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If boxing ever hired a commissioner, I'd nominate Kevin Cunningham. The former St. Louis police detective, who has done yeoman's work trying to save the youth of his hometown from the violence of the streets by introducing them to boxing, has a keen understanding of what is best for the sport and what would help vault it back into the public consciousness in the U.S.
Cunningham, who has become one of the game's elite trainers, is angered by the way many promoters and managers would rather protect their investments by keeping their fighters away from anyone who is remotely considered a risk.
The super lightweight division is one of the rare ones in boxing in which there are more championship-caliber fighters than there are world title belts. Cunningham trains and manages arguably the finest, Devon Alexander, who will meet Andriy Kotelnik on Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis in a bout that will be broadcast on HBO. If he wins, Alexander could be in line for a Jan. 29 bout against Timothy Bradley.
"We are killing this sport with the way we're running it," an agitated Cunningham said. "Killing it. They act like there's some mystery to it. You don't go through all this [expletive] and not fight. What you do is, you get the best guys and you make them fight each other. Simple. Why does Devon got to fight this guy and Bradley got to fight that guy and then we talk about well, maybe, possibly, they fight each other? Bradley thinks he's the best. We know Devon is the best. So if you have two guys that are the best, doesn't it make sense to say, 'Prove it,' and put them in there and have them fight?"
You get the feeling that if Cunningham worked for the NCAA, he'd figure out a way to put together a postseason college football tournament before the guys in the garish blazers who run the bowl games would have enough time to mount even a token protest.
Boxing, though, would present a greater challenge. It has 17 weight classes and four major sanctioning organizations which give out belts in those divisions. That makes for 68 champions at a minimum. When one considers that there are super champions and interim champions and champions in recess and who knows what else, the number can easily swell. At any given time, upwards of 90 men could call themselves a world champion.
In Cunningham's world, it would be much simpler. Because the best would always be fighting the best, the identity of the top man in each class would be obvious. And instead of having more than 80 champions, there would be 17, or just one in each class.
With the great Juan Manuel Marquez already considering a move to super lightweight and the always exciting Michael Katsidis on the verge of making such a move, that makes a minimum of 10 boxers in the division with championship potential.
Alexander and Bradley are considered the elite of the division, though if Marquez moves up, he would join them to form a triumvirate of talent at the top that would exceed any other weight class.
The talent doesn't stop there, however. Beyond those three, Amir Khan, Zab Judah, Victor Ortiz, Kotelnik and Katsidis provide high-quality depth in the class.
The problem is getting them to fight each other.
HBO is tentatively targeting Jan. 29 as a date for Alexander and Bradley to fight, assuming that Alexander gets past Kotelnik on Saturday. Don King, who promotes Alexander, and Gary Shaw, who promotes Bradley, are both on board with the fight.
It is not, however, a simple matter of shaking hands and signing a contract. Top Rank's Bob Arum said he plans to speak to Shaw about putting Bradley onto the Nov. 13 pay-per-view card that features Manny Pacquiao against Antonio Margarito with the idea of building interest in a down-the-line match between Pacquiao and Bradley.
Shaw, though, said Arum has yet to approach him and said he's not willing to blow a potential major fight with Alexander on the off-chance that Arum would give Bradley a shot against Pacquiao.
"How can I believe Bob Arum when he calls me one day about a possible fight for [Shaw-promoted Alfredo] Angulo against [Top Rank's Miguel] Cotto and it's the last I ever hear from him and then he's talking about Cotto maybe fighting [Julio Cesar] Chavez Jr.?" Shaw said. "He says things to appease you guys [in the media], to get you writing about him and to pique your interest, but he doesn't have any plans to actually do what he says. He hasn't talked to me about it." A Bradley-Alexander fight is one of the most intriguing matches that could be made in boxing, but the potential of a windfall payday from a potential bout with Pacquiao could kill it. And many of the other fights may wind up being difficult to make because Golden Boy Promotions, which has Marquez, Katsidis, Khan, Marcos Maidana and Ortiz under contract, isn't particularly interested in matching their contracted fighters with those promoted by others.
Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer said, "We can make the fights and essentially do a tournament without calling it a tournament," and added he'd find it difficult to make a Khan-Alexander fight.
"Don King is difficult to do business with," Schaefer said.
King, who has very few marketable boxers anymore and so has far less leverage than he once had, objected to that comment. King said he believes Alexander is the best super lightweight in the world and is willing to match him with any of the others – Bradley or Khan included – in order to prove it.
"What Schaefer is doing when he tells you I'm hard to do business with is he's playing a game that a lot of guys have played over the years," King said. "He uses me as an excuse to avoid something he doesn't want to do. He wants to say, "Oh, I'm trying all I can to make this fight and it's Don King who is at fault.' It's always, 'Don King this, Don King that,' with these guys. But the truth of the matter is that I'm never hard to do business with. Don't come and [expletive] me and try to play games.
"If you come to me fair and square and with the intention of getting a deal done, I'm the easiest guy in the world to work with. My guy is ready, willing and able to do this and I'm not afraid to make any deal and I'm not hard to do business with. That's just an excuse. Don't ever let anyone tell you Don King is standing in the way of a fight being made. This is the fight business and if we want to have a business, we have to make these kids fight."
There are a lot of great ones to be made. It could be a special time for boxing if the top 8, or 10, or 12 at 140 pounds get into the ring and face each other.
"What would have happened to boxing if [Thomas] Hearns said he didn't want to fight [Marvelous Marvin] Hagler or Ray [Leonard] said he wouldn't fight [Roberto] Duran?" Cunningham asked. "The history of boxing is great, because whatever it took to get those fights done, the fighters stepped up and forced the issue and made sure it got done, because each of them believed he was the best and wanted to prove it where it matters.
"I'm tired of this nonsense and we just want to fight the best guys in the division. Golden Boy wants their guys to fight their guys. Bradley thinks he deserves a shot at Mayweather and Pacquiao. That's a bunch of nonsense. He calls them out and he has a lot of great fights in his own division he can take. We have to stop this [expletive] soon and do things the right way or we're going to be in for a lot of trouble. The promoters and the networks have to get their [expletive] together and do what is right for this sport."
- Don King
- Devon Alexander
- Manny Pacquiao