By Jake Donovan
With his daughter Kennedy at ringside determined to watch her daddy in action while fighting for her life, there was no way that Steve Cunningham was going to lose.
The former cruiserweight champ did just that, overcoming a massive 73 lb. weight disadvantage to force Natu Visinia into submission after seven rounds of free-swinging action Saturday evening at 2300 Arena in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The scouting report was fairly basic heading in to the heavyweight headliner - Cunningham needed to box, Visinia needed to brawl. The fight rarely veered from the script, except on the occasions when Cunninghman opted to plant his feet and unload power shots on Visinia's all-too-inviting leaky defense.
In regards to the official scores, the fight was heading in one direction through four rounds. Cunningham was clearly in the lead, but there was a collective gasp every time the much thicker Visinia would land a power shot. Still, the Philly native never seemed too concerned.
"It was a more tough fight in my mind," Cunningham stated after the fight. "I always tell myself this guy's a killer. That makes me mentally tough."
The former Navy sailor required that mental fortitude to survive a mid-rounds scare, suffering what would result as the lone knockdown of the bout. Visinia enjoyed by far his best round of the fight - and perhaps the only round he won - that came complete with a knockdown.
An arm punch that landed on Cunningham's left shoulder seemed to will him to the canvas. The sequence had little effect on the local favorite.
"It was an off-balance thing more than anything else," Cunningham insisted. "He had 73 lbs. on me; his arm probably weighs more than my thighs."
While the knockdown was of the flash variety, Visinia capitalized on the sequence and let his hands go for the first time in the fight. Cunningham managed to remain uprught for the rest of the round, but seemed to take more punishment than necessary.
As it turned out, there was nothing at all to worry about.
The tide swung back in the former champ's favor for good beginning with a rally in round six. The jab was working throughout the fight, but Cunningham offered a few new looks, catching Visinia from conventional and southpaw stance, including a mid-round power-punching flurry at center ring.
Cunningham had never been truly known for his punching power in his 14-year career, but at age 38 has grown into a true heavyweight, even if on the lighter side than most. His power and fighting heart was evident in his last fight, overcoming a knockdown to score one of his own in taking a 10-round decision over previously unbeaten Amir Mansour in their war this past April.
Visinia was on the verge of absorbing that pain and fury. His mouth bloodied and momentum deep in his opponent's favor, the Samoan heavyweight could do little more than try to ride out the storm and hope to eventually land one more big bomb that could swing things back in his favor.
That moment never came. Even if it threatened to surface, Cunningham wasn't going to allow it. Not on this night, when his family came up from Pittsburgh just to watch him in action, realizing that every fight might be the last, but also aware that every win raises his in-ring value, thus earning and raising enough to cover Kennedy's rising medical costs while awaiting a suitable donor to replace her ailing heart with which she's been forced to contend since birth.
A dominant round seven in favor of Cunningham was enough to force the ringside doctor to take a long hard look at Visinia in between rounds. Not convinced that the hulking but battered heavyweight was fit to continue, the decision was made in between rounds to end the contest.
The official time was 3:00 of round seven.
"I did what I had to do, box smart. But I fought when I had to and walked him down. That led to the TKO," explained Cunningham (28-6, 13KOs). "I was a shark tonight. I saw blood in the water and was a shark tonight."
Visinia suffers his first pro loss, falling to 10-1 (8KOs).
Heading in, every fight carries the suggestion that the next loss could be it for Cunningham. What's rarely discussed is what could be next. A former two-time cruiserweight champ, success hasn't completely followed the sculpted Philly fighter up the scales. A highly disputed points loss to Tomasz Adamek in their Dec. '12 rematch provided enough optimism that perhaps he belonged among the heavyweight contenders.
Several rounds into his April '13 war with Tyson Fury carried a similar storyline, until the Brit's huge height and weight advantage was too much to overcome, suffering a 7th round knockout loss.
Cunningham has since won three straight, though the only "next" fight on his mind has nothing to do with a boxing ring.
"We got two victories. Steve Jr. won his (amateur) tournament, and I got my victory here," Cunningham said. "Now we all got to get together and help Kennedy win this fight."
The bout headlined on NBC Sports Network's Fight Night series.
DeCarlo Perez picked up perhaps the most significant win of his career to date, overcoming a hellacious storm of punches to score a 5th round stoppage over local middleweight Tyrone Brunson.
The bout was competitive as a whole, but had major swings in momentum. Brunson nearly had Perez - based out of Atlantic City - out on his feet in round two, but failed to close the show. Worse, he completely punched himself out, never fully catching his breath as Perez began to chip his way back into the fight.
Brunson was a spent bullet by round five, when Perez moved in to close the show. A flurry of punches had Brunson pinned on the ropes, covering up and not throwing back for nearly 30 seconds before the referee had no choice but to stop the contest.
The official time was 2:29 of round five.
Perez advances to 13-3-2 (5KOs), scoring his first stoppage win in 18 months. Brunson falls to 22-3 (21KOs), with all three losses coming in the span of his past four fights.
Former title challenger Edner Cherry extended his unbeaten streak to 10 straight after blasting out late sub Osumana Akaba in two rounds.
By his own admission, Cherry knew nothing about Akaba, a late replacement for Jerry Belmontes, who withdrew late last week after suffering an injury. It took a full round to adapt to his opponent's style, including the discovery that he was a southpaw.
From there it was smooth sailing. Now campaigning as a super featherweight, Cherry has discovered knockout power in his arsenal. It came out in a big way in round two, and Akaba was never able to recover.
The first of three knockdowns was set up by a right hand to the body that froze Akaba in place. Cherry swiveled his hips and launched a left hook that forced his opponent to the canvas.
Akaba rose to his feet, but was clearly on borrowed time. Another left hook upstairs produced the bout's second knockdown, with Akaba once again bravely beating the count. Cherry jumped on his wounded prey, sending him to the canvas for a third time courtesy of an overhand right. The referee jumped in at this point, immediately bringing a halt to the contest.
The official time was 2:15 of round two.
Cherry improves to 33-6-2 (18KOs) with the win. The 32-year old has not lost since a failed title bid versus then-unbeaten 140 lb. champ Timothy Bradley Jr. way back in 2008. A break from the ring followed, before returning in Dec. '09, his record now 9-0-0-1NC (6KOs) since coming back and also dropping down in weight.
Akaba falls to 31-7-1 (24KOs). A native of Ghana, he has now lost twice since relocating to the United States.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox