Story and photos by John DiSanto – Philly Boxing History (.com)
Thus far in his professional boxing career, Steve “USS” Cunningham has fought 28 times as a cruiserweight. He’s never weighed in at more than 199 pounds – one full pound below the cruiserweight limit. But all that is about to change. On Saturday afternoon, Cunningham will step into the ring as a heavyweight for the first time in his life. He’ll fight a scheduled 10-rounder against tough measuring stick Jason “The Sensation” Gavern at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. The fight will start a new chapter in the fighter’s career.
“I’m feeling confident,” Cunningham said. “I’m anxious. I don’t know, there’s a lot of feelings. But I’m comfortable with the fact that I’m a fighter and this is what I do. I got to fight. This is how I make my living. I love fighting and this is the next step. I’m excited to make the next move, and see where it goes. Lord willing, we come up successful with this, and we’ll see where we go.”
Cunningham’s move up in weight is a milestone worth celebrating. At heavyweight he’ll finally get a chance to fight near home (instead of overseas where seven of his last nine bouts have occurred), earn potentially bigger paydays (instead of banking the typical skimpy cruiserweight check), get some attention (instead of fighting in the blind spot known as the cruiserweight division), and perhaps even land a shot on national US TV (something this two-time world champion has only done once in a 12 year career – if you count the old Versus Network as national TV).
“Normally around this time we’d be flying over to Europe,” Cunningham said. “But now we’re talking about driving to the event in our own car the day of the press conference. I don’t know how to act right now!”
For Cunningham, the upside of becoming a heavyweight is big. This talented, dedicated, marketable, exquisitely conditioned, hard working, professional boxer may finally get the long overdue attention and compensation he’s been waiting for. No one deserves it more than Cunningham.
So why am I not doing handstands at the prospect of seeing him fight as a heavyweight? It’s a nerve wracking decision to say the least. The move comes with certain inherent dangers that I hate to see Mr. Cunningham risk. Perhaps Cunningham trainer, Nazim Richardson, said it best.
“What I’m asking of him is to almost be flawless, which is nearly impossible,” Richardson said. “Because in the heavyweight division, you could dominate 10 rounds, and the joker can land clean and erase everything. Heavyweights carry that eraser.”
That’s it exactly. That’s the high risk Cunningham will take against Jason Gavern and every other heavyweight he eventually faces – he can do everything right, but if he makes a single mistake, the fight could end on a dime. A sudden KO is a standard risk in boxing, but odds of it happening increase sharply for someone moving up to the heavyweight ranks, someone who has never felt the punch of a heavyweight.
Cunningham has been in the ring with heavyweights before, but just for sparring. He’s worked with Wladimir Klitschko in the past, and is currently sparring with local Philadelphia big men.
“I’ve been sparring with Chazz Witherspoon,” Cunningham said. “He punches all the time. Very good pressure. He’ll hunt you down. He’ll crack you. The difference I’ve been feeling is just their weight. It’s wearing on my body.”
And that is just sparring. Fighting a heavyweight for real figures to be even tougher. From the opening bell, Jason Gavern will not only try to impose his natural size advantages over Cunningham, he’ll try to convince him that he does not belong in the ring with a heavyweight.
“We know Jason Gavern is a rugged guy,” Cunningham said. “He’s beaten some guys, and I know he’s rugged and he’ll upset you (if you’re not careful). So our thing is to go out there and not give him anything. The plan is to win, and to look good winning.”
“There are no lulls,” Richardson said. “There is no taking a break and just jabbing and just looking. There’s none of that. You have to be intense for 10 rounds straight. You relax when you’re in the dressing room with your shoes off.”
Cunningham has spent the past months trying to add a few pounds to his six-foot, three-inch frame.
“Since March, April we been working to put on this weight,” Cunningham said. “I’m leaving the gym around 205. I feel pretty comfortable. Right now I’m probably about 206, 207. That’s where we wanted to be from the beginning.”
Cunningham expects to weigh in for the fight at around 208 pounds.
“I believe we’re going to carry the speed (up to heavyweight),” Cunningham said. “That’s why I’m not interested in going so heavy. My ideal weight is 215 (for future fights). That’s my max out weight.”
It remains to be seen if Cunningham can perform at the same level with the added weight.
“It’s still going to be the same Cunningham,” he said. “I just know how to be me. I’m going to work hard, and I’m going to give my all in the fight. There’s no excuse for losing. I just gotta keep working till I win.”
“Of course there’s always pressure, especially with this move,” Cunningham said. “I know all that. I see all that. I play it in my mind. But the main objective is winning and moving on to the next one. Winning spectacularly is what we really want to do. So if it doesn’t happen spectacularly, it ain’t going to be because there wasn’t an effort.”
Effort is never the issue with Cunningham. But how will he handle the punch of true heavyweight? As a cruiserweight, he ran into some hard shots and wound up off his feet. But he always got up.
“I understand where people are coming from,” Cunningham said. “They see the knockdowns at cruiserweight, and they just don’t see it. But I can’t be concerned about that. My chin is solid. If I go down as a heavyweight I guarantee I’ma get up, Lord willing, and keep trying to win.”
So up to heavyweight he goes.
“I’m in favor (of the move) because the cruiserweight division is a lost division,” Richardson said. “See it’s hard being a champ, working as hard as the other champs, maybe training harder than the other champs, but not getting the compensation. So now you have to move up a division. Eventually a cruiserweight has got to go heavyweight to get compensated properly.”
It makes perfect sense, but it still feels so risky. I get very attached to the fighters I like and follow. I watch their every move – in the ring, at the gym, on Facebook – and I root for them to succeed. I enjoy the career moves, and the preparation, and the fights. But I also worry the whole way.
Perhaps that is why some of us watch the fights, and some of us fight the fights. It takes a certain temperament to be a fighter. It’s something that I admire, but it is also something I may never fully understand. Steve Cunningham understands it. He has it. It has made him a champion twice, and fuels him past the obvious risks to reach for that goal again at heavyweight.
“I’d love to be heavyweight world champion,” Cunningham said. “That’s all I know. Me being heavyweight champion? I’m not hoping for less.”
Neither am I, Steve, neither am I.
To find more on the Philadelphia fight scene – past and present – visit www.phillyboxinghistory.com.
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