By Jake Donovan
The last time Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham met in the ring, they provided an unforgettable ending to a largely forgettable fight series on Versus Network.
Come December 22, the two are bestowed with a setting more befitting a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Their rematch – which takes place at Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – will air live on NBC’s flagship network, serving as its first notable main event in more than 20 years.
The bout comes on the heels of a long-term extension reached between the network and Main Events. The two sides have enjoyed a working relationship for a long time, enough to experiment with a prospect-based series in 2003 and 2004.
Late last year, Main Events returned to the network’s doorstep with the idea of a boxing series to air on the Peacock’s growing sports outlet, NBC Sports Network. The move was significant, since NBC Sports Network is the new face of Versus, so a natural hesitance would have been understood.
Several successful shows later, boxing fans are treated to a Saturday matinee affair on free TV. The matchup of heavyweight contenders marks the first bout of such status on NBC’s airwaves since its ‘Sportsworld’ series went off the air in 1992.
“We’ve had a fabulous experience with NBC Sports in the past year,” stated Kathy Duva, head of Main Events, during a press conference Tuesday afternoon to formally announce the rematch. “We will have done six shows, seven by the time this one happens. It’s all good and it’s all positive. They couldn’t have come up with a better main event (for NBC).”
Their first encounter served as a bailout for a poorly executed ‘Versus Fight Night’ series years ago. Top Rank would later admit the error of its ways, working out the kinks for a more successful ‘Top Rank Live’ series. However, enough damage was already done to send Versus screaming out the door after a miserable two-year long relationship with the sport.
Top Rank was no longer involved by the time the final episode aired, headlined by the lineal cruiserweight championship between Adamek (co-promoted by Main Events) and Cunningham (then promoted by Don King). Twelve rounds later, fans didn’t care who was involved with the show. All they knew was that more than two years of torture was finally met with one of the best fights of 2008.
Cunningham (25-4, 12KO) was viewed by most as the best active cruiserweight in the world, demonstrating as such early on against Adamek, who was in his most significant fight since losing his light heavyweight belt to Chad Dawson nearly two years prior. The Pole was battle-tested along the way, including an 8th round stoppage of former cruiserweight king O’Neil Bell earlier in the year.
As Cunningham would eventually find out, Adamek (47-2, 29KO) was no longer a light heavyweight growing into a new division. He was in fact a true cruiserweight contender – and eventual champion after dropping the Philly fighter three times over the course of their 12-round instant classic.
The thing about the fight was that Cunningham – the defending titlist at the time - appeared to be in control whenever he managed to stay on his feet. His ability to outbox Adamek explained in part the split decision verdict by fight’s end despite three knockdowns scored against him.
It’s been a long four-year wait to exact revenge.
“I can truthfully say with the last fight that I underestimated Adamek,” Cunningham admitted when recalling their first fight. “I went on to get knocked down three times. I just want to put on a great fight. Above that, (I want to) win.”
The time frame includes another tour as a cruiserweight titlist, which ended late last year with the first of two consecutive losses to Yoan Pablo Hernandez. The latter of the two losses left many to believe that the best days are well behind the 36-year old, though he hopes that the move one division north will help dispel that notion.
A tune-up win over journeyman Jason Gavern in September didn’t provide much other than a way to avoid more time on the sidelines. It does carry a bit of significance, however, in that the Adamek rematch – barring postponement – will serve as his third fight of 2012. The last time he fought more than twice in a calendar year was all the way back in 2001, his first full year as a pro.
The exact opposite holds true for Adamek, who in his 14th year as a pro has only experienced three calendar years in which he didn’t fight at least three times.
The wildly popular brawler in two markets – Northeast U.S. (New Jersey, specifically) and Poland – was lauded by many in the industry for his willingness to keep active regardless of network coverage or competition level. The strategy helped build an already sizeable fan base as well as arouse interest for an eventual heavyweight title fight with Vitali Klitschko last September.
The bout took place in front of more than 42,000 fans at a brand new soccer stadium in Poland. All the fan support in the world, however, couldn’t help Adamek, who fell prey to Klitschko after 10 of the most uncompetitive rounds of his career.
A brief disagreement with Main Events over the future direction of his career instead put it on pause, though he eventually came to his senses and rejoined forces with the Jersey-based outfit earlier this year. The move was right on time, as he was added to an NBC Sports Network broadcast that saw the career revival of former two-division champ Zab Judah this past March.
Less than three months later, Adamek was headlining his own show, though had to rally back – and rely on a little bit of luck – in overcoming the challenge of Eddie Chambers this past June. The former two-division champ was in trouble early, but a mid-fight injury suffered by Chambers helped turn the fight around and resuscitate Adamek’s status as a heavyweight contender.
Time isn’t exactly on either fighter’s side, though it can be argued that years of ring wars may catch up to the 35-year old Adamek sooner rather than later. This fact is not lost on him as he prepares for a fight in which the winner will be moved within a win of challenging for the lineal heavyweight crown.
“After 2008, I’m sure Steve was hungry. I took his belt and he waited four years for a rematch,” Adamek notes. “The IBF gave him a chance (the fight is a sanctioned eliminator for the #2 ranking) and it should be an interesting fight.”
The fight was made primarily because it was a perfect fit for the vision Main Events carried in reintroducing boxing to network television. There is now the added bonus of the winner going on to face unbeaten contender Kabret Pulev sometime next year, with that winner eventually getting a crack at lineal heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko (pending a win over Mariusz Wach in November).
Adamek doesn’t look very far into the future, realizing that his return go with Cunningham is a major step towards dictating the direction of the remainder of his career.
“I’m four years older but I’m still a warrior. It should be a good fight. I say for Steve, good luck. Be aware, I’m training very hard. See you December 22.”
So too, will millions of boxing fans who can only reminisce of the last time they watched a significant fight on NBC.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox