Could Butler be the next great American hope?

Originally Published: February 13, 2007
By Joe Tessitore | Special to ESPN.com

There has to be something better out there. There just has to be. The most recent Ring rankings I received show James Toney, Shannon Briggs, Lamon Brewster and John Ruiz as the only Americans among the top 10 rated heavyweights.

Alonzo Butler
Butler

I know all the overused theories. We have all heard that this new American sports society can't produce viable heavyweight contenders anymore. They say the guy who would be the champ is playing defensive end in the NFL now. Or they stretch it to say that guy is getting a college hoops scholarship to play power forward. But come on!

You're telling me the most hypercompetitive, contact sport-crazed country in the world can't come up with one single guy under the age of 35 in the top 10?

"Everything is handed to people now. Nobody is growing up as hungry. Life got better," Alonzo Butler theorizes. "The Russians grew up harder. They fight with desire. The U.S. heavyweights fight for money. I'd like to change that."

Please do. Please do.

The undefeated Butler (24-0-1, 18 KOs) is big, strong and committed to the cause. He is fighting the seemingly overmatched James Walton on the opening bout of this week's Friday Night Fights (ESPN2, 9 ET).

The show is taking place at the palatial Wynn Las Vegas as part of the NBA All-Star Weekend. There will be a lot of important eyeballs watching from ringside. Sports industry movers and shakers, celebs and players will be there. It's a chance to have a muscular 6-foot-3, 260-pound American heavyweight get people excited again.

"I watch a lot of old fighters. I'm more like the personality of Joe Louis. I'm nice and outgoing out of the ring, but in the ring I'm mean. My last opponent told me I'm vicious. I can smile all day in your face but in the ring it's different."

"The Russians grew up harder. They fight with desire. The U.S. heavyweights fight for money. I'd like to change that."
Alonzo Butler

It better be different. On the surface it looks like Butler may fall in line with the rest of these modern day heavyweight hopefuls -- fighters who have the physical size but came to the sport a little too late. Consequently they don't have the needed skill. Or there's the other common characteristic: just not having enough of that something special to make it to the next level. But I will say this: Butler does have the one thing that can overcome all of that. He can punch.

"I've been in 25 fights and everybody I have hit has either gone down or been hurt," Butler says with great pride.

Joshua Roy, who helps guide Butler's career as the executive vice president of Banner Promotions, says, "He is one of the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division today and he will KO James Walton."

Yes, that is the plan. If Butler doesn't knock out Walton (21-8-2), an opponent who hasn't fought in 15 months, then what is the point of getting us excited? The master plan is a little meatier.

"My game plan is to break into the top 10 this year, contend for a title and then win it," Butler told us without hesitation.

Butler admits he was a little nervous for his last few TV fights. It showed. He gave ringsiders the sense that they could've, and more significantly should've, seen a little more.

Alonzo Butler, right, and Zack Page
Shane SimsButler lands a right to the head of Zack Page, who was the victim of a fifth-round TKO on April 29.

He knows he needs to prove he can be faster and more skilled. Those are all issues stemming from a limited amateur career. Boxing guru Ace Miller of Knoxville, Tenn., has been teaching Butler with on-the-job training. It's been more than six years now since Butler left the tough projects on the west side of College Hill Court in Chattanooga for his boxing education.

"When I got out of the projects of Chattanooga, and moved to Knoxville there were no handouts. I worked at Budweiser until 4 a.m. stacking beer, than I did road work with Ace early morning."

Here we go again. We want to believe. We so dearly want to buy in and go with it.

"He's only 27. Most of the heavyweight contenders or champs are well into the 30s and they are retreads," said Roy. "Everyone is looking for the next guy and everyone has a shot at it. First off, Alonzo can punch with either hand. Everyone has a chance, especially big punchers. With his activity levels, and the progression that he has made, it's a realistic possibility."

Surely, during Friday's broadcast I will ask Teddy Atlas if Butler could be the one. Clearly at some point I'll ask if Butler has what it takes to recapture the sports public's love for the heavyweight champ.

It's going to happen at some point. A superstar heavyweight will unify the belts and take over the sport. He will not be from a former Soviet republic but rather from a former heavyweight hotbed -- the USA. You never know from which direction or from where he will come. But you do know that one lovable American badass is out there.

Hopefully, he isn't on a couch somewhere watching "MTV Cribs." Seeing NBA and NFLers dripping in bling, by way of playing a game, doesn't inspire a strong desire to get hit on the head in a dingy gym.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

Joe Tessitore has been the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and "Wednesday Night Fights" since 2002 and contributes a weekly boxing column to ESPN.com.