half-mile away from the northern tip of the Strip in a seedy neighborhood that practically screams old Las Vegas. The towering casinos glitter in the distance, but only a few steps away from the large, red metal doors that greet you with a big sign above the entrance that heralds "We Teach The Science, Not the Violence," there are multiple tattoo parlors and welding shops (that look suspiciously like chop shops) and more than a few of the town's more popular strip joints like Foxy's, Treasures and Sheri's Cabaret and Tattoo Parlor.
This is Devon Alexander's incongruous sanctuary, a place where he works religiously in defiance of all these lusty enticements. They have been there for nearly two months, and the only time he has set foot on the Strip was when Cunningham twice took Devon, Lamar and a training partner to one of the casinos' lavish, all-you-can-eat buffets.
Alexander scoffs at the notion that Vegas' sinful pleasures might test his spartan-like resolve. "Nah, we run a tight ship," he says, waving his hand in the air like he's swatting flies. "Temptation don't mean nothin'. I had my vacation time after the last fight. I come here to work. I don't have no business doing what I ain't supposed to be doing. Temptation's been around me my whole life."
A LIFE OF TEMPTATIONS
You cannot tell the Devon Alexander story without it somehow always coming back to this life-long journey with the devil constantly lurking over his shoulder.
"Been around temptations all my life, 24/7," he reminds you. "OK, maybe not 24/7, but at least 21 hours out of the day."
And what was happening the three other hours?
"I was in the gym," he cackles.
Inside the sanctuary of a boxing gym, no matter where it was, Devon Alexander felt safe. The gangs couldn't touch him in the gym. The gym and boxing always kept him out of harm's way.
"None of that stuff made much sense to us," Lamar says. "Fightin' over gang colors? Shooting someone 'cause they wore red or blue or black or whatever? Naw, that stuff just didn't make no sense at all, we used to say to each other."
Sadly, the ills of the streets made way too much sense to nearly everyone else around the Alexander boys, including their oldest brother Vaughn, another gifted boxer who seemed destined for a championship future until he got caught up in the streets and is now serving an 18-year sentence in a penitentiary in Potosi, Mo., for armed robbery.
This is a topic that Alexander has been asked to explain far too often. For him, though, there is no complicated riddle. "We started out with a large group of people," he says. "We used to all come to the gym. We'd laugh together, we'd play hard and train. They were all my brothers. But as time went by, you began to see them all fall by the wayside, doing things they shouldn't have been doing. But I just stayed focused. I had no desire to do that stuff … it wasn't in me."
WINNING .... AND LOSING
Three years after he began boxing, Alexander won his first national title. He was 10 years old and a national Silver Gloves champion. "When I won the Silver Gloves, man I loved that feeling. When they put that belt around me for the first time and I was only 10 years old, but I loved that feeling and thought, 'I gotta keep doing this. I have to get more belts.' "
Cunningham has been listening quietly in the background but now blurts out his own recollection of that glorious day.
Cunningham: "You weren't the only one who won a belt that day. It was three of you. Do you remember the other two, Devon?"
Alexander: "Yeah, I sure do. It was Quintin (Gray), Willie (Ross) and me."
Cunningham: "And where are they now?"
Alexander just shakes his head. He knows the answer, but he doesn't bother to answer. Instead, it is Cunningham who provides the sad end to the story.
"Quinton's in jail for life for murder and Willie Ross is dead," he says. "I still remember that picture that ran in the St. Louis American of the three of you."
LEADING HIS OWN LIFE
Twelve years later, Alexander seems almost numb to the tragic circumstances of his fallen "brothers." If the losses have affected him in any outward way, it manifests itself in how he leads his own life now. Most boxers surround themselves with layers of glad-handing toadies and men of unspecified purpose. But walk into a gym when Alexander is training and you are struck by how few people are a part of his circle.
Other than the sparring partners who wander in and out, normally it is only the boxer, his manager and his brother. "I don't need all those extra people," he says. "Whenever I start seeing so-called friends and relatives I ain't seen in ages, I just say 'Hi and bye. Oh, long time no see,' and I'm gone. The people around me, I'm comfortable with. I don't like a bunch of new people around me, you know the people who want to come around acting like they're only here just for my well-being."
Near the end of one demanding sparring session, an interloper is in the gym and he is in a particularly complimentary mood. He is gushing all sorts of glad-handing platitudes Alexander's way as he winds down his workout.
"Whooowee CHAMP . . . sure looked gooood today! Yeah baby, champ was lookin' good!"
The more the man squawked, the more indifferent Alexander became.
"Champ was on a roll TO-DAY Bay-beee!!! Champ was NO JOKE!"
Alexander greeted this chirping with bored indifference, never once acknowledging the noise with a smile, a smirk or even a knowing glance. Instead, he looked right through the man, marching from the edge of the ring over to the heavy bag and began pounding away at the heavy leather.
When asked about it later, Alexander shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't like that stuff," he says. "It's too fake. I don't need that. Before long, you have to pay those guys for that stuff, and I really don't need or want that entourage, because the longer they're around, sooner or later they're going to want something. That's why I have my team around me. They know who is supposed to be in the circle. I know who's supposed to be in the circle. We're not going to let anyone in who doesn't belong."
And so the lonely journey to the top of the boxing world continues as if Devon Alexander is still on that imposing mountain, trudging along with his eyes riveted toward the summit. "I'm so close now," he says with a gentle smile spreading across his face. "I'm so close to being able to get the fame and the fortune, but I haven't accomplished what I want to accomplish just yet. I'm not on the (best) pound-for-pound list yet. I'm not Hall of Fame material yet. I'm not doing all of this, working this hard, sacrificing so much just to be in the fight game. I'm in this to be well known. I'm in this to be great. I'm in this to get rich, too."
It doesn't sound so bold when he says it. It doesn't sound like bragging or wishful thinking, or anything dripping in egocentric blather. What it sounds like is, well, the unvarnished, inevitable truth.
"When I'm done," says Alexander, "I want people to say, 'Ahh man, he was one of the greatest ever.' That's what I want to be, and I think I'm inching my way on up there slowly but surely."