By John DiSanto Philly Boxing History (.com)
Steve “USS” Cunningham has made a career of being a nice guy. In his 12-years as a professional boxer, the former two-time champion has dished out plenty of hurt in the ring, but has always managed to do it in a surprisingly pleasant manner. He’s handled the ugly grind of the sport, endured mistreatment by promoters, looked past bad decisions from judges, been neglected by the media, and had to chase every opportunity he’s been able to squeak out.
But he’s always done it all this with a dazzling smile, a wealth of kind words, and even a prayer for his every antagonist.
However, the Steve Cunningham that is currently preparing to fight Tyson Fury on April 20th at Madison Square Garden Theatre feels like a different guy these days. The smile is the same. So is the respectful tone of speech, but the attitude and the edge that emanates from Cunningham’s muscled form is brand new.
The fight seriously heated up the day it was announced. Cunningham spoke in his usual gentlemanly style at that New York press conference. Then when it was Fury’s turn to speak, the Irish / British Goliath let Cunningham have it with a boastful and ill-mannered rant that left boxing fan’s tongues wagging and Cunningham’s head shaking.
“We knew he talked trash, but to see it live and directed at you,” Cunningham said. “This is what he thinks he has to do to make himself a star and to get extra attention. Dude, you’re 6′ 9″, you’re undefeated. Isn’t that enough attention? He just looked like a fool to me.”
The tirade was loud, disrespectful, and left no room for interpretation. Tyson Fury made it clear that he had every intention of not only beating Cunningham, but also was planning to retire him and prove that the former champ had no business being in the heavyweight division.
Fury really made an impression that day. Some felt he embarrassed himself by talking too much, while others believed that he’d hit Cunningham right between the eyes with the nagging doubts that have dogged Steve throughout his career, and especially after his move to heavyweight.
“Steve Cunningham is in big trouble,” Fury said at the press conference. “Come April 20th, this guy’s getting knocked out. Guaranteed. 100%. I’m too big. You’re a small man. You’re chinny. You’re getting knocked out. You’ve been put down in every fight nearly, and you’ve never been hit by heavy punches.”
Cunningham was clearly angered by Fury’s statements. He and trainer Brother Naazim Richardson both responded, but Fury steamrolled them both with more trash talk. The press conference ended, but the words stung Cunningham, his team, and his fans.
Cunningham returned to Philadelphia and threw himself into training camp like never before. Steve is always in the gym and always trains hard, but something had changed.
“He’s been focused from day one,” said Livvy Cunningham, Steve’s manager & wife. “Going into that press conference and hearing Fury spout off didn’t make him mad, but if there was a way to make him even more focused than he normally would be, that’s what it did. His intensity has gone up.”
At Camp Cunningham, in the Rock Ministries Gym in the Kensington Section of Philadelphia, the intensity is definitely high. But Team Cunningham knows that Fury’s comments were not just an attempt to sell the fight and garner attention. He was making an early play to undo Cunningham and win the fight before it began.
“He tries to get you mad at the press conference so that when it’s time to fight, you just lose it,” Cunningham said. “He gets under your skin so you just want to punch him in his mouth, crack him. But I’m going to stick with the plan that Naazim gives me, and we’re going to get this guy out of there.”
No doubt most of the fuel in Cunningham’s furnace comes from Fury and his press conference outbreak. But I also think some of the edge in Steve’s demeanor dates back to December 22nd and his second fight with Tomasz Adamek.
Leading up to that fight, few gave Cunningham much of a chance, citing that he wasn’t a real heavyweight. But Cunningham performed at a career-high level that afternoon, despite of the odds against him. Steve out-smarted and out-boxed Adamek over 12 rounds. He even did more effective power punching than his heavier-fisted foe. It was a performance that should have moved him up the heavyweight ladder and finally silenced his critics. But it didn’t.
Adamek was handed a controversial decision that day, and Cunningham was dealt another career blow. The bad decision clearly hurt Cunningham. He was devastated after the fight, feeling robbed and violated, but he took the situation with his usual measure of class. However, Cunningham’s mood suddenly changed when a lumpy-faced Adamek joined the post-fight press conference and went on to deny that Cunningham had done anything except run against him.
The lack of respect from Adamek irritated Cunningham, and I believe, started his attitude meter running. Cunningham abruptly ended that post-fight presser. Maybe Steve should stay away from press conferences.
Add to all this, the more recent frustration of Fury’s comments, and being put in yet another “must win” situation. The result is the different Cunningham of today. He’s edgy and ready to fight.
You can feel the pressure at Rock Ministries Gym. Everyone in the place cares about how this fight goes, even the young amateurs who train there, although they are years away from being in Steve’s position.
Cunningham handles the pressure by preparing for the fight of his life. You can taste it.
“A fight is a fight,” Cunningham said. “But this is a fight I have to win.”
“I don’t take anything away from Tyson Fury,” said Brother Naazim. “He’s bigger. He must be stronger. He’s taller. He’s younger. He has everything. And from what he tells me, there should be no second round in this fight.”
Fury supporters will tell you the same thing. They say that Cunningham is good, but can’t take the punch from a man as big as Fury.
“You can use the size against him,” Cunningham said. That’s why you have training camp. Especially with a great mind like Naazim, you touch every base. If he rushes, we got something for that. If he wants to box, we got something for it. It’s all about the game plan.”
“You have to devise a game plan that’s going to make his strengths work against him,” Naazim added. “And you have to devise a game plan where a certain athlete can exploit those strengths. I believe we have the athlete that can do that. I believe Steve Cunningham is capable of that.”
In fight #2 with Adamek, Cunningham showed that he could execute the fight plan to the letter, but can he do it against Fury and all the new challenges that come along with an opponent of his size?
“He’s a hot-headed young guy, like a lot of young guys,” Cunningham said. “I think his youth is going to get him into trouble. I fought a hot-headed young guy by the name of Marco Huck. Strong, confident, undefeated. I fought him in his hometown. I let him do what he did. He talked, he made fun of us. We saw what happened. (Cunningham won by TKO in round 12.) Look, I’m not here to make jokes. I’m not here to play games. My goal is to win. This dude is in it to hurt me.”
“Tyson Fury is a very big man who has potential,” Naazim said. “He’s already cashing in on his potential verbally, but he’s not doing the things (in the ring) he claims he’s capable of doing. He got upset with me because I said he wins fights because he’s big. He thought I was saying that he can’t beat the guys he’s not bigger than. But there’s nobody bigger than him! So they should have been comfortable with that statement.”
One of the things that makes the prospect of this fight so exciting is the fact that there are basic questions that cannot be answered until the bell rings. There are questions about how Cunningham will perform against a giant, but there are also questions about whether Fury is anything except big.
“We’re getting ready for the best Tyson Fury that the world has ever seen,” Cunningham said. “He can say what he wants to say. It’s only going to make him look bad when he gets beaten by a supposed light heavyweight.”
“We’ll find out if Tyson Fury is everything he says he is,” Naazim said. “I told Steve that if Fury’s everything he says he is, we win. If he’s not every single thing he says he is, he may not even get out of the fight. But this is boxing. This is why we fight the fight. We all have an opinion prior to the punches being thrown.”
Certainly Cunningham has the experience to test Fury, but what if this new edge translates to anger when the fight starts? Clearly Fury would love nothing more than a careless Cunningham that is willing to wage war on fight night.
“Game plan,” Cunningham said to that notion. “Stick to the game plan, and that keeps you in the guidelines of not getting out of control. (My championship experience) will play a big part. Being in tough positions and utilizing what you’ve learned to do to win. I’ve done that before.”
“It’s not all on the fighter,” Naazim added. “It’s my responsibility (to keep him calm). Not to equate him with animals, but when you’ve got a pit bull ready to chomp, until you pop the collar, he’s fully contained.”
But what if Cunningham does find himself in a shootout with the giant?
“If you look at my old fights, that’s what I did,” Cunningham said. “I rumbled. But I learned to box (and not do that). Through the blessings of God, I became labeled as one of the best cruiserweight boxers for a few years in a row. I’m a pretty decent boxer at heavyweight. People saw that in the Adamek fight.”
“Steve Cunningham has been overlooked,” Naazim said. “He’s an intelligent fighter and he’s getting smarter. That’s the thing. He’s not just an intelligent fighter. If you look at his fights, he’s getting smarter all the time. But I respect the guy (Fury). I think he’s a threat. I think he’s a serious threat. But to be honest with you, I can honestly say that I have never seen Steve in a fight that wasn’t a threat. Some of them were physical. A lot of them were political. And geographical. So he’s always been in a threat, whether he had to fight in somebody’s backyard, he had to fight somebody who’s the favored guy, or he had to fight the bigger guy. All he knows is adversity. I’d be afraid if they gave him something soft.”
A win in this fight might be exactly what Cunningham needs to breakthrough with the boxing public. It will be his second straight fight on live national broadcast television (NBC). A stoppage of Fury might even make Cunningham a star.
“The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward,” Cunningham said. “Naazim’s been telling me that these are the fights that make stars. This is the time to show your star power. So that’s been the mindset. I’m going out to make a statement.”
“This is what we do,” Livvy said. “We teach young boys that there’s a little more than meets the eye.”
“The strongest muscle in the body is that brain,” Naazim said. “When you see guys with this kind of discipline and this kind of intelligence and character, they can use that brain to manipulate almost any other type of person in the ring. We prepare the best that we can. It’s boxing. We take the intellect we can, we apply it the best way we can, and then we bring the best performance for the audience.”
Cunningham finished up his workout with a massage, right there in the gym, about 20 feet away from the boxing ring. He was sweaty, pumped up, and still edgy. But then a glimpse of the old Steve Cunningham came through.
“God has everything in control,” Cunningham said.
So Steve Cunningham just may be fully covered for his fight against Tyson Fury. He’s got God’s plan and he’s got Brother Naazim’s plan. And that’s a pretty good combination.
To read more about the Philly fight scene – past and present – visit www.phillyboxinghistory.com.