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Posted: Wednesday March 3, 2010 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday May 11, 2010 6:38PM
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Devon Alexander escaped streets of St. Louis to become boxing champ (cont.)

By Peter Owen Nelson, Special to SI.com

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Devon Alexander's brother Vaughn (left) was a natural boxer, but has run into trouble and is now serving an 18-year sentence for armed robbery.
Peter Owen Nelson

To protect her children from the violence, Alexander's mother warned them: "If you hear bullets and don't hit the floor, you get a spanking." Today, a razed lot beside a DO NOT ENTER sign marks the site of Alexander's first home. He points out where a friend of his brother died after swallowing his supply of crack to avoid being busted. As he tells the story, a car screeches by and Alexander, rattled, loses his train of thought. Slowly he surveys the streets like a stranger. "Man, it's pretty rough over here," he says, and he laughs.

*****

Throwing back a light beer at Knockouts, the bar he owns in suburban St. Louis, Cunningham says, "Since I started the Hyde Park program, I've trained over 150 kids. In all that time, I've met three fathers." Alexander's deceased dad, Chico, was one of the three. "Devon comes from a family of 13 kids -- not one of them joined a gang," Cunningham says, as if to explain the importance of Chico's presence.

"Chico had a strong hand," says Devon's mother, Sharon. On her lap sits four-year-old Deniyah Alexander, Devon's daughter. The fighter also has a three-year-old son from a different mother. His relationship with each woman is strained; "being involved with either of them," he says, "would be unfair to both kids."

As far as Cunningham could see, the boys in the Hyde Park program were raising themselves. "Kevin was the dad. Those were his kids," says Dianne Walker, a recovering drug addict and the single parent of Terrance Barker, Alexander's former best friend, who died last year.

In 1996 Cunningham's wife, Sheila, unintentionally tested her husband's devotion to the kids of Hyde Park when she went into labor on the same day as the Mayor's Cup Boxing Tournament. Cunningham sent his team ahead and rushed his wife to the hospital. Upon their arrival, the doctor informed them that the birth would take nearly seven hours. Cunningham rapidly calculated the travel time between the hospital and the ring and concluded that he could go to the tournament and make it back to the hospital in time to see his child born. Between contractions his wife told him, "Go, but don't come back without the trophy." On arriving at the ring the trainer told the kids his wife's instructions. When he returned to the hospital it was with the trophy in hand.

Cunningham is quick to say that even good kids join gangs, which play the role of father to them, protecting them physically and financially. In the 1990s, Bloods and Crips proliferated in north St. Louis. Small bands of thugs like Spinks's J.M.V. crew would claim national gang colors. On a nighttime drive through the Fifth District, where he worked in a police gang unit for years, Sgt. Robert Ogilvie notes the homes of known dope dealers and describes the inner workings of St. Louis gangs. "In most cities, if you're a Crip, you're against the Bloods," he says. "That's not how it is here. You can be a Six Deuce East Coast Crip or an 87 Kitchen Crip and still be allied to the Bloods. The only reason our guys use the Los Angeles names is because that's where they were getting their drugs from."

New gangs crop up constantly, such as the recent Straight Wild Ass Thugs, or S.W.A.T., whose weakness during interrogations has led police to redefine their acronym as Snitch When Asked To. When asked what chance a child without Alexander's athletic prowess has of escaping Hyde Park without joining a gang, Capt. Robinson pauses. "Not much," he says.

Police in the Fifth District often use this anecdote to illustrate the lives of fatherless children in these neighborhoods: A few years ago, two boys from opposing gangs were shooting at each other at a high school. After police brought the two in for questioning, one boy's aunt arrived and looked at them both in horror. She then explained to her nephew that he had unknowingly been pointing a gun at his own half-brother. The same man deserted both their mothers.

*****

"Never put on the left glove first," says Cunningham as he helps Alexander into his 10-ounce Everlasts at the Marquette gym. Boxers and their trainers are superstitious people. Cunningham likely has no idea what happens if the left glove is put on first, but he has no intention of finding out.

Fight posters paper the walls around them. One, headlined RUMBLE BY THE RIVER, features Alexander and his older brother Vaughn among the fighters. Slated for June 2005, the bout would have been Vaughn's sixth as a pro. He never answered the bell.

Around Christmas of 2004, Capt. Robinson called Cunningham to inform him Vaughn was in custody after signing a letter of confession to an armed robbery. At the time Vaughn was 20 years old and a top prospect in the 154-pound division. In five pro fights he was undefeated with four knockouts. He had boxed in Madison Square Garden and debuted on an undercard for current heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. At the time, Vaughn's little brother was an afterthought. Don King says, "Vaughn was a better fighter than Devon." The day of Vaughn's sentencing, his prison term was extended to 18 years because of an altercation with a sheriff in the court bathroom.

On an autumn Sunday, Devon Alexander skips church to see his brother at the penitentiary. The Potosi (Mo.) Correctional Facility is a barbed-wire-encrusted monument to maximum security situated 70 miles south of St. Louis. There, Devon waits in a white-walled concrete cube adorned with a single printout reading, A BRIEF KISS is defined as no more than One Second. When the shaved-headed Vaughn arrives, each brother lights up at the sight of the other.

For an hour, their conversation revolves around their children and Vaughn's exercise regimen. "I got my mind on one thing," says Vaughn, "and that's getting out, and hopefully winning a world title." He is five years into his sentence. As afternoon visiting hours end, the brothers embrace. Vaughn then clutches Devon's right arm and asks him to return in an hour to stay through evening visitations. Standing frozen, Devon smiles, saying nothing. Then he leaves.

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