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Devon Alexander escaped streets of St. Louis to become a champion

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.

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.

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."

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