By John DiSanto – Philly Boxing History (.com)
Photos by Gary Purfield
When the long awaited rematch between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham was announced for December 22nd, it seemed that the issue of the fight’s timing flooded the internet and the chat rooms. For all of us Cunningham fans, the immediate reflex was a feeling of happiness that our man had finally landed the rematch he so wanted, and so deserved, after the their memorable December 2008 brawl at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
Call it an early Christmas present.
In that classic contest fight, Adamek took Cunningham’s IBF cruiserweight title with three knockdowns that proved insurmountable for “USS” Steve to overcome on the scorecards after twelve toe-to-toe great rounds. Although Cunningham made three trips to the canvas that night, he managed to battle back well enough to make the final verdict a split decision.
I remember thinking that if he had a little more time, Cunningham could have pulled out the win. Regardless, everyone left the Prudential Center thinking just how great the rematch would be.
But that rematch never came.
Typical of Cunningham’s lot, his best interests just didn’t mesh with those of the promoter holding the cards. Main Events moved forward with their newly christened champion and never looked back.
With Adamek as the cornerstone, they rebuilt the company and constructed a solid and entertaining series at the Prudential Center. Adamek was featured on several shows with his transplanted Polish-NJ fan base packing the house. Tomasz won fights and sold tickets like a true champion.
Sure a Cunningham rematch may have been given some thought, but it never took flight. For everyone except Steve, either the timing wasn’t quite right, or the fight just wasn’t needed.
Adamek defended his cruiserweight title twice (against decent opposition at best) before deciding to move up a class to heavyweight, without taking another ride on Battleship Cunningham.
Meanwhile, Cunningham fought once more in the US (a title eliminator the IBF title which was vacated by Adamek when he moved to the heavyweights) before renewing his passport and once again setting sail for Europe, the only place on the globe that seemed to welcome him. He signed with German-based promoter Sauerland Event, and regained his IBF cruiserweight championship 18 months after the Adamek fight. In Europe, Cunningham fought before large live crowds and television audiences.
But after four fights overseas, Cunningham once again found himself a former champion, and in search of another promoter.
Re-enter Main Events.
By this time, Cunningham had decided move up to heavyweight and chase new opportunities that included bigger paydays and even bigger challenges. Steve signed a promotional contract with Main Events, who offered him an opportunity to do something he’d done far too little of in his career – fight at or near home.
It was the right decision, at the right time for him.
Of course in the back of everyone’s mind was the possibility of that elusive rematch with Adamek would materialize down the road. Adamek was rebuilding his heavyweight career after suffering a gutsy TKO loss against giant heavyweight champion #2, Vitali Klitschko.
So their paths seemed destined to cross again.
Cunningham, always a smallish cruiserweight, set his sights on gaining the weight needed make him an official member of his new division. However, the key was doing it right, and doing it gradually.
He fought his first heavyweight bout in September, shutting out Jason Gavern over ten rounds at the Prudential Center. Although Gavern couldn’t come close to matching Cunningham in skill, he did his best to wear him down in the clinches. Cunningham did well in the fight, but it was clear that heavyweight was a new territory.
But Cunningham was right on schedule. A few more of these fights, it seemed, would do the trick and allow his weight adjustment to happen in due time.
Adamek also fought that day. He survived a scare against the hard-punching warhorse Travis Walker with a knockdown in the second round but he came back to knockdown his opponent in the same round and to eventually stopping him in the fifth round.
Next up for Adamek was a year-end fight with Odlanier Solis at the Sands Resort in Bethlehem, PA, on a throwback, Saturday afternoon “free” television broadcast on NBC.
However, the Solis fight was never finalized.
That’s when Cunningham’s phone rang.
Cunningham was offered the fight!
The opportunity was a good one for Cunningham. However, it came much quicker than he ever expected.
Cunningham will face Adamek, one of the top heavyweights in the world, and perhaps his greatest rival, this Saturday while still getting his feet wet as a heavyweight.
It is a contest that has the unusual quality of coming both too late AND too soon. Too late to get the very best rematch that Adamek and Cunningham could produce, and just a bit too soon for the best heavyweight version of Cunningham to come to the dance.
Coincidence? Not likely. But as usual, Cunningham is ready to make the best of the situation.
“It came much quicker than we thought,” Cunningham said. “But it’s an opportunity that you can’t turn down. Sometimes the opportunity outweighs everything else.”
So Cunningham, the good soldier, went to work to prepare himself for the two wars. A war against Adamek, and a war against timing. He’ll need to beat both formidable foes to come out on top this Saturday.
“I know people are saying, ‘Steve’s not ready’,” Cunningham said. “But that’s what they said about the Huck fight. About me going overseas. My thing is to prove everybody wrong, to get the win, beat this man, and beat him fashionably. This is an opportunity to fight Tomasz and beat him on national television. I’m jumping at this opportunity, and I’m going to make the best of it.”
Cunningham has the tools to outbox Adamek, but the chemistry between the two suggest that another punch-out may develop, like the glorious one they staged four years ago.
“Steve Cunningham is a very intelligent athlete, but he has that Philly heart in him,” said Nazim Richardson, the trainer of Cunningham. “Sometimes that Philly heart can take over a situation. We can’t allow that to happen. He has to maintain his intellect for the entire fight. But the one thing I teach every athlete I work with is that sometimes in a boxing match, a fight breaks out.”
This is especially true with heavyweights.
“At all times a fight can break out,” Richardson said. “And of all places, in a boxing match, there is a high probability that maybe a fight breaks out, even if that’s not the plan. We have to be prepared for that.”
All of us Cunningham fans must prepare for that too. It seems that we’ve been nervously biting our lip ever since he decided to become a heavyweight. But Cunningham is big boy with big goals, and he knows that big risks are part of the ride. He’s a guy you can’t help but believe in, but we also root for him to get an easy path to his aspirations.
However, that is not the Steve Cunningham story.
Cunningham’s story is one of hard work, of never being handed anything, and success despite the odds against him. His story isn’t so different from a long list of other great old-school fighters that had to do it the hard way.
Steve Cunningham has always been prepared for a fight.
For more on the Philly fight scene – past and present – visit www.phillyboxinghistory.com.