The right hook strikes jaw and Devon Alexander tumbles to the canvas.
"Aaaaaggghhhh!" goes the collective gasp of the Family Arena in St. Charles.
It's the first time in his career he's ever been down. And this could get ugly real soon. Lucas Matthysse, after all, is the hardest puncher in the junior welterweight class. Not only that, but Alexander might not be tough enough to fight back, might not have the guts to defend the faith of the more than six thousand souls chanting his name.
Barely into the fourth round, there he is on the ground. The crowd is stunned, and the men and women on press row ponder the new narrative for tomorrow morning's paper: Local kid fails his quest for Redemption; doesn't live up to town's expectations; proves critics right.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. This night was his showcase, his chance to win back the hearts and minds of the boxing world in front of his hometown. They all came out to support him. Radio stations and local papers hyped up this night for weeks. His face was plastered on billboards and bus stops. Sure, his last bout in January against Tim Bradley ended badly. It was the first loss of his professional career and some thought he seemed a bit too eager to let the ringside physician call the fight in the tenth after he couldn't open his left eye, burning from blood caused by a succession of head butts. So the doubters chalked him up as yet another superior talent wasted by a lack of heart.
But the town stood by him. They rallied around this night and filed into the arena with high hopes. Athletes and politicians and community activists and plumbers and accountants and everybody else, united by the desire to see Devon Alexander bring greatness to St. Louis.
The townspeople cheered loudly when the opening bell rang and Alexander came out with aggression. He drew his jabs quicker than Matthysse and weaved around the powerful Argentine's counters, ducking the hooks and sidestepping the uppercuts. The two men tested each other's speed, feigning and bouncing and striking and moving. Like watching two cobras fight.
Alexander controlled the tempo, sticking jabs then jumping out of Matthysse's reach. He danced around the ring for three rounds, drawing Matthysse into odd angles and peppering him with lightning fast combos. Right jab-left jab-right hook. Pop pop pop. Matthysse snuck in a few early shots, but he stayed patient, waiting for an opening. He's a knock out fighter. A pure power puncher who's KO'd his opponent in twenty-six of his twenty-eight wins-- the best knock out percentage in the division. So he sat back, measured, and let Alexander get his points. Those counters were barely missing. All it takes is one mistake...
And there's Alexander tumbling to the canvas eight seconds into the fourth round.
Alexander pushes himself up and Matthysse pounces. He's swinging wildly now and Alexander is backing up. Haymakers and hooks jarring Alexander's skull. He doesn't look as fast. He's no longer controlling the tempo. He's found himself in a brawl with one of the best brawlers on the planet.
They brawl through the fourth and into the fifth. Now Alexander's not ducking as much, not dancing at all. He's trapped against the ropes and Matthysse pounds on him. Right hook-left hook-right hook.
Mattysse is looking for a bit of redemption himself. He suffered his first loss last November in a controversial split decision against Zab Judah. In his only fight since, he knocked down DeMarcus Corley eight times before the referee stopped the fight in the eighth round. Like Alexander, he's fighting to get back on the road to the top of the division.
And by the sixth round he's fighting his kind of fight. It's a dog fight and the men exchange flurries. Alexander lands a quick one-two-- pop pop-- jab combo. Matthysse returns fire with a barrage of hooks and uppercuts. Then Alexander with more pops. He stacks them, sneaking his jabs between Matthysse gloves and then bringing around a hook. Surely he can't keep trading blows with the strongest 140 pound fighter in the world. But he's trying to. He wants to win, of course, but more than anything else he wants to prove to the world that he has the guts and heart and grit.
"If Devon Alexander goes down swinging and gets knocked out, his stock would be better than if he fought that fight he fought against Timothy Bradley," says one of the HBO announcers. "He's fighting tonight."
Alexander's arms seem worn in the seventh. They dip to his chest and Matthysse attacks. Alexander is a boxer brawling a brawler and the brawler is starting to connect at will. Vicious power combos by Matthysse. Right hook-left uppercut. Right jab-right hook-right hook. Right uppercut-right jab-right jab-left jab. He stalks Alexander around the ring, pinning him against the ropes and raining down head shots.
"You mentioned something earlier about Devon Alexander showing a lot of heart," says one of the HBO announcers. "Sometimes heart's the worst thing you can have when you're in there with a guy with evil intentions such as Matthysse."
Alexander, woozy, lunges to tie up Matthysse, but Matthyse pushes him off and lands a straight right, a left uppercut, then a damning right hook-left hook- right uppercut combination.
"I'm gonna go out on a limb right here and say that Devon Alexander is out on his feet right now," says the announcer.
"He is in trouble," says another announcer.
Alexander does all he can to keep his balance and a knock down feels imminent. But he survives the seventh-- a round in which Matthysse landed twenty-six power shots to Alexander's two. The Argentine raises his arms and shouts something to Alexander as they walk to their corners.
The announcers speculate that Alexander wants out of the fight. They wonder whether he told his trainer Kevin Cunningham between rounds to throw in the towel if the beating persists.
Matthysse turns up the attack in the eighth. Now Alexander is stumbling around to avoid the hits. Matthysse wants the knock out. He sizes up Alexander and swings down chopping hooks. Then two sick hard rights to the body. Alexander staggers. But he stays on his feet. He returns with a few jabs, then misses on a couple of hooks and Matthysse ends the round with a right and left hook square to the chin. The bell rings and Alexander hobbles to his corner. His right eye is dark purple.
As the ninth round begins, the crowd is dead.
Then, out of nowhere, pop... pop pop... pop pop. Alexander rattles off jabs. Then a right hook to the body and a left to the chin. He ducks Matthysse's counter and sidesteps a hook. He takes a solid right to the face then lands a solid right to the face. The two men trade hooks. And Alexander caps the exchange with a three punch combo. Then a stunning right after a Matthysse miss and the crowd picks up.
It's up for grabs in the tenth. Suddenly the narrative on press row has changed. The scores are even on many cards and the final round has become a de facto sudden death. The fighters sense this and pounce on each other. Two jabs from Alexander. Right hook from Matthysse. Left hook from Alexander. He's dancing again, regaining those odd angles, beating Matthysse to the draw. But Matthyse returns fire with a big right hand and follows it up with a arching hook. The men lock up, trade a few more shots. Then the final bell rings and they both walk to their corners with an arm in the air.
There is a mild madness on press row. Some have Matthysse as a clear winner. Some have Alexander as a clear winner. Most have a one point margin one way or the other. Matthysse had the bigger hits, Alexander had more flurries. Matthysse won the rounds he controlled more decisively than Alexander won the rounds he controlled. But did Alexander control more rounds than Matthysse? If not, will he get a hometown tilt anyway?
The scores come in.
96-93 for Alexander. 96-93 for Matthysse. The third judge has it 95-94, "For your winner by split decision..." the ring announcer pauses, "from St. Louis Missouri--" the crowd erupts, drowning out the rest. The hometown kid has defended the faith of his town.
Afterwards, Matthysse says, "It was a tough fight. I did the best I could. Once again, I was robbed."
He fought the fight he wanted and drew Alexander into a slug fest. But the boxer was thirsty for the brawl.
"I didn't want to see my fighter trading with a puncher like Matthysse, but because of all the criticism he took after the Bradley fight, he had something to prove in his hometown," says Cunningham. "He wanted to prove all the critics wrong when it comes to questions about his heart and I think he proved them all wrong. Scared the shit out of me, but he proved he was a warrior."
That's what this night was about for Alexander. The one thing worth more to a prizefighter than his record is his name.
"I made a conscious decision to bring the fight out in me because people had those doubts about me," he says. After the knockdown "I had flashbacks to my last fight and I'm not going to lose two fights in a row. As a matter of fact, I'm not going to lose ever again."
Much of the crowd hangs around their seats for a bit. All are jubilant and proud. Girls in tight green dresses smile and take pictures together. Men with wide pin-stripe lapels cross their arms and discuss who Alexander should fight next. Amir Khan? Judah? Rematch with Bradley?
It's nearly midnight. Eventually, the mass of bodies moves past the concession stand toward the exit doors. And because nothing comes easy in St. Louis, a thunderstorm pelts the Family Arena parking lot with hail and thick sideways rain and lightning. But Devon Alexander won the fight and won redemption so, as they jog to their cars holding programs over their heads, everybody is still talking about that.