Several years ago, back when Timothy Bradley was just starting to rise in the junior welterweight division, he would often hear the name of another up-and-comer in his weight class, a lanky kid with a toothy smile from St. Louis named Devon Alexander.
"I was 15-0 and watching him on TV," Bradley recalled. "He was watching me on TV. I knew that someday we were going to have to get it on."
In boxing -- a sport where the most logical fights are often the ones that aren't made -- someday doesn't always arrive. But on Jan. 29 in Detroit, two of the 140-pound division's best will square off. They won't be too old (Bradley is 27, Alexander 23) or too beat up. They both boast spotless records and own major titles. Indeed, Bradley-Alexander is relevant in every possible way.
"I don't know on what scale everyone else out there sees this fight, but this is the biggest fight of my career and Devon's career," Bradley said. "It shows what type of fighters we are. We are young and both in our prime and you rarely ever see two undefeated guys -- two world champions -- Americans, fight each other. You rarely see that and it's come down to this. I am seeded No. 1 and he has to prove to the world that he is better than I am. That's going to be a hell of a challenge. I am fired up."
In a sport craving fresh stars, the winner will take a significant step toward becoming one. HBO is putting its marketing muscle behind Bradley-Alexander, strategically pushing for the high-profile television date the weekend before the Super Bowl, producing two episodes of its Emmy-nominated digital series Ring Life to profile the fighters and wallpapering the outside of a Walgreens in Times Square with a billboard promoting the fight. If simply winning isn't enough to make a star, the network is determined to help create one.
And why not? Bradley (26-0, 11 knockouts) and Alexander (21-0, 13 KOs) have a natural appeal that stems from the road each took to get here. Bradley is a skilled tactician who shunned the gang life in North Palm Springs, Calif., for the boxing gym. He won his first world title when he beat British star Junior Witter in England in 2008 and unified the titles in 2009 when he got off the canvas twice to outpoint Kendall Holt.
Growing up in north St. Louis, Alexander learned boxing in the basement of an old police station, where he was trained and managed by former officer Kevin Cunningham. Alexander lost several friends to drugs and violence and even more to prison over the years, including his brother, Vaughn, a former junior middleweight prospect who is serving an 18-year sentence for robbery. In 2009, Alexander beat Witter to win his first alphabet title and picked up another belt in a spectacular knockout victory over Juan Urango five months later.
This opportunity wasn't given to either Bradley or Alexander. It was earned.
"This is a fight just like the old days," Alexander said. "They used to want to fight the best. They would be itching to fight the best. They used to say, 'He's the best, let me get in there with him.' It brings back a lot of the roots in boxing and it means a lot to have two undefeated champions. It's a major thing."
The winner could go on to even bigger things. If Bradley and Alexander are No. 1 and 2 in the division, Amir Khan is a close No. 3. The once-beaten Khan boosted his credentials last month when he outlasted Marcos Maidana in SI.com's 2010 Fight of the Year. Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer told SI.com that he would like to match Khan with the winner of Bradley-Alexander later this year.
"The winner ... will definitely have to fight Amir Khan," Bradley said. "If they don't do it, the media should put the pressure on them because I think that's the way it should go. I think we all should get a shot at each other. Styles make fights, and on any given night, you know you might be in there with the wrong style and you might get beat.
"We should do a round robin. I should get a shot at Amir; Devon should get a shot at Amir. He should get a shot at Maidana and I should get a shot at Maidana. Like back in the old days with Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler -- they all went at it a couple of times. Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor; they went at it a couple of times. Let's do that, the best fighting the best. Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier three times. That's what boxing needs to bring it back."
First Bradley and Alexander will settle their business with each other. Both are confident. Alexander believes he can attack Bradley's chin, a weakness exposed in the win over Holt. Bradley believes Alexander can be outboxed, as he nearly was in a narrow win over Andriy Kotelnik last summer.
"I've known [Alexander] since he was a little kid in the amateurs and he knows me," Bradley said. "It's going to make for a great fight. We came a long way and we are determined."