by David P. Greisman
He thanked every fan and reporter who approached him, each saying that they thought he had won the fight. He spent the next morning and afternoon reposting and replying to others’ sentiments on Twitter, all in support of a boxer they believed had deserved the victory.
It all served as cold comfort to Steve Cunningham.
Every voice, every message only added to the outrage. Rather than soothe him, they only underlined the painful reality of what he, and they, could only see as a robbery.
“What more can I do, other than knock a dude out?” Cunningham said afterward. “What more can I do?”
He had done all he could for 12 rounds against Tomasz Adamek.
He had not been knocked down, as had happened three times four years ago, when they had first fought.
He had not been badly hurt, had not been drawn into a war he could not win, had not strayed too far from a strategy of discipline, of using speed and movement to offset his stronger but slower pursuer.
He had not been awarded the decision.
One judge gave Adamek seven rounds to Cunningham’s five. Another judge scored it even wider for the Polish heavyweight, at eight rounds to four. Only one official observer had Cunningham ahead, seeing it seven to five.
That single dissenting vote joined a larger chorus. Yet it was just those other two sets of numbers that truly counted.
This is the heartbreak of being a boxer, of being involved in a sport where the scores are not accumulated via baskets, goals, runs or touchdowns, but instead are decided by a trio of people seated feet away from the action. There is the cliché of a fighter taking his fate into his own hands, of taking his opponent out and making certain that the result is not left to those three observers positioned along the ring apron.
That is not always possible. Sometimes a fighter can only hope to do his job as well as he desires, and then he can only hope that the judges do their jobs as well as the boxers deserve for them to do.
This is the heartbreak of Steve Cunningham. He deserved better than this.
Sports teams have extended seasons over which they can attempt to make up for bad breaks. The athletes often are guaranteed millions of dollars each year no matter the team’s performance.
A single fight can change the course of a boxer’s career. One bad call can cost him a win — and the windfall that could come with it.
“It saddens me, man. It saddens me because, like I said before, I’m not a superstar,” Cunningham said afterward. “I’m a two-time champ. I’m a former two-time world champ, and yet unlike other former champs, like, let’s say, a Bernard Hopkins. He can lose to a Jermain Taylor, fight for a million some odd dollars, and then go back and fight [Antonio] Tarver for a million after a loss.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “I haven’t fought for that much money, accumulated, in my career. So my next pay is going to be low, of course. I need these wins, you know what I mean? I need these wins.”
He laughed, the kind of gallows humor that comes from a man stunned from disbelief.
“I can’t be getting cheated like this,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
He had shed tears in the beginning of the post-fight press conference, telling those looking toward him in the conference room at the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pa., that “real men cry,” then brushing off a reporter asking if he would be taking questions by responding that he had something he needed to say.
He would put forth an emotional extemporaneous monologue for five minutes before turning over the conversation to those seeking to hear even more.
“It’s sad and it’s disappointing,” he had said at the outset. “I go to Europe. This happens in Europe. I come back to America and this happens in America.”
Cunningham is a Philadelphia fighter, yet this had been only his second fight in Pennsylvania, and his first bout in the state in nearly a decade, dating back to when he was but a young prospect with just a dozen wins underneath his belt.
But then he became a contender in the cruiserweight division. That meant little in a country where American fight fans historically are more likely to follow the two weight classes that sandwich his: heavyweight and light heavyweight.
And so he went to Poland in 2006 for his first shot at a world title, only to lose a split decision to a fighter named Krzystof Wlodarczyk, losing despite one judge scoring the bout 11 rounds to 1 for Cunningham, with the other two arbiters finding it for the Polish boxer.
Cunningham got a rematch, though, and got the win. He stayed in Europe and stopped Marco Huck, then eventually returned to the United States to defend his belt for the second time.
That was when Cunningham first met Adamek, in a venue called the Prudential Center in the New Jersey city of Newark, which had become Adamek’s adopted hometown, where he could attract thousands of people of Polish heritage to see and support him. The two fighters had one of the best brawls of 2008, a fight in which Cunningham threw everything he had at Adamek, yet a fight in which it was Adamek’s single-punch power that made the difference. Three times, Adamek knocked Cunningham down, which in turn helped give Adamek the margin of victory.
Cunningham was also knocked down the rungs of the ladder. He had to fight his way back to another title shot, winning a decision over Wayne Braithwaite in Florida in July 2009. Nearly a year later, he was back in Europe, beating Troy Ross for a belt in Germany, then returning to that country three more times, outpointing Enad Licina and then losing both a six-round technical decision and a 12-round unanimous decision to Yoan Pablo Hernandez.
Europe was where cruiserweights could thrive. He was done with both, though, and came back this year to fighting in the United States, fighting as a heavyweight, fighting in September in the Prudential Center and winning his debut in that division with a decision over lower-tier opponent Jason Gavern.
That ultimately helped earn him a rematch with Adamek, whose promoter, Main Events, had been airing cards on cable on the NBC Sports Network and was to be broadcasting a show in front of a potentially significantly larger audience on NBC.
It was an audience that saw Cunningham win, and then saw him lose.
It was far from the first boxing match to end controversially. He was far from the first fighter to feel he was robbed.
That means little to a man who just experienced it.
“This ain’t just a sport. This is a way of life,” he said afterward. “I got dented bones from fights. You know what I’m saying? Fighters get hurt. Fighters get killed. Fighters get put in comas, to be out here to perform for you guys and then get cheated.”
This is the heartbreak of Steve Cunningham. He was not knocked down. He was not badly hurt. But he was not the winner. And no matter how much others tell him that he should have been, no matter how much or how well he pleads for the sport to do him right, he knows that it will not.
After all the punches, the most damage just might be that done to his career.
The 10 Count will return next year.
( NOTE: The author’s fight report from this past weekend on Adamek-Cunningham 2, titled “Adamek Defeats Cunningham, Scoring Mishap Too,” has been corrected to note that ring announcer Michael Buffer says he did not misread the 115-115 scorecard he initially read for boxing judge Deb Barnes. Buffer says that the score he initially read was as written — and that Greg Sirb of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission then came into the ring and corrected the scoring for Barnes to reflect that she had actually scored the bout for Adamek.)
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at [email protected]