By Cliff Rold
It took over fifteen years for Evander Holyfield’s claim to the lineal World Cruiserweight championship to be filled again. 32-year old Tomasz Adamek (36-1, 24 KO) of Poland needed only a few months to fill the vacancy left earlier this year when David Haye moved up to heavyweight. On this night at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey no win missed him.
Topping off what may have been Boxing’s most crowd pleasing television doubleheader of the year, Adamek captured the IBF Cruiserweight and vacant Ring Magazine titles in an epic split decision war with 32-year old incoming IBF titlist Steve Cunningham (21-2, 11 KO) that will stand the test of time as one of the greatest battles ever seen in the almost three-decades of recorded Cruiserweight action.
Both men weighed in below the division limit of 200 lbs., Cunningham at 197 and Adamek at 197. The referee was Earl Morton. A massive Polish contingent chanted the name of Adamek as the two combatants squared off for the opening stare down, palpable electricity spreading through the arena.
Cunningham came out at the opening bell circling the ring to his left, flicking the jab. A lead left hook and left to body crashed home for Cunningham just past the first minute and a minute more would pass before Adamek landed a clean right lead along the ropes. Cunningham slammed a right-left combination to the head of Adamek in the final thirty seconds, punctuating with another right immediately.
Adamek increased the pressure in the second, ripping a left and right which caused Cunningham to drop his hands before firing back with a left hook of his own. Both fired and landed sharp, fast punches but Adamek’s were harder. With less than a minute to go, a right hand jarred Cunningham to the temple and in the final ten seconds an exchange of blows ended with a counter left, again to the temple, to deposit Cunningham on the floor. Cunningham rose quickly to hear out the mandatory standing eight-count before heading to his corner.
The rabid crowd’s echoing chants of “Adamek” went up another notch to start the third as their favorite continued to stalk. Cunningham bounced, moving side to side but only sporadically firing his jab early. A left from Adamek landed to the chin and Cunningham clinched before moving away. A pair of long rights landed to the head and body for Cunningham late but control remained Adamek’s.
Right away in the fourth a right slammed into Adamek’s chin and Cunningham came forward with a bevy of left hooks and uppercuts. Adamek reeled from one set of ropes to another, covering and barely keeping his feet. The crowd gasped and Cunningham came forward with fury for close to two minutes before the assault left him arm weary. Stepping back and looking for the next opening, Cunningham instead gave one to Adamek, lazily leaving his left hand hanging and eating another right hand to the temple, toppling to the floor with some thirty seconds to go. Cunningham rose with far unsteadier legs then had been the case in his first trip to the floor. Adamek came forward, landing another right hand, and then another, but Cunningham would not relent and the bell ended a round of the year candidate.
Round five would play out in slower, more dominant fashion as Cunningham played defense in search of his legs while Adamek’s right sought a final sweet spot. Again in the closing seconds, momentum would swing as a right and left from Cunningham would turn his back away from the ropes and turn him stalker for the closing seconds.
Marking the halfway point of the bout, Cunningham boxed intelligently for the full three minutes of the sixth, capturing his most decisive frame of the bout to then. Circling and using the jab he’d largely forgotten, Cunningham refused to stand still and trade. The tactic continued in the seventh but Adamek was unwilling to stay at distance. A massive Cunningham right seemed only to inspire Adamek’s urgency and the challenger pushed forward. Cunningham stayed with the right but it was an Adamek left and right hand in the closing seconds which reminded the fight was far from over.
The Cunningham right again landed early in the seventh; Adamek responded with his own. A series of flurries for Adamek along the ropes set Cunningham up with a minute to go for yet another right and Cunningham was down for the third time in the bout. Rising and shaking his head in disgust, Cunningham again hung on, slipping Adamek’s attempts to finish before landing two neck stiffening uppercuts. Adamek didn’t seem to notice, pulling his head back into place and returning to battle.
In yet another gutsy turn, the first two minutes and forty seconds of round nine would be all Cunningham. Boxing and circling, he landed jabs and right hands which seemed to stun Adamek, one driving him across the ring. With twenty seconds to go though, it was an Adamek right bringing another wobble to the knees to Cunningham. He stayed up and fired back right away, refusing to give any more ground to Adamek.
A right hand and left hook blistered the jaw of Adamek early in the tenth and again working off the jab proved effective for Cunningham. His right hand landed and left hooks followed while Adamek stalked. In the final thirty seconds, it was again an Adamek right birthing a violent explosion of action. Both men traded heavy power shots until the bell.
Three rights landed to start the eleventh for Cunningham and Adamek, swelling under the left eye, was moved forcibly to the ropes. Adamek gripped Cunningham beneath the armpits and swung him around, landing a right before Cunningham returned fire and snatched control back from the challenger. Each traded sporadically until the closing seconds again brought the action to a crowd pleasing crescendo.
And there were still three minutes to go.
Touching gloves at center ring, Adamek probably ahead on the cards, neither man would play the shrinking violet. Both would land telling blows but with a minute to go, Cunningham caught Adamek with a whipping right to the chin. Adamek, exhausted, fought him off, taking the worst of it down the stretch but was the late rounds surge enough to save the night for Cunningham?
It was not.
Clark Sammartino’s 114-112 for Cunningham was overruled by John Stewart at 116-110 and Shafeeq Rashada at 115-112, all for the winner and new champion Adamek.
Adamek wouldn’t address whether he was surprised by the split decision having scored three knockdowns. “Don’t question me. This is a question for the (judges). I show fight. I am champion. I am very happy.” Asked if he’d been hurt by Cunningham in the fight, Adamek responded, “He is not strong. He is good with much punches but he is not strong.”
The obvious question of a rematch was addressed indirectly, but the new champion did not say no. “This was a mandatory…I am ready to have a fight with every fighter in my division.” Cunningham was more open about a return engagement. “I think the fans want to see a rematch. That was an awesome fight…I would love to fight him again if he’ll have me…I could box more and I know I could get him out of there.”
Cunningham was gracious in defeat even as the Adamek partisans showed poor class in booing during his interview. “I give honor to my God, in Jesus’ name. It’s an honor to be a champion and defend the title. I thank God…a little ring rust but no excuses. I didn’t use my jab as much. Those flash knockdowns are what did it and it’s my fault.” The former champion regretted missing a big chance in the fourth. “I hit him and I thought I could get him out of there and I spent myself and that’s how he got that last knockdown. That was totally my fault. I should have let off a little. I stuck to my game plane a little and then veered off from it.”
Another scheduled twelve rounds would be welcome by all who love the sport of Boxing and if veering from plans is what it takes to produce a classic, then so be it. It was not the only piece of fistic brutality on tap Thursday night.
One week after the pay-per-view showdown between Oscar De la Hoya and Manny Pacquiao provided fans with an unworthy undercard, the Cunningham-Adamek show opened up with a world title war at Bantamweight for (cable) free. Making his first title defense some fifteen months after capturing IBF belt at 118 lbs., Ghana’s 28-year old Joseph Agbeko (26-1, 22 KO) survived a game challenge from 27-year old mandatory challenger William Gonzalez (21-3, 19 KO) in a bout that covered both men in glory.
Both men came out behind their jabs at the opening bell, Gonzalez, 117, a southpaw with the right and Agbeko, 118, with an orthodox left. Just shy of a minute in an Agbeko right bent Gonzalez’s knees but he stayed up. As the round progressed, Gonzalez attempted to find room for his left but was forced to absorb the punch as a lead hook from the titlist. A right and left were blocked by Agbeko, whose gloves were held high, but Gonzalez stemmed his momentum with a wicked uppercut to the groin. After a brief respite for Agbeko to collect himself, it was Gonzalez ending the round with straight power punches.
Round two picked up with both men winging power shots and remaining in the trenches throughout. Each would stun the other, trading the initiative back and forth behind hard lead power shots. Gonzalez appeared to get the best of it down the stretch and he continued his assault in the third with an early right hook. As the seconds ticked off the clock, Agbeko began to reassert himself by mixing in hooks to the body but the punch totals continued at uncountable levels.
What passed for a slower pace marked the early going of the fourth round. The flow of leather and a number of head butts throughout the bout had opened a cut over the left eye of Gonzalez and a swelling under his right. Agbeko’s right eye also showed a mouse beneath it. Both warriors continued to throw despite their wounds. The Ghanaian’s lead left hook was beginning to take its toll, the last of them in the frame standing Gonzalez up.
In the fifth, Agbeko’s advantage in landed blows increased. Often sans a jab, sneaky lead lefts sliced through the gloves of Gonzalez when the left hook wasn’t slamming into the challengers cheeks. The pace slowed again in the sixth, Agbeko with the advantage, but the closing moments saw a second nasty low blow landed for Gonzalez.
The cup shot didn’t slow Agbeko this time around. In the seventh he continued to apply pressure, blocking the best of the Nicaraguan’s offense while sliding in and out with power shots. Gonzalez adjusted halfway through the eighth round, probing more with his jab and looking to counter the charges of Agbeko. While it was not enough to stop the incoming, it allowed the challenger room for a hard pair of body blows and his best left hand in a couple of rounds.
A second wind seemed reached by each man to start the ninth, each man bouncing on his toes and their shots carrying an echo not heard since the first three rounds. Gonzalez’s jab allowed room for a thudding left and right uppercut. Two Agbeko rights didn’t faze the challenger who fired back with a right hook. The Gonzalez jab popped Agbeko falling in repeatedly, jerking the champion’s face towards the floor.
It was Agbeko early in the tenth looking to make a statement after clearly losing the ninth. A hard lead right jerked Gonzalez’s head back and a hard left just missed. Gonzalez stayed with a steady jab. In the final minute both men opened up, a full sixty second exchange ensuing, and by the bell Gonzalez appeared to have hurt Agbeko badly to the body. The champion bent sharply at the waist with each landed blow, holding his left tightly to his lower left rib cage.
The left arm continued to hold the elbow close to his waist at the start of round eleven, seemingly still catching his breath. A left hook from Gonzalez whacked the chin of Agbeko a minute in but Agbeko took it well. In the final minute, it be would Agbeko landing the better blows and the stage was set for a blazing finale.
It instead got off to a tentative start as each looked for a best opportunity. A right to the head and then body for Agbeko began the story of the final frame. Pot shotting, Agbeko landed the punch at will both straight and as a hook repeatedly to dominate and close the show. In the end, the round was merely insurance for Agbeko who retained with a majority decision on matching scores from Larry Doggett and Larry Layton at 116-112, or eight rounds to four. Veteran official Tom Kaczmarek saw the bout even at 114-114. The referee was Earl Brown.
The card was televised in the United States on basic cable network Versus, promoted in concert by Don King Productions and Main Events.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]