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You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI
There's something remarkable about Devon Alexander. It's not that he's as unassuming as Opie Taylor or as physically gifted as just about any boxer not named Mayweather or Pacquiao.
It's not just the 300-10 amateur record or the 20-0 pro record.
Being alive at 23 is perhaps the most impressive part of his story. Alexander, the World Boxing Council/International Boxing Federation super lightweight champion who defends his belt in an HBO-televised bout against Andriy Kotelnik on Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, has bucked incredible odds to make it as far as he has – and without a criminal record.
Growing up in Hyde Park, one of the roughest sections of St. Louis, he began to box when he was 7 at a gym run by Kevin Cunningham, then a police detective in the narcotics division.
In those early days, the gym was crowded with around 30 boys. Gradually, the group began to thin out. It wasn't lack of interest or talent that caused the talent drain.
Rather, Cunningham's boxers were dying or succumbing to the temptations of the streets. Cunningham estimates that as many as nine of the original 30 boys have been murdered. Just as many, including Alexander's older brother, Vaughn, are in prison. And even more are running the streets, likely headed for either prison, murder, or both.
"Really rough out there," Cunningham said. "You don't really understand what Devon fought through to get here."
Talk to Alexander away from where he grew up and he'd be the guy you'd want to introduce to your daughter. He's humble, charming and self-effacing. He's also extraordinarily driven.
Hyde Park is like a scene out of HBO's fantastic series, "The Wire." It's as much a war zone as a neighborhood. Alexander survived, though he was once shot at as burglars pillaged his childhood home.
The peer pressure to join one of the city's many gangs was overwhelming. There was safety in numbers, but Alexander never wavered. For as long as he can remember, his life was about boxing.
Cunningham estimates that he's been with Alexander for at least six days a week for the last 16 years.
"We've seen a lot; been through a lot," Cunningham says.
They're about to go through much more. The super lightweight division in which Alexander holds his belts is, arguably, boxing's finest. Kotelnik is a former world champion who hasn't fought since being beaten by Amir Khan on July 18, 2009.
Khan, along with Alexander and Bradley, are considered the three potential superstars of the division. HBO is talking about pairing Alexander and Bradley on Jan. 29 if Alexander wins on Saturday. Bradley did his part in a welterweight bout on July 16, defeating Luis Carlos Abregu.
Before his fight with Abregu, Bradley went out of his way to heap praise upon Alexander.
"You don't have to know all that much about boxing to be impressed by him," Bradley said. "You can see it right away. He's very slick. He's clever. He knows what he's doing. He doesn't like to get hit, but he can fight."
Alexander can fight because, despite his natural gifts for the sport, he's got an insatiable work ethic. He lived in promoter Don King's Las Vegas home for the past two months, working in the scorching desert heat. According to the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, the average temperature in July was 96.2 degrees and the average minimum temperature was 85.4, making it the hottest month on record. The official highest temperature in Las Vegas in July was 113, but it was hotter in some areas of town.
Yet, Alexander pushed himself through blistering workouts every day, including lengthy runs at nearly 8,000 feet of elevation up Mount Charleston. It is difficult at any time, but it's excruciating in the searing heat. Alexander, though, never missed a scheduled run or a workout.
"He gives you what he has," Cunningham said. "No one wants it more or works harder to get it than he does."
Alexander doesn't beg Cunningham to torture him, but if he wants to revel in the glory of a dominating victory, as he has so frequently in his young career, he knows he has no choice but to outwork his opposition.
And so, he hauls himself out of bed and into the blazing Las Vegas heat, pushing himself beyond seemingly natural limits.
"You get out of it what you put into it," Alexander says. "If you want to be great, you have to work the way the great ones do."
The sport's two greatest fighters, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, are also probably its two hardest workers. Alexander isn't far behind, if he's behind at all.
As he's rising the ranks, he's got a vociferous advocate singing his praises. King has been indefatigable in pitching Alexander, attempting to make him the kind of mega-star he once so commonly promoted.
King has fallen on hard times recently; his once flourishing company, which had so many elite boxers under contract that Hall of Fame talents like Ricardo Lopez and Felix Trinidad were often buried on undercards, now has only a handful of champions and even fewer elite boxers.
Alexander, though, is the kind who could wind up being the best of them all. And his charming and easy-going nature don't hurt, King said, in trying to turn him into a star.
"Great, great prospect," King said of Alexander. "He's a world champion and he's still learning and still getting better. That's what is so unique about him. He's got this warm smile, this affectionate smile, and he's a down-to-earth kid with a terrific personality.
"That's the kind of guy who is going to be a huge star some day. He's got the skills, he's got the personality and he's got the power. And he's fearless. He gets in there and he fights, and he fights anyone."
He knows there are big fights – big-money fights – in his future. He'll make $2 million for facing Kotelnik on Saturday, more for bouts with Bradley and Khan.
He now lives in an exclusive section of St. Louis, in a private, gated community, not far from the violence of the streets from where he came, but worlds apart.
He's where he is because he believed in what Cunningham was preaching the first day they met. Nearly 17 years later, his belief in his trainer's message is absolute.
"Kevin always would say if you work hard and stay out of trouble, good things would happen," Alexander said. "The lifestyle that he was preaching was more appealing to me than what was going on [in the streets]. "
Cunningham's band of boxers is now down to one. But oh, what a fighter that final one has turned out to be.
"He's a remarkable story because it would have been easy to fall prey to what all those other kids did," Cunningham said. "He's worked hard for as long as I've known him and he's getting the reward for that now. Everyone sees him now and he's a champion and all this hype and attention, but they don't know where he came from. I know. He knows. We remember."