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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 a champion

Story Highlights

Devon Alexander has had hard life: his brother's in jail, he's surrounded by death

With the help of trainer Kevin Cunningham, boxing kept Alexander, 23, focused

Alexander fights Juan Urango on HBO Saturday to unify junior welterweight title

By Peter Owen Nelson, Special to SI.com

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Devon Alexander (right) beat Junior Witter last August to win the WBC Super Lightweight Championship.
David Martin

Behind a metal detector at the entrance to the Marquette Recreation Center, a middle-aged secretary sits at the front desk, crying. A boy she knew, a 19-year-old amateur boxer named Darnell Mason, had been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and was killed in a drive-by. Three other people were shot: one in the arm, one in the leg and one in the face. The bullet that killed Mason went through his left eye.

In north St. Louis, this is nothing unusual. Upstairs in the Marquette gym, Devon Alexander, 23, shadowboxes as he has since he was seven, so many years and so many killings ago. Jabbing, up on his toes, he looks at ease, but to him there are better places to be.

For Alexander, life in the ring began in the fall of 1995, when a former narcotics detective began teaching him and 29 other kids how to slip punches and throw hooks in the basement of an abandoned police station. Officer Kevin Cunningham had brought these boys from their elementary school, for which he was a community patrolman. In most cities police don't monitor elementary schools, but this was the Hyde Park section of St. Louis, which had a crack-fueled economy and one of the highest homicide rates in the city. Here, Bloods and Crips start recruiting children around age nine. Cunningham got to these kids before the gangs did, but it wouldn't change things much in the end.

As a boy in St. Louis, Cunningham, now 45, kept clear of trouble with the help of two equally powerful forces. "I was always playing sports," he says, "and my mom would beat the s--- out of me if I joined a gang." Having boxed as an amateur, Cunningham began his career in public service through his love of the sweet science. In high school, a recruiter promised that if he joined the Army he could "just box." He enlisted. More than a decade later, he was a cop, but he would sell a liquor store that he owned on the side in order to return to his passion -- this time as a trainer.

Taping Alexander's gloves, Cunningham notes that the gym in the old police station (now the St. Louis Parking Meter Division) was once a shooting range. The trainer believes this helped motivate his kids. "That's why they was fighting so hard when they was little -- smelling that gun powder," he says. After one year and thousands of dollars from his own pocket, Cunningham was winning tournaments around the country with his team. Today he's one of the world's premier trainers, but back then he had only the simple hope of, he says, "using boxing to save some souls."

A look at the numbers seems to indicate that Cunningham was a spectacular failure: Of those first 30 children, nine are now dead. About an equal number are in jail. Others were lost to the streets, many joining the Bloods or Crips. Through it all, one boy survived: Alexander, who last summer fought for the world 140-pound championship with Cunningham in his corner. "I'd ask myself why I didn't get shot walking to the gym," Alexander, says. "Any of us could have fallen to a stray." He shakes his head.

"Of those kids, he's the last one standing," says Cory Spinks, who has been a kind of big brother to Alexander for more than a decade. Spinks, 32, the son of former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, is the current IBF 154-pound champion. He started boxing at around age six and then quit at 15, after both his older brother, Leon Jr., and his best friend were murdered in a two-year span. He was soon hanging out with members of the Crips and even started a crew with his friends, J.M.V. (John Murder Ville), named for John Street, where he grew up. For months Cunningham tried to persuade Spinks to join the Hyde Park program. Finally he succeeded, and after Spinks won his first world title in 2003, he and Cunningham celebrated by buying matching Hummers. Though splitting with Cunningham several weeks ago, Spinks said recently, "I could never fight under anyone but Kevin."

His protégé, Alexander, says these exact words, with equal conviction. He has seen Cunningham six days a week, every week, for the past 15 years. "It's an incredible bond that they have," says Alexander's promoter, Don King.

That bond will be on full display Saturday night when Alexander fights on HBO against Colombia's Juan Urango to unify the junior welterweight title.

*****

Almost six years ago, Alexander's father, Chico, was battling terminal cancer, and Devon hoped to lift his spirits by qualifying for the Olympic team. He didn't make the cut. Cunningham sat him down to console him. "I know it's rough right now," the trainer said, "but you're going to become champion of the world. And the next punch you throw, you're going to get a paycheck for throwing it." Chico died soon after, on June 3, 2004; the news reached Devon the day of his second pro bout, which he won unanimously. He cried that night. He wouldn't cry again until after he fought for the title, nearly five years later.

Under Cunningham's guidance Alexander ascended the pro ranks, fighting around the globe, from Newark to Chengdu, China, amassing an 18-0 record with 11 knockouts and earning the nickname Alexander the Great. His southpaw skills are so respected that before Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s showdown with Manny Pacquiao was canceled, Mayweather asked Alexander to spar with him. His toughness is unquestioned. Alexander won two fights despite having a broken knuckle, and in more than 300 amateur and pro bouts, he has never been so much as knocked down, let alone knocked out.

While eating chocolate chip cookies at his apartment in a gated community 20 miles northwest of Hyde Park, Alexander states the obvious: "I'm a little weird." His kindergarten teacher remembers a quiet child with a sweet tooth who was picked on for jumping rope with the girls and never retaliated when someone hit him. He had no interest in gangs or even in partying. "I'm more a homebody," he says, but he adds incongruously, "My biggest thing is the girls." His vice is women, from whom he is insulated during the two-month buildup to a fight. "If you don't abstain from sex then," he says, "Your legs get to trembling, and you don't have your stamina."

When Alexander was a child, the obstacles to his success were more serious. "Devon walked through fire every day," says Capt. Ronnie Robinson, who headed a gang unit that patrolled Alexander's high school. The Bloods claimed the school's southwest corner, the Crips its northeast.

In his Monte Carlo, Alexander takes a detour through the Fifth District on his way home from the gym. He points out corners where friends were murdered; the home where burglars once shot at him and his siblings as they scrambled up the stairs; a street where he was warned of a drive-by that would occur hours later.

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