7 Key Questions: Devon Alexander
by Matt McGrain: To call Alexander’s fight with Marcos Maidana last Saturday night at the Scottrade Centre, Saint Louis, a “crossroads” fight would have been an understatement. There have been few falls as pronounced as Alexander’s quite lately in boxing and all for no other reason than his losing a fight which was close to fifty/fifty going in and which, for the winner, meant a place on The Ring‘s pound-for-pound top ten. As is often the case, what caused his situation to become precarious was not a loss but the manor of the loss that hurt. Like Carlos Ortiz and a hundred others before him, Alexander appeared to quit, or something very like it, in what was a near-marquee event for boxing. As Larry Merchant put it, “Alexander made [the Bradley fight] the non-event of the year. And he’s going to catch it for that.”
Article posted on 29.02.2012
After Bradley came a razor-thin disputed decision against Matthysse in a fight in which Alexander was a firm favourite, a decision that was booed in his hometown. To paraphrase Confucius, the strength of the modern boxer derives from the support he has at home. If this is indeed the case, Alexander needed a performance to match the result this time as even an unpopular win would give him little room for manoeuvre, and a loss would have spelled something very like the end.
Well, Alexander got his win, but where does that leave him? He is one of boxing’s more interesting if not thrilling fighters right now, and that goes for his status and commercial positioning as well as his style. Here, we’ll take a quick look at the seven key questions that will define the next phase of the fighter’s career, his five remaining fights with new promoters Golden Boy, beginning with the other man in the ring for what may have been, whisper it, Devon Alexander’s comeback, Marcos Maidana.
WHO IS MARCOS MAIDANA?
This question seems an easy one to answer. Maidana is a classic gatekeeper, good enough to test coming fighters without beating them (Amir Khan), whilst keeping out the riff-raff (Victor Cayo) and turning back those whose best days are ultimately behind them (DeMarcus Corley, Erik Morales). He’s a tough guy who you have to beat to get to The Man, limited but dangerous and impossible to discourage. The problem though, is that that is what Marcos Maidana was, not what he is. He was all of those things (and more - he seems to linked with one of the three championship belts the WBA hand out like cookies at 140lbs currently, a division that currently has seven strap-holders of one description or another) but we aren’t yet sure of what he is at 147lbs. Is Maidana good enough to keep the gate at 147lbs, or has Alexander just walked through a door that isn’t really there?
For obvious reasons, it is hard to be sure, but Maidana did not fight a good fight. It’s true that Alexander spent most of the second half of the fight getting off first then moving well, but Maidana threw less than five-hundred punches in these ten rounds, whilst he has on occasion thrown between one thousand and twelve-hundred punches over the full distance. Fighting a mobile counter-puncher will reduce anyone’s output, but there is a possibility that the extra poundage doesn’t suit Maidana, that it slows him and generally hampers him, making it harder for him to get off. Furthermore, the stock that Maidana trades on is of the kind that general doesn’t travel well, toughness and punching power. A move north can cause even a genuine puncher’s power to evaporate, and punches he waded through at the lower weight numb, discourage and even obliterate him at the higher weight. This being the case, Maiden’s credentials as a welterweight scalp have to be questioned until he proves himself in the division, but my suspicion is that he will be able to do so. In spite of the beating that Alexander put on him (and there are those that didn’t score Marcos a single round) I suspect that he will be able to do so. Whilst Max Kellerman has to be labelled a little over-excited for labelling him “a middleweight” as a puncher during his commentary for Alexander-Miadana, he did consistently appear to land some of the hardest punches in the light-welterweight division. He also proved his ruggedness once again against Alexander, who is no knock-out puncher but who firmly dominated Miadana. Whilst this remains a 140lbs fight made at 147, Maidana gets a hesitant pass a legitimate test at welterweight based upon my guess that when the dust settles he can carve himself a spot just inside or more likely just outside, the top 10 for the division.
DOES THE NEW WEIGHT SUIT ALEXANDER?
Alexander is seen as something of a fader at 140lbs. It’s one of the reasons many people think he was looking for a way out against Bradley late in the fight when the doctor intervened to look at his cut, the result of multiple head-clashes. The thinking goes that Alexander was tiring and although knew he may have been behind, decided to take the technical decision rendered in when a fight is stopped late on an injury because Bradley was the fresher of the two. Whether or not this was Alexander’s thinking, nobody can say, but Alexander did appear the more fatigued of the two at the time of the stoppage.
He also seemed fatigued in the eighth against Matthysse, in fact watching that fight live I actually thought Alexander was done. He rallied well however to take an unpopular split decision and a draw on my card.
Matthysse is a good fighter but in order for Alexander to deliver on his pound-for-pound promise and join Bradley at the bottom of the top ten list where he feels he belongs he has to be beating fighters like this cleanly, and to do that he has to make sure that he can box comfortably in the later rounds, where he very nearly let this fight slip completely. Alexander showed the heart required of him after the supposed quit job against Bradley, but had convinced nobody of his quality. Was there a problem?
“I felt kind of weak at 140.” So has the move up in weight helped? According to the fighter himself immediately after last Saturday’s victory, very much so.
“I feel strong. I feel better at the weight. We knew we were moving up so we started strength training three and a half months back. I believe in my power. I carried my power up to 147.”
This is good. Alexander appears to have put the weight on gradually in a controlled fashion without taking on fat or sudden muscle. He then proved that he could carry it against a tough fighter, if not exactly in a tough fight, and come on strong in the late rounds, something that has been missing from his game. On the other hand, Alexander was allowed to dictate the pace - and the distance. The fight was fought over ten rounds at his camp’s insistence, and we come out of his last fight not knowing for certain if he can box at an uncomfortable pace for twelve rounds. That will come. For the moment though, Alexander looks healthier and happier and is saying all the right things.
CAN HE CORRECT HIS JAB?
Alexander’s jab is not a good one. He throws plenty of them early in the fight but it will be difficult to find a fighter who is legitimately world-class who falls short with quite so many. As if this weren’t bad enough he sometimes paws with it, he leaves it hanging and at times puts nothing at all behind it. Alexander is that rarest of things, an out-fighter without a jab. If you want to win and keep a world title with this box-puncher’s style, an average inside game and no jab, there is only one thing you can do - be Roy Jones (who had a good one but elected not to use it in many of his fights). As this isn’t an option for Alexander, if he does nothing else to improve his game, he must instead take the advice Roy offered up in commentary during the Maidana fight:
“Use that jab to keep Maidana from attacking…to keep him at bay…[Alexander would] be much better off because you could control [Maidana] with the jab…he’s not doing that.”
In Matthysse and Maidana he had two perfect foils to land his jab on, aggressive come-forward fighters with little or no head movement. Against Matthysse, his jab was terrible, consistently short and weak. Through the third, he had thrown more than two-hundred punches, most of them jabs and landed around thirty. Matthysse was punching two-handed, reaching and laying that head out. Alexander managed a connect rate of around 15%. A fighter with Alexander’s style should look to do two things in the ring in the first three rounds. The first is to establish a rhythm that will carry him to the final bell, the second, as Roy says, is to get his more aggressive opponent under control. These two things are almost always born of a good jab. Because Alexander doesn’t have one he struggled desperately to do either of these things against Matthysse.
In the fourth, he opened with his right jab, two lazy punches with no snap or identity and precious little accuracy. Matthysse seemed momentarily surprised by the weakness of the punches but recovered in time to step into Alexander and drop him firmly on his behind with a right hand. Alexander was more embarrassed than hurt, but the sequence tells a story. The right hand is the punch that the southpaw is most susceptible to when he boxes an orthodox fighter. Bradley and Matthysse, both had field-days with their right hands, and what little success Maidana had was also born of his right-hand. Without a good jab, the southpaw is vulnerable to this punch, his natural physicality’s weakness amplified by a technical weakness.
His style, too, becomes vulnerable because of this deficiency. When Alexander gets tired he stops throwing this punch, and a bad jab is better than no jab at all. Both Bradley and Matthysse were able to just walk up to him late on and start firing. Alexander fired back, but his style demands that he exact a toll from fighters who force him inside, that he makes it hard for them. A jabless box-puncher is a vulnerable one.
Against Maidana, his jab was slightly better, but he still looked exposed at times. After throwing three half-pawing jabs in the sixth, Maidana landed a right hand over the top from an obscure angle Alexander should have been able to defend with ease. In that fight, he landed a total of only nineteen jabs from ninety-seven thrown for a 20% connect ration, which sounds bad rather than disastrous, until you consider that he landed a total connect ration of 34%. In other words, Alexander found it considerably easier to land his power-punches than his jab, against a swarming fighter with slow feet and no head-movement.
Alexander needs identity and he needs technical correction. He will never have a great jab, but with his physical talents mean he probably doesn’t need one. Competent will do. He needs to decide when and how he wants to use it, work on building combinations from it and work hard at finding his range.
CAN HE MAINTAIN FLUDIITY ON OFFENCE WHEN SOMEONE IS PUNCHING BACK?
“If you give Devon Alexander time to think,” said Timothy Bradley after he defeated Alexander, “he’ll box you to pieces.”
Keeping on top of Alexander at 140lbs was a good idea for a number of reasons, not least because he was given to fading late. Assuming that he has overcome his stamina problem by moving up, denying Alexander space becomes important for exactly the reason Bradley outlines above, time and space to think and move let Alexander fight his fight. Against Maidana, Alexander began stiltedly, boxing in spurts and throwing one to two punches before backing off or clinching. Late in the fight, however, he hit some real fluidity in his boxing, fluidity that has arguably been missing since his March 2010 destruction of the previously unstopped “Iron Twin”, Juan Orango. From the sixth on he threw a dazzling variety of combinations, including a straight right to the body, left hook upstairs behind an untidy blocked jab to the torso, a recurring right left to the body followed by a double left hand upstairs, all augmented by a really nice weave and move strategy that left Maidana absolutely lost. Maidana, after all, has never been easy for anybody, he had Amir Khan out on his feet in a close fight, beat an aged Morales forced Kotelnyk to a split on the cards. Alexander had totally dominated him with some beautiful boxing.
It took Alexander some time to get him under control though, and he did not commit to this type of punching until he had done so. This was probably the correct fight strategy against a puncher of Maidana’s blunt abilities but it does speak to an inherently conservative attitude as well as problems getting off against what was a reasonable offence early on. With his limited jab, better boxers than Maidana (and there are more than a few) will be able to keep him from hitting his top gear in stages. Alexander will need to commit to his more aggressive, fluid box-punching earlier against many of the better men in the division if he is to defeat them.
IS HIS TEMPRAMENT GOING TO BE A PROBLEM?
Alexander did have a rough time of it against Bradley, but he seemed to take it rather personally. He has shown he has heart in the ring since that alleged quit-job, but that bad smell continues to linger for him. Alexander knew going in that he was going to get hurt whether that was by punches or head butts. I think the key difference for Alexander is that the head butts lay outside the rules whilst the punches lay inside the rules. The reaction to the pain he showed in the corner under the administrations of the ringside doctor were born more, perhaps, out of a sense of injustice than out of an inability to stand the physical sensation, echoed by his repeating over and over again in the post fight interview of Bradley “coming with head butts“. Alexander was chased out of that fight by rough tactics in my opinion, which also appeared to affect him early against Maidana. Alexander seems a well adjusted young man, which given his background seems astonishing, but he needs to maintain that discipline once he is inside the ring. The top ten welterweights that await him, including tough men like Andre Berto, Vyacheslav Senchenko and Kell Brook will have noticed. It’s hard to even imagine what one Floyd Mayweather would do with such an attitude.
IS KEVIN CUNNINGAM THE RIGHT MAN TO TAKE ALEXANDER FORWARDS?
To say that Cunningham is liked in the sport of boxing is a bit like saying freedom goes down well in America. Cunningham is overwhelmingly popular. This is in part due to the back story he and Devon enjoy, a seven-year old Alexander joining Cunningham’s boxing gym to escape the harsh realities of a neighbourhood so tough it left many of the youngsters that joined at the same time dead. Since, the two have stuck together through thick and thin, protecting one another in one of sport’s dirtiest businesses.
Having someone you can totally rely upon to put you first cannot be underestimated in boxing, and I rate Cunningham as a trainer, but it’s healthy to ask questions and there are reasons for concern. Firstly, Alexander has been armed with neither a great jab or a great inside game. He needs one or the other. Final responsibility for him having neither should rest with the coach that brought him up through the amateurs. Secondly, Cunningham’s corner work is sometimes less than inspiring. After Alexander was cut by the clash of heads in the Bradley fight, Cunningham stood satisfying his personal sense of injustice by berating the referee for fully thirty seconds before moving aside and allowing world-class cutman Jim Strickland the front and centre spot. He then told Alexander “we’re whippin’ his ass anyway, don’t even worry about the cut.”
This was the most important moment in Alexander’s career and I feel he needed a little bit more. I also think that it was pretty clear that he was two rounds to one down on the cards at the time. A second crucial moment came after the tough round four when against Matthysse during which Alexander suffered the first knockdown of his career. Cunningham’s advice was to “Settle down, settle down. All you got to do is relax and settle down. Settle down man.” This is something he is fond of saying in the corner and he repeated it over and again during the fight with Maidana.
But it must be stated that these two likely enjoy a shorthand that even a ringsider couldn’t properly decipher, and I’ve only seen them on television. Furthermore, Alexander is a world class contender on the hunt for a belt at his second weight. Just as Cunningham must take the blame for what has gone wrong, he must take the credit for what has gone right, which is plenty. And the only person that matters, Devon Alexander, rates him:
“All I have to do is listen. My coach is a perfect strategist.”
It might have been science that got men to the moon, but it was faith that got the astronauts onto the shuttle.
SHOULD ALEXANDER REMATCH BRADLEY?
Bradley is about to get spanked by Manny Pacquiao - at 147lbs.
A couple of good showings from Alexander and a decent fist of things against Pacquiao for Bradley should be enough to make the rematch viable at the new weight, however dis-pleasing the first one was. Should it happen, Alexander will find himself at another crossroads. Win, and he would find himself in the mix for a Mayweather/Pacquiao payday, lose and Alexander will have to do some serious work to get himself back in position. For now, though, he knows exactly where his priorities lie if not exactly what the future holds, telling the post-Maidana press conference:
“I’d like to thank God…and Golden Boy.”
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