Devon Alexander’s Trainer Kevin Cunningham: “Boxing needs a fight like this”
By Gabriel Montoya, from Maxboxing.com (Jan 26, 2011) Special to Doghouse Boxing
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At the center of the “Why is the Tim Bradley-Devon Alexander fight in Pontiac?” storm of criticism lies a great fight between two undefeated fighters at or near their primes putting it all out there to decide who is the best 140-pound fighter in the world. They bring belts and solid résumés, opposing skill sets, and desire only two prime undefeated fighters can know. This Saturday night, live on HBO’s “World Championship Boxing” series, two men will enter a possibly near-empty Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan and when it is over, the best way to answer the question of who is the best in the division will have been answered. While this fight should have happened on a larger scale in a venue appropriate to the fight and fighters, that is a debate for another article. The fight is happening and that it is at all is a positive sign for our sport, as well as a reminder to the rest of the titleholders in the world that marketing is great but fighting the best is the true way to get to the top.

I recently caught up with Devon Alexander’s trainer, Kevin Cunningham, who has taken Alexander through the amateurs, from age seven to the 23-year-old southpaw boxer/puncher and titlist he is today. Cunningham is a straightforward man. He pulls no punches and while he didn’t drop his game plan to me, he was forthright in his answers and assessment of what he and his young champion will face this Saturday.

“He’s an excellent champion, well-conditioned, disciplined guy,” Cunningham said of Bradley. “He’s got good skills, smart fighter, extremely smart fighter. You have to plan an excellent game plan, which I think I have. You have to have a fighter who can execute the game plan. Without telling you what we are trying to do here, that’s what we have to do here.”

Tim Bradley is not the biggest puncher at 140; that’d arguably be Marcos Maidana. Zab Judah has more one-punch pop. Bradley is not the fastest 140-pounder. That distinction might go first to Amir Khan and possibly Alexander next. Bradley is, however, arguably the most intelligent of the junior welters- a thinking fighter- and that might be his greatest strength coming into the fight.

“It’s one of them,” conceded Cunningham. “He is a good fighter. He comes in excellent condition, tremendous heart. He doesn’t do anything great but he does a lot of things good.”

I made a comparison to Bernard Hopkins in that Bradley, while not stylistically like Hopkins, is similar in that he is not exceptional at any particular thing. He doesn’t have a Hearns-like right hand; he is not Sugar Ray-fast but, rather, he is very good at a lot of things and the sum of those make for a formidable challenge.

“I wouldn’t mention him in the same sentence as Bernard Hopkins, though,” said Cunningham.“He’s not that accomplished. Let’s see what he does when he gets a young, talented, undefeated champion in front of him. Let’s see what happens then. I don’t see him having a lot of things in his arsenal. He’s got a few things. There is nothing great but he does a lot of things good. I know what he is going to try and do. I know what his main arsenal is and basically what we are going to is take away what he does best and execute what we are doing.”

I asked Cunningham what fights he watched in preparation for Bradley. Most might look at the two roughest fights Bradley had on the big stage against Kendall Holt (who dropped and hurt Bradley en route to losing a unanimous decision) and his lone welterweight performance last July against Luis Abregu, who lost the fight but made Bradley look ordinary. Cunningham instead went a different way.

“The fights I looked at were Junior Witter and Jaime Rangel, which the announcers at ringside thought it was a draw at best for Tim Bradley,” said Cunningham. “This is the guy Zab Judah knocked out in the first round. He struggled with that southpaw. He didn’t look spectacular with Junior Witter. He had one moment in that fight that was really…one punch made the difference in that fight. [If] the knockdown doesn’t happen, he doesn’t get that win in the Junior Witter fight. At times [Bradley], is a little buzzsaw; at times, he will try and box a little on the outside. Like I said, he does a lot of things but he’s not great at any of them but good at a lot of them. He is rightfully at the number one spot. He deserves it. Devon’s right next to him at the number two spot. Devon is not in the business to be number two. Any true champion wants to be number one. That’s what Saturday night is all about, who’s really number one.”

In his last fight, against former world titleholder Andreas Kotelnik, Alexander fought at home in St. Louis, where he draws considerably well. The fight did not go as expected and Alexander was hit a lot more than usual; his uppercut was missing and he was stunned by Kotelnik’s hard shots, when many felt he would be walked over by Alexander. Inevitably, when a young fighter on the rise has a performance like this, bandwagons are abandoned and the word “exposed” gets thrown around. To Cunningham, that action is motivation to be used on Saturday.

“There is a lot of undue criticism because it’s almost like if Devon doesn’t go out and destroy and blow away his opposition, he didn’t win the fight because he didn’t blow Kotelnik away,” opined Cunningham. “The fight was a lot more competitive than a lot of people thought it would be. Kotelnik landed some shots he shouldn’t have landed. A lot of that was due to Devon not being on point that night. That happens sometimes. You name me one fighter that hasn’t had an off night. The key to having an off night is winning on your off night. And that he did. We use the Kotelnik fight as motivation. We look at all the so-called experts, everybody who picked Bradley. We kind of feel disrespected. We are thankful for the opportunity to show and prove on Saturday night.”

Cunningham has been there from the beginning with Alexander. There are few things he has not seen in over 300 amateur fights and 21 pro fights. While a bad night is never a good thing, there is a certain perspective a road that long gives a trainer.

“It was a big deal to everybody but you know I don’t like seeing off nights,” said Cunningham. “We trained too hard, you know? You do everything right, you have an excellent camp. But what I learned from that was that you can’t control the outcome. You can control the whole total camp and preparation but you can’t control the outcome.”

Cunningham pointed out that while he believes 100% in his fighter’s ability to win, he understands how young he is and that is all new to him. Being a champion in a town that appreciates what that is and responds to it can be tough to adjust to for a young man. That Kotelnik fight, his first at home with that kind of status, was an invaluable lesson heading into a super-fight of this magnitude.

“You can’t control a fighter being at home and having friends and family and people distracting him,” said Cunningham. “I wish I would have controlled the way we promoted the fight, with getting Devon [his] rest. He was up early doing radio appearances, speaking with the Rams team, throwing out the first pitch with the Cardinals, a function at City Hall with 500 people supporting him. This was all days before the fight. This was a 23-year-old champion fighting at home as a champion for the first time and he is doing all these big activities and it was really too much. And it took a lot out of him. But you know, all of that sounds like an excuse and that’s why we can’t wait to get to Saturday night. Look, scrap all that. Bradley is the number one guy in the division. Once we beat him, there is no argument. That’s how we see it.”

Cunningham and I discussed the idea that Alexander is the less experienced champion coming into this fight. Bradley earned his title by beating Junior Witter at home in England, then fended off Kendall Holt in a tough fight, and beat a young undefeated fighter in Lamont Peterson. Most recently, he decisioned Luis Abregu and looked a little ordinary doing it. Some would argue that list of men makes him the more experienced fighter. Cunningham disagrees. Yes, his fighter is four years younger than Bradley but there is a reason his nickname is “Alexander the Great.” The kid is a prodigy who Cunningham and promoter Don King have had no issue matching tough early on to get to this point.

“I don’t know that Devon is the less experienced guy,” said Cunningham. “He was 298 amateur wins with 12 losses. [Editor’s note: multiple sources have Alexander officially listed as 300-10 in the amateurs] 21-0 in the pros. Grew up sparring with world champions in the gym. So I don’t know if is the less experienced fighter. Whose résumé is more complete? We can debate about that. Who are the best names on Bradley’s record? Kendall Holt. Junior Witter. Lamont Peterson. On Devon’s side, you have DeMarcus Corley who gave Maidana fits over in Maidana’s country. Devon beat Corley, who had Floyd Mayweather hurt, who had Cotto hurt, and [was] a former world champion. Devon fought him with only 13 fights in Madison Square [Garden] on HBO Pay-Per-View on the Roy Jones/Trinidad fight. Tim Bradley wasn’t taking fights like that with 13 fights. Then he fought Miguel Callist, a world title contender. Then he fights Junior Witter with 19 fights, 21 years old and stops him when Zab Judah and Bradley didn’t stop him. Then he goes right into a title unification with [Juan] Urango and knocks him out, knocks him off his feet. Andre didn’t stop Juan Urango. Ricky Hatton didn’t stop Urango. Randall Bailey, the knockout artist, didn’t stop Juan Urango. Then he fights Kotelnik, who is an Olympic silver medalist, a former world champion and he has a win over Maidana. So you tell me who has the better résumé.”

I think Cunningham just did.

Cunningham and I got down to brass tacks: How does he see the fight playing out?

“I see two running away trains on a collision course. That’s how I see it,” Cunningham answered. “I don’t think it will be just a boxing match. These guys have aggressive mentalities. These guys don’t run around the ring like Amir Khan. They have thinking ability but they have aggressive mentalities. Amir Khan just wants to pitty-pat and run. That’s not what you are going to get here. I don’t know if you want to hear that or not.”

I can take it if he can.

A lot has been made of the promoters doing this fight in Pontiac. Some report only a few hundred tickets have been sold. Other dispute that and say it’s a few thousand. In any case, there is a lack of heat that a fight like this usually gets if it’s in a fight town like L.A., Vegas, or New York. Still, Cunningham contends it does not matter where the fight is. What is in the ring is what matters.

“Team Bradley didn’t want to fight in St. Louis,” said Cunningham. “We were fine doing the fight in Pontiac. This fight could be in Alaska. We just wanted the chance to fight the number one Tim Bradley at 140. [Alexander] earned that right and now we want the chance to prove that we’re the best. The only way to prove it is by fighting Tim Bradley. We don’t care if the fight is in St. Louis or not. We just want to fight Tim Bradley.”

Before last year’s fight between Marcos Maidana and Amir Khan, I spoke with Khan’s trainer Freddie Roach, who expressed to me that the fight for the number one spot was between his guy and Maidana. “The two best 140-pounders are in this fight,” he said. I disagreed then and I still do after seeing it. I asked Cunningham what he thought of the comment.

“First of all, what has Khan and Maidana done to earn the title of the two best 140-pounders?” Cunningham asked. “How can they be the best when you have two undefeated champions who have both unified titles? And you’re talking about Khan and Maidana, two guys with losses and one of the guys lost by vicious knockout? He was knocked out cold and he was out on his feet against Maidana. These guys aren’t even in the discussion when you got Alexander-Bradley. For Roach to say they are two best 140 pounders…so what is he saying? Alexander and Bradley’s accomplishments mean nothing? And this guy is a world-class trainer? And you got these two youngsters, young champions; they’ve accomplished and he is saying they have basically done nothing? And Khan and Maidana are more proven than them? This guy has got to be out of his mind, man.”

Cunningham further stated his case by pointing out that neither Khan, Maidana nor their promoter Golden Boy wanted any part of a fight with either Alexander or Bradley. To him, that speaks volumes.

“I’m a realist and I talk facts,” said Cunningham. “I don’t talk bull; I talk facts. We tried to get fights with Maidana and Khan. Golden Boy wanted no part of Devon fighting Khan or Maidana. I even spent my own way for the Maidana vs. [Victor] Cayo fight, thinking that we could get Maidana next. HBO was willing to do it but Golden Boy wanted no part of that fight. And don’t even think about Khan. And Tim Bradley also pursued a fight with Maidana and Maidana pulled out. So the two best said, ‘Well, we’ll fight each other.’ So that being said, when the opportunity was there, those guys refused to fight.”

Cunningham feels this fight is not just an example of how champions should behave but it is also a precursor to the types of fights the winner deserves.

“Now the two best are fighting each other,” began Cunningham. “They agreed to any condition to fight each other. These two are not just doing it for each other but for the good of the sport and for the fans. I think the winner of this fight deserves more than Amir Khan. I think the winner of this fight deserves a Pacquiao, [Juan Manuel] Marquez or a Mosley fight. If this is a tournament, I’ve never seen a tournament where you pit number one and number two against each other to fight number three and number four. That is backwards to me. We don’t mind fighting anybody but right is right and wrong is wrong. These two guys are fighting, putting it all on the line. The winner of this fight should be rewarded with a big fight, with a mega-fight and Amir Khan is no mega-fight.”

There are a couple ironies in this fight. You have the two best guys at 140 fighting in what is being billed as “The Super Fight,” fighting in front of a less than super crowd. You also have what should be offered up as boxing’s best event on free HBO. A long time ago, this was what a pay-per-view fight was all about: the best vs. the best. Perhaps that it isn’t speaks to how backward the sport is these days. Pay-per-view is now reserved for mismatch fights between a star and a guy there to lose.

If only to remind us what it’s like when the best vs. the best match up, this fight is important. While undefeated vs. undefeated does not always equal a great fight, seeing two young champs risk it all against each other is a necessary part of the sport, becoming the exception among the elite rather than the rule. Even with all the criticism that is warranted (how HBO and the respective promoters mismanaged the build-up to this fight i.e. no twin bill leading up to the bout, both fighters fighting just once since July and August and the fight happening in a less than fan-friendly or easy to reach venue), we can’t forget this is a very good fight, with a lot of potential to be great.

“I think the timing is right because the sport needs this fight,” said Cunningham. “Boxing needs a fight like this right here and now. Fans are tired of watching pay-per-views where you have a superstar versus a guy that is shot and past his prime. The fans are tired of being ripped off like that. They want to see two fighters in their primes fighting to see who is ‘The Best.’ Those are always the type of fights that people want to see. This fight right here is that water cooler type of fight.”

You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim or tune into hear him live on Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST when he co-hosts the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

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