By Thomas Gerbasi
Four years is a long time to wait for anything. In boxing terms, it might as well be 40.
For now, that doesn’t matter to Steve Cunningham, who finally gets the rematch with Tomasz Adamek that he’s asked for since the final decision was rendered in their 2008 war in Newark, New Jersey. Will it matter on fight night in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this Saturday, when the two revisit matters on network television, courtesy of NBC?
That’s the question for the 36-year-old Philadelphian, one of boxing’s good guys who hasn’t been paid the same courtesy back by a sport where slick and technical boxers don’t get the acclaim or opportunities that brawlers like Adamek do.
Of course that’s never been a secret in fight circles, but the crazy thing about this situation is that Cunningham’s first fight with Adamek should have changed the perception of him forever and at least opened the door for the big fights (and subsequently the big paydays) he deserved. Dropped three times by Adamek, Cunningham rose after each trip to the canvas and fought even harder, thrilling the packed house at the Prudential Center. A few days after the fight, the United States Navy veteran described his mindset as the fight progressed.
“After the first knockdown, I couldn’t believe I went down, and then I was like, ‘man, I’ve got to get that point back,’” he said in 2008. “The second knockdown, I’m thinking pointwise – I’ve got to get this round back. After that second knockdown, I’m like ‘I need to knock this guy down.’ That’s my total motivation there, to get a knockdown. So I really started going at it. A lot of people said ‘why didn’t you get back on the jab?’ For me, with two knockdowns, I can’t have this fight be close. I gotta go and take my rounds back. So I’m doing great in round five, six, seven, and then boom, round eight, I go down again at the end of the round and I’m just stunned and angry at what’s going on. I’m talking to God now (Laughs) – do you want this to happen? Is this the way this is supposed to go? So after that I’m like, I need a knockdown or a knockout. And that’s what I was going for.”
It wasn’t what was expected of the Cunningham who soared to the top of the cruiserweight world in 2006-07 as primarily a boxer, splitting two IBF title bouts with Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in Poland, then going to Germany to stop the then-unbeaten Marco Huck. This was a blood and guts battler using his will, not just his skill, to give Adamek the fight of his life. When it was over, Adamek took a split decision victory which, when considering the three knockdowns, showed how close the bout was. And it came after a nearly year long layoff for Cunningham in which the other big names at cruiserweight at the time, David Haye and Jean-Marc Mormeck, weren’t exactly beating a path to his door.
But you would have assumed that getting dropped three times and putting on a Fight of the Year candidate would have produced the requisite amount of ‘okay, he’s got some flaws,’ and ‘we can make some money,’ among the big guns in the division.
That assumption would have been incorrect.
Adamek put Cunningham in the rear view mirror, fighting only twice more at cruiserweight before moving to the heavyweight division, where he would defeat the likes of Andrew Golota, Chris Arreola, and Michael Grant before losing a 2011 title fight to Vitali Klitschko. All the while, the popular Adamek would pack the Prudential Center in Newark, make nationally televised appearances, and get the big fights consistently.
Conversely, Cunningham stayed mainly on the fringes of the big time, with inactivity keeping him from matching Adamek’s success. He would regain the cruiserweight title when he beat Troy Ross in 2010, but after one successful defense against Enad Licina, he lost two straight to Cuba’s Yoan Pablo Hernandez. The common thread in all four bouts? Each was held in Germany, far from the east coast of the US where he could have built a following off the momentum of the first Adamek bout.
And you can’t say it was from lack of trying. Cunningham made the media rounds after the 2008 bout, with his team even creating a website, www.wewantarematch.com in an effort to build up support for a second fight. And there was plenty from fans and the media, but promoters and networks apparently weren’t biting.
So Cunningham’s career progressed into an odd sort of boxing limbo, with the family man making a living, but not the living he should have if there was any sort of justice in this sport. We all know how that goes though. The squeaky wheel gets oiled, and Cunningham wasn’t that squeaky wheel. He wasn’t Arturo Gatti either, though who is?
What is he then? One of the most underrated boxers of this era, a craftsman who showed up with no fanfare, put in an honest day’s work and then went back to the gym until the next time the phone rang with another fight. It’s not sexy, but it deserves respect, and Cunningham never got as much as he deserved.
That can all change on Saturday. Despite pondering a possible move to heavyweight for years, the 6-foot-3 Cunningham didn’t pull the trigger on fighting with the big boys until July of this year, when he signed with Main Events (Adamek’s promoter) and subsequently made his heavyweight debut with a near-shutout win over Jason Gavern in September.
That victory, coupled with the busy Adamek’s trio of post-Klitschko wins over Nagy Aguilera, Eddie Chambers, and Travis Walker this year, have set up a rematch that can either be described as better late than never, or just late, depending on who you’re talking to.
Is it the perfect storyline and fight for the mainstream NBC audience that boxing would love to recapture? Absolutely. But is it simply a showcase for Adamek, who, despite being the same age as Cunningham, is seen to have more upside at heavyweight in 2013? That remains to be seen, but with losses in two of his last three and not much of a track record, if any, at heavyweight, Cunningham appears to be the one with the uphill climb ahead of him in this bout.
But if the Philly fighter can surprise Adamek like he surprised him four years ago, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that wasn’t there the first time.
“What comes along with this fight is huge,” said Cunningham’s wife and manager Livvy. “It's like a red carpet rollout to the top of the heavyweight division. Basically it's a chance to jump to the top of the IBF rankings. We're participating in the heavyweight box-off, which puts us in the #2 spot and gives us the ability to step right into an eliminator. As a manager, I couldn't have planned it any better than that. I love the fight because it's not just a fight; it's a strategic move to fulfill a goal we have, and that's to become world heavyweight champion.”
Now that would be a happy ending for a good soldier of the sport that more than earned it. The only thing is, has the USS Cunningham’s ship already sailed?