Devon Alexander escaped streets of St. Louis to become boxing champ (cont.)
Not far from the Marquette gym, a teddy bear is tacked to a lamppost. These bears are scattered throughout the streets of North St. Louis, makeshift memorials for loved ones murdered. At first glance, all the bears appear to be simply brown or white, but on closer inspection they are clothed in Bloods red or Crips blue, honoring the gang of the fallen.
Despite the betrayal Cunningham feels when his trainees join gangs or are incarcerated, he will take them back if they return. His gym is a sanctuary, and it welcomes home those who have strayed. Among them today is Dannie Williams (12-1), a good-humored dreadlocked fighter who was a talented standout in the original Hyde Park program. "Dannie, Devon and Vaughn -- I called those three my Little Killers," recalls Cory Spinks. "Ain't nobody messing with them when they putting on them gloves." Four years ago, Williams was imprisoned for shooting two men, leaving one paralyzed. He claims, however, to have reformed his ways: "That's why they call it a correctional facility."
The next day, Williams is absent from his scheduled training. "You never know with Dannie," Cunningham says with a shrug. The trainer does not know it, but Williams is at a wake. Darnell Mason, the 19-year-old amateur boxer shot to death in the drive-by, was his cousin.
At the Wade Twin Chapel, gospel music blares over speakers flanking Mason's open casket. A white tulle veil obscures his face enough so that the mortician's reconstruction of his eye can barely be noticed. It is a Bloods wake, and everyone wears red. Those closest to the deceased wear T-shirts with a photo-collage of Mason and the words, REST IN PEACE. Williams sits as those offering condolences approach and give him the Bloods handshake. (Williams denies any gang affiliation.)
A small child, no older than seven, stands on his tiptoes, peering over the rim of the casket. From head to toe the boy is dressed in red.
When Devon, at age seven, persuaded Vaughn to let him tag along to the Hyde Park program, his first sparring partner became his best friend. Over the years, Devon's exchanges in the ring with Terrance Barker became legends of the gym. As Alexander recalls, "He bust my nose. I bust his lip."
Known as a hardworking runt, Devon earned each victory with hours of training. Terrance, on the other hand, had no work ethic; he had talent but no honed skills. Cunningham was in awe of Terrance's raw gifts: "This kid would quit boxing for six months, come back, train for three weeks -- and we'd take him to the national tournament and he'd win the whole tournament. Terrance had million-dollar hands."
As Alexander begins to hit a double-end bag to a steady rhythm, Cunningham reminisces about his trainees sparring. "Devon would be trying so hard, and Terrance was just smooth with it," he says. Oblivious to Alexander's slight disgruntlement at hearing those words, Cunningham pauses, then points at his prized possession and declares, "but that made him the fighter he is today."
By the time Alexander fought for the title last August, he and Barker were no longer in touch. A warrant was issued for Barker's arrest on a rape charge. Barker was in hiding from both the police and gang members, a state Cunningham describes as being "wanted and depressed."
In the late morning of Sept. 2, 2009, Barker, once the brightest star of the Hyde Park program, locked himself in his girlfriend's home with his three-year-old son. Cops surrounded the house. Barker called his mother in a panic, crying, "Mommy, mommy, mommy." She tried to calm her son. Just before ending the conversation, he said, "Tell my sister I love her."
At noon a hostage negotiator was called to assist the police sergeant talking with Barker through the front door, hoping to secure the safety of Barker and the child, who was asleep in a back bedroom. About 45 minutes later, a single bullet was fired. According to his police report, Barker "had an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right side of his head [and was] lying in a pool of blood. A black and silver semiautomatic handgun was lying under his right leg." The boy was rescued and put in the care of his mother. Later that day, Barker's mother, Dianne Walker, identified the body of her son at police headquarters.
Nine weeks later, at her home, Walker opens up a blue hardback suitcase on the floor. This portable shrine to her son is stuffed with photos, trophies, toys and a letter from Barker's father, who, according to Walker, had been on the run from the law since Barker was born.
Walker sits cross-legged, examining each object. Beside a program of her son's funeral, she pulls out a Mother's Day card that Barker had written in elementary school. On the outside is scrawled in red crayon, Mother's Day, with a heart by flowers in a vase. Inside is a note with a tracing of Barker's hands. Opposite the drawing, he wrote an inscription, a kind of poem: Here is a tracing of my hands. These hands sometimes forget, and do things they shouldn't do and get us all upset. But Mommy, know that I love you, and Daddy, you, too. I hope these hands will prove it by the good things they will do.
Alexander first heard of Barker's suicide through his little brother, James. The violence has anesthetized him over the years: While describing how a year ago another one of his friends from the program, Willie Ross, had been shot in the head and neck, Alexander put down the phone -- not overcome with emotion but because he arrived at a McDonald's drive-through and wanted to order a quarter-pounder and fries.
Two months earlier, Alexander had broken down in tears for the first time since his father died. He had just won his 19th professional fight, and he was surrounded by his cornermen and a grinning Don King waving a miniature U.S. flag. With the victory Alexander was crowned the WBC 140-pound champion, fulfilling Cunningham's prophecy from five years before.
For the title he had battled Junior Witter, an awkward Brit who lunges and flails like a spider monkey. Ending the eighth round with a straight left to the body, Alexander sent Witter to his corner, where he quit on his stool. In the celebration afterward, Cory Spinks got up in the ring to encourage Alexander's tears, shouting, "Let it out." He did.
In the postfight interview, title belt in hand, Alexander dedicated his victory to his deceased father, then cried out with Cunningham by his side, "Kevin ... he's the only one who never gave up on me."
Alexander earned $35,000 in the title fight. "Fame first, then the money," he says, watching TV on the sofa of his rented apartment. "But people see me on TV ... and think I must have a million dollars." He will receive about $350,000 for his HBO fight on Saturday night.
From Alexander's imaginary million, people expect him to give them handouts in the street and pay bar tabs that they open in his name. (Alexander says his last drink of alcohol was his first, at age 13.) These are both strangers and family: When Vaughn is asked if he has any message for Devon from prison, he replies, "Yeah, tell him he need to get me that money."
Others' envy poses a significant threat to Alexander, who is probably the only 23-year-old from Hyde Park with a life insurance policy. For 15 years he has been under Cunningham's protection, and now he confides that apart from his trainer, "I really don't have any friends."
On a sloping hill by an oak tree, a few months after winning the belt, Alexander takes his daughter and her mother to visit his father's unmarked grave. Once he can afford it, the first purchase the champ has planned is a family burial plot. After a brief struggle to find the grave, Alexander drops his head in prayer. Once finished, he looks out at the graves and exhales. "This is the best place you can be," he says. "It's quiet. Nobody's going to mess with you."
Peter Owen Nelson has written for Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast, and the HBO Sports series 24/7. Currently, he is co-writing a book with legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.