Friday January 28th, 2011

DETROIT -- The two men sitting in the lower bowl were NBA fans, or so their Pistons T-shirts led you to believe. They were boxing fans, too, a subject their conversation turned to during a break in the action of Wednesday's Pistons-Nuggets game.

"You going to the fight on Saturday?" asked one as he powered down the last of his beer.

"Maybe," his friend replied. "Who's fighting?

"I don't know," he answered. "But they are both undefeated."

It's a sentiment echoed by many in the area and casual fans across the country. Yes, I like boxing. Yes, I'd like to see a good fight. No, I have no idea who is fighting. The anonymity of both Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander, who will try to unify their alphabet titles on Saturday at the Silverdome (HBO, 10 p.m. ET), is perhaps the one characteristic they share and a label both are eager to shed.

"This fight will basically be a start to stardom," Bradley said. "Boxing is starting to die down a little bit and [fans] are looking for some new faces in boxing. You got Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, but how long are these guys still going to be in the game? Boxing needs some new faces and Devon Alexander and myself are those faces."

Bradley's words ring true. For years, boxing's popularity has been predicated on the marketability of Pacquiao and Mayweather, a forced business model that has led to a steep decline in public interest. Networks like HBO and Showtime have tried to build mainstream stars -- think Andre Berto or anyone in the Super Six -- but have met minimal success.

Why? One-sided fights, for starters. Berto's last two opponents have gone a total of nine rounds, while the Super Six has been plagued by shady withdrawals that have forced Showtime to shuffle matchups and scramble for viable opponents. The more success a fighter has these days, it seems, the less inclined he is to get in the ring with a quality opponent.

That's not the case here. Bradley and Alexander represent the best the 140-pound division has to offer. It would have been easy for both to skip this fight, to fatten their wallets and records with more manageable opponents like Zab Judah, Victor Ortiz or Lamont Peterson. But the hunger for recognition -- along with a $1.2 million payday from HBO -- has made each eager to take the risk.

It is a risk, too. On Thursday, Bradley's promoter, Gary Shaw, declared that the winner of this fight will be a superstar, while the loser will just be a star. That will be true if the fight is competitive. But a bad loss could easily send the loser's career into a tailspin. How many thought Jeff Lacy was the real deal before he was destroyed by Joe Calzaghe? How many believed in Judah before Carlos Baldomir beat him in his hometown and Mayweather wiped him out?

"I love to take risks," Bradley said. "That's what this fight is all about. To be the best, you've got to beat the best."

As competitive as Bradley-Alexander looks on paper -- Bradley is ranked as the No. 1 junior welterweight by Ring magazine, Alexander No. 3 -- both fighters have limited résumés. Bradley (26-0) is more experienced, but his biggest wins have come against a faded Junior Witter and an overrated Kendall Holt. Alexander (21-0) also beat Witter and knocked out the iron-chinned Juan Urango, but he struggled to get past veteran Andriy Kotelnik in his last fight.

It's what makes the outcome of this fight so difficult to predict. A recent media poll showed 31 writers picking Bradley and 15 leaning toward Alexander. But during fight week there have been questions about whether Bradley, who was knocked down twice by Holt, can stand up to Alexander's power. Bradley says he is not concerned. Alexander's trainer, Kevin Cunningham, thinks he is.

"He has to say something to make himself believe he has an edge," Cunningham said. "Devon's power has gotten increasingly better. He's learning how to change speeds. I'm telling you, Devon is going to paint a masterpiece."

Unfortunately, there won't be many people at the Silverdome to see it, at least not ones who paid for tickets. Grant Reeves, the general manager of the building, says ticket sales are at "60 percent of where they want them to be," which interpreted, according to a source, means only about 4,000 seats have been sold. There won't be a raucous crowd on hand to juice the fighters, but the widespread recognition that awaits the winner is motivation enough.

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