Jason Cunningham considers himself such an underdog, he has it tattooed across his chest, but he pulled off a huge upset and the win of his career as he knocked down Gamal Yafai three times on the way to taking the European super-bantamweight title in a terrific battle in Manchester.
The 31-year-old had been as wide as 10-1 with the bookmakers, but he boxed beautifully on the backfoot and repeatedly walking Yafai into his straight left before withstanding a furious last three rounds as he claimed a unanimous points decision.
“I must be the most under-rated boxer in Britain,” said Cunningham, whose has ‘The underdog who never lost hope’ in ink across his chest. “I’m tired. I’ve got some serious blisters on my feet.”
The blisters were no surprise as he never stopped moving for the full 12 rounds, as Yafai came after him. But the three knockdowns proved to be the difference as Cunningham built a huge lead by halfway. Yafai was forced to chase the fight and never managed to pull off the comeback.
One judge, Mark Lyson, had it 115-110, while John Latham and Ian John Lewis both had it 114-111.
Cunningham had a good start, boxing off the backfoot and catching Yafai on the way in. Yafai quickly got frustrated and, at one point was made to miss with four wild swings in a row after Cunningham had backed into a corner.
Yafai began to find some rhythm in the second but was walking straight into Cunningham’s range and a hard, straight left sent Yafai shuddering to the canvas. He was up at four, but while his brother Kal, the former WBA super-flyweight champion, was urging him to “take a walk”, he strode back out into trouble, loading up on shots and almost falling through the ropes when he missed with a wild left.
Things changed dramatically in the third round, as Yafai started to get through to Cunningham, cutting the distance and hurting him to head and body, but Cunningham fired back again in the fourth, dropping Yafai again with another sharp, straight left.
This time, Yafai seemed frozen in front of Cunningham and the Yorkshireman landed with both hands as Yafai looked for an opening.
The fifth was close, as both had success, but after Yafai began well in the sixth, he was wide open when caught by a clubbing southpaw left by Cunningham that dropped him heavily. This time he looked hurt and, while he went straight back on the attack, Cunningham was finding him time and again.
The seventh was another thrilling round, as Yafai piled forward trying to pin Cunningham to the ropes and land, while Cunningham aimed to make him walk into punches. Yafai’s body punches seemed to be capable of breaking Cunningham in half, but Cunningham was so accurate with the left whenever he got room.
In the ninth round, Cunningham seemed to sink down from a body shot and was then caught square on by a big overhand right, but Cunningham never stopped working and throwing back.
The tenth was a torrid round for Cunningham, as Yafai hurt him early on with a body shot and didn’t let up, thumping punches through him. A body shot appeared to send Cunningham to the floor, but it was not ruled a knockdown by referee Victor Loughlin, but Yafai’s attacks were unrelenting.
Cunningham saw out the round but there was more of the same in the eleventh as he kept pouring on the pressure.
Near the end of the round, Yafai’s energy suddenly seemed to ebb away as Cunningham walked him into a left and then raised a hand. Still, he would not give up, throwing everything into his punches. There was to be no dramatic finish, though, as Cunningham danced his way through the final seconds.
“I’ve done it the hard way, old school titles, not Mickey Mouse titles,” Cunningham said. “Now I have finally proved myself.”