PONTIAC, Mich. -- As the crowds began slowly filling the seats inside the cavernous Silverdome early Saturday evening, the cigar-chomping, hardcore boxing aficionados and fur-festooned underworld peacocks mingled easily with the more casual lovers of the sport. They all had gathered in this surprisingly intimate setting that had been created inside the 80,000-seat dome for the sort of battle anyone with even the slightest interest in the Sweet Science could appreciate.
It was not a particularly large live gate, barely above 6,200 paying witnesses, but that did not matter nearly as much as the number of eyes that would be watching on television. HBO had worked hard to cultivate a national following for Saturday night's Devon Alexander-Tim Bradley world championship unification bout for the junior welterweight title.
With boxing clearly losing its grip on the combat-sports audience to mixed martial arts, the people who run boxing have been searching desperately for some magic formula to reclaim its lost position as one of America's most popular spectator sports.
This was the fight that was supposed to begin to elevate boxing back to its perch.
It had everything you could hope for, two young and talented unbeaten American fighters free of all nonsense. And then it ended with a big and disappointing thud.
Nearly two minutes into the 10th round, the fight was stopped by the ring physician on an anticlimactic head butt, giving Bradley a unanimous technical decision.
You could literally hear the air of excitement leave the building, and you also could imagine how many disappointing viewers on television were left stunned and frustrated and desperately wanting more from this much-anticipated championship bout.
As he left the ring with his right eye bloodied and bruised, St. Louis's young boxing star and now deposed world champion had a lot to think about. The 23-year-old kid from North St. Louis had come in here sure that he was experienced enough to handle the older and more experienced Bradley. But in the end, it did come down to experience.
Bradley did what Bradley always does, play the role of the skillful bully, wading into Alexander with every legitimate and illegitimate trick in the book and Alexander couldn't find a way to avoid the predictable contact.
Even though trainer Kevin Cunningham had cornered referee Frank Garza before the fight and cautioned him about how much Bradley likes to head butt, and continued to scream at him throughout the fight as Bradley kept leading with his head, Alexander couldn't get out of the way.
So now he leaves Motown with the first loss of his professional career, knowing that the mega-fight he was dreaming of will have to wait.
That one will surely go to Bradley now that he has two of the four junior welterweight belts, an unblemished 27-0 record and the weight of HBO's promotion machine behind him.
And Alexander had to go home and learn from this harsh lesson he received.
His rise to stardom isn't over, it's only postponed until he can get back in the ring and redeem himself against another quality opponent. But the thing he needs to do now is not only learn from this fight, but also be a more active boxer.
He needs to build up experience in the heat of battle, not simply in sparring rounds in an isolated training camp. He needs to go back and examine what the great welterweights such as Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns did in their formative years. For example, before his classic showdown with Hearns in 1985, Leonard fought five other times in the 12 months before that fight and so did Hearns.
They were as active as great champions can be and it served them well not only for ring experience, but also getting their names out there in front of the public.
You can't rise to superstardom if people only see you once or twice a year.
But at least this was a good start for boxing's revival strategy. Now let's see if we can get more of these fights for both guys.
If boxing wants to find its place back up on the pedestal in America's sports consciousness again, then we're going to have to see a lot more intriguing must-see fights like Alexander vs. Bradley that surely have the potential for that sort of appeal.
"That's what makes this whole situation so interesting," said Emanuel Steward, the legendary Hall of Fame trainer. "This may not be a big fight to the rest of the world, but it is huge in the boxing world because it will help set up a super fight in the future."
Even if you can't appreciate the aesthetics of mixed martial arts, you have to admire the way the people who run it have captured the hearts and minds of the sports public by doing something so utterly simple: giving the people what they want.
You go to a UFC or Strikeforce event and they always have appealing cards. The biggest names and best fighters always are battling each other. There's little drama, no nonsense and few instances where they have to drag these guys into the ring.
Boxing on the other hand has been shooting itself in the foot for decades, as the best boxers never seem to get into the ring against each other in their primes.
Once upon a time when boxing was king, that never was a problem.
Remember the 1980s when the welterweights dominated the sport and men such as Leonard, Hearns, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Wilfredo Benitez were not only stars of their sport, but some of the biggest superstars in the American sports mainstream?
Remember when the big heavyweights in the 1970s such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and Ken Norton had no problem going head to head to decide who was the best and brightest?
We've been missing that for a long time in boxing, and Alexander-Bradley could be the first of many intriguing matchups in the junior welterweight class that could produce the sort of renewed interest by the American sporting public to create a new wave of telegenic boxing stars and superstars.
"With all the talk of (mixed martial arts) and the UFC taking over boxing, I never thought that it was something that the MMA was doing to boxing that was the problem," Steward said. "I think the problem is that boxing has not made the right decisions and hurt itself by not making the right bouts. The fights the fans and media say they want to see have not been made because the promoters have their own agendas. Now we've got to keep making the fights the fans and media want to see instead of listening to a promoter who doesn't want to see a fight made because he has control of both fighters or the fighter who has his own reasons for waiting."
In order for boxing to have that revival, we need to see more of what we've witnessed in the buildup to Alexander-Bradley. The movers and shakers of professional boxing no longer can be the promoters who are governed by their own self-interests that often are in direct conflict with the best interests of the sport.
In another place and time, this fight never would have happened so soon -- the promoters for Alexander and Bradley, Don King and Gary Shaw, so much as admitted that they did not want to make this fight. However the powers that be at HBO Sports, division president Ross Greenburg and vice president of programming Kery Davis, effectively took control of the sport's future by convincing both of the fighters' reluctant promoters that this fight had to happen right now.
"Don and I weren't sure it was the right time," Shaw admitted. "But (Greenburg and Davis) said it is the right time because big fights lead to bigger fights."
What HBO is doing is attempting to cultivate boxing stars who will grow on the public.
The 140-pound division is loaded with potential celebrity boxers and every time HBO has one of them on the air, they treat the promotion of the fight like it's a pay-per-view event, with tons of digital publicity by the network, constant publicity with TV spots on HBO, a giant billboard in Times Square and three-quarter page print ad in USA Today.
"On Saturday night one of these guys is going to be elevated," Davis said, "but that doesn't mean that the loser will be hurt, particularly if it's a great fight. It's going to be like with the welterweights of the '80s. Leonard wasn't hurt when he lost to Duran. Tommy wasn't hurt when he lost to Leonard. But the winner will clearly be elevated (to star level). You're looking at (welterweight superstars) Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao who are only a stone's throw away from this division. So you can envision what greatness could be on the horizon for both of these guys.
"This is bringing a lot of energy to this division," Davis said. "We have guys in their career primes fighting each other again. For too long we had fighters who never meet at the right time in their careers. We eventually get the big name guys to fight, but one guy -- or both guys -- end up being past their primes. Now we have Devon and Tim fighting in their primes and it's very similar to Tommy (Hearns) and Ray (Leonard). And we have a lot of other good young boxers in their primes that we'll be able to get to face each other in the near future too."
Case in point. In looking up research for this story, I came across an article in August of 2000, when Davis had just been promoted as HBO's top negotiator. At the time, Davis' first important fight negotiation was going on.
He was trying to put on a fight that everyone in the boxing world was clamouring for:
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao.
More than 10 frustrating years later, Davis is still trying to get that fight made with no success.
Since it doesn't look like Mayweather-Pacquiao will ever happen, the best thing to do is create a new crop of marketable faces of the sport.
Saturday night was the start of something big.