Houston grounded, ready to soar

After two knockouts in as many fights in the UFC, Houston Alexander had become something of a mythical figure in the mixed martial arts world.

And as much as fans love knockouts, Alexander's kayos of Keith Jardine and Alessio Sakara weren't your garden-variety stoppages.

They were fast, brutal and savage, the type that left even veteran fighters with their mouths agape.

Alexander became the flavor du jour in the UFC's light heavyweight division after he followed his 48-second carnage of Jardine with a 61-second savagery of Sakara. Fans clamored for him to be challenging for the title.

Some were calling him the best 205-pounder in the world.

But when he fights James Irvin at Ultimate Fight Night 13 on April 2 in Broomfield, Colo., there will be no coronation. Alexander versus Irvin is now simply just another interesting bout on a loaded card.

"After the Jardine fight and even more after the Alessio fight, people want to give me the belt, and I had to say, 'Wait a bit, here, I have a long way to go,' " Alexander said.

His words were prophetic, because as he prepares for a hard fight with Irvin, he's infinitely farther away from a title shot than he was in November, when he was unbeaten and on his way to becoming a cult figure in the UFC.

But then Alexander met Thiago Silva at UFC 78 in Newark, N.J., and once again a one-sided bout ended in the first round.

This time, though, it was Alexander who was on the receiving end of a brutal beating. And instead of hailing him as the sport's savior, fans were then complaining about the obvious hole in Alexander's game.

His trainer, Mick Doyle, concedes that Alexander could use work on his jiu-jitsu. But he said Alexander wasn't right mentally that night and suspects it had something to do with the events in the dressing room an hour before he was to go out.

A member of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board walked into the room and told Alexander and Doyle the fight was off because Alexander only has one kidney.

Alexander had donated a kidney to one of his daughters several years earlier, but he'd always passed his pre-fight physicals with no problems. But New Jersey, fearful of a lawsuit should something untoward happen, opted at the last minute to prevent Alexander from fighting.

The reasoning was that with just one kidney, he wouldn't have a backup if something happened to it. Manager Monte Cox, UFC president Dana White and Doyle were pleading Alexander's case.

"We have no excuses, because it was a bad night, period," Doyle said. "But I knew something was wrong. I don't think Houston dealt with that very well. It's an hour before the fight, we've done everything commission-wise we were supposed to do and here they were, telling us we couldn't fight.

"As his coach and the guy who knows him best, I knew something wasn't right. I changed my last words to him. I always have an idea of what I'm going to say, but when I saw his demeanor, I was worried about him. I don't know if that incident with the commission was the reason for it or not, but he wasn't the same guy. He wasn't nearly as aggressive as had been in sparring."

Silva took Alexander to his back and Alexander was unable to get up. Silva mounted him and pummeled him until the fight was stopped.

Alexander says he made a fundamental mistake and was lying too flat on his back. Doyle, though, suspects something more was at play. Doyle's phone rang off the hook in the days after the bout.

Men who had trained with Alexander couldn't believe what they were seeing.

"All of the sparring partners called me and said, 'What the (expletive)? Where was the guy who was pounding the crap out of me last week?' " Doyle said. "He (expletive) up. He made a mistake. Actually, he made a bunch of mistakes, and I'm saying this not intending to take anything away with Thiago. We talked to Thiago and (his coach) Marco Alvan since and they were shocked Houston didn't come out swinging."

Alexander says simply that the loss was devastating and he's determined to learn from it. He spent much of his time before the Silva fight working with wrestlers and is spending a lot of time before the Irvin fight working on jiu-jitsu.

Alexander has only had a coach for 10 months and concedes he has a lot to learn. All the wins he earned in his colorful past were simply by sheer brute force and will.

"I really believe things are going to gel and come together for me, but I am young as far as being coached in this game," Alexander said. "This is the first time I have a staff who is devoted to working to help me get better. And I know I will. I'm picking stuff up every day."

The last thing Doyle wants, though, is for Alexander to become a thinking man's fighter. Perhaps, three or four years from now, that may work.

But Doyle says Alexander functions best when he's going out with the intent to destroy.

"You have no idea how hard he hits; he can hit so hard, it's scary," Doyle said. "He's one of those guys every coach dreams of having walk into his gym. He's unbelievably disciplined and he wants it so badly. He hasn't missed a day of training – not one – for any reason since we started.

"But my only thing with Houston is, I don't want him over-thinking and getting so wrapped up in technique that he forgets he's a born fighter. He needs to keep things as simple as possible, so he doesn't lose the killer instinct.

"I think he might have gotten a little too wrapped up in the technical stuff before. We had a great group of All-American wrestlers working with him and they were all showing him little things, but as I look back on it, it was probably a little too much. He acted like a fighter with years and years of experience and those guys have a calmness about them. I don't want Houston to be calm. I want to let him off the leash, let him do his thing and lock him in the gym until the next performance. If I can do that with him, he's going to be so good it's scary."