Story and photos by John DiSanto - PhillyBoxingHistory.com
Steve Cunningham has been in the professional boxing game for 12 years and has accomplished a lot. He’s won the world cruiserweight title twice. He’s fought all over the globe. He’s built a solid record of 25-5 with 12 KOs against top-flight competition. He’s proven himself over and over again. Yet still after an already full career, he finds himself still fighting for respect.
For Cunningham, the list of snubs, slights, short-ends, and raw deals is a long one.
However he keeps rolling forward, waiting and working to prove himself enough to finally earn that respect.
He’s not looking for validation from the boxing promoters, networks, or writers.
He believes in himself, and knows that he has accomplished much in boxing.
However he is a hard-working family man who deserves the advantages that come along with the respect he’s been denied.
Lucrative paydays, television contracts, and big fights are out there, but he’s still chasing after them.
Cunningham will once again look to earn that elusive respect when he takes on 6′ 9″ Irish-British heavyweight import Tyson Fury (20-0, 14 KOs) in a nationally televised main event at Madison Square Garden on April 20th.
The fight with Fury, with everyone watching, is a chance to display his skills and prove once and for all that he is a true heavyweight deserving a crack at the title.
It’s a high-profile match that could be the opportunity Cunningham’s been seeking.
Last December, it appeared that Cunningham had finally done exactly that.
Cunningham put in one of the best performances of his career in a rematch with Tomasz Adamek. It was just his second start as a heavyweight, and going in to the bout, most felt he wouldn’t be able to hang with Adamek, a proven and successful convert to the heavyweight division.
But Cunningham did hang with him!
The West Philadelphian boxed a masterful fight, totally out pointing, out working, and even out punching the heavily favored Polish native.
The contest was televised live by NBC, and watched by over four million viewers.
It was a great opportunity seized by Cunningham, and things couldn’t have gone better – until the decision was announced.
Adamek won a highly controversial split decision in the twelve-round title eliminator.
Cunningham, along with most observers, was stunned.
But for Cunningham, this was par for the boxing course. It was just the latest slap in his boxing life.
After Cunningham’s career is long over, fans will look back and wonder why he wasn’t a bigger star. He is a skilled boxer, personable, good looking, always in top condition, down to earth, and approachable. He’s a family man, a man of faith, and a Navy vet.
Could anyone be more marketable?
He has a technical style that is sometimes not the most exciting to watch, but he still has had a number of exciting, prestigious bouts.
He’s climbed off the canvas to win, he’s bled, he’s punched, and he’s displayed a fighting heart and spirit that does his Philadelphia boxing roots proud!
But Cunningham just can’t seem to get over the hump when it comes to being a star.
They say, “nice guys finish last!”
Cunningham is hardly in last place, but this genuinely nice guy is still trying to come in first, just once.
A win against the highly touted, and vertically blessed Fury, may be the ticket, but still Cunningham has not had a smooth road to this showdown.
In this match up, Fury is the attraction, the latest flavor of the month with possible star potential, while Cunningham is treated as the opponent.
The disparity in their credentials is vast.
Fury shows promise, but Cunningham is proven.
However it is Fury who is receives the benefit of the doubt – and presumably the lion’s share of the purse – as the entire promotion is built around him.
He’s been chosen for (and by) Fury because of his smaller size and questions about his ability to take a punch from a bigger man.
Fury made that clear at the press conference that officially announced the fight.
“This is a heavyweight in with a light heavyweight,” Fury said. “Your heavyweight run is coming to an end. This guy has no chance at all. Steve Cunningham’s in big trouble. Come April 20th, this guy’s getting knocked spark out. Guaranteed! 100%! You’re a small man, your chinny, you’re getting knocked out! I mean business. I’m going to retire you Steve!”
Being tall certainly goes a long, long way.
The tirade was entertaining and it gave the pre-fight build up a real jolt. Cunningham responded, but did not exchange trash talk. He tried to make his point, as did his trainer Brother Naazim Richardson, but both were drowned out by a pumped up Tyson Fury, who kept the insults flowing.
“We knew he talked trash,” Cunningham said. “This is what he thinks he has to do to make himself a star, and to get extra attention. You’re six-foot nine inches. You’re Irish. You’re undefeated. Isn’t that enough?”
As Fury ranted, Cunningham was clearly irked.
“It felt disrespectful,” Cunningham said. “It was disrespectful. Tyson did get a little under my skin.”
Perhaps that was the whole point. Fury would like nothing more than to see a raging Cunningham looking for a brawl when the bell rings. But an angry Cunningham is not the Cunningham likely to win this fight.
“It’s the total opposite,” Cunningham outlined. “I’m a veteran. That’s how I’m going to get this guy. I know how to stick to the game plan. I’m going to stick to the plan Naazim gives me, and we’re going to get this guy out of there.”
“I understand selling the fight,” Cunningham continued, “but what he did was over and beyond selling the fight. He talks so much junk and everybody knows it’s garbage. Even he knows it’s garbage. That goes to show that he thinks it’s going to be an easy fight, a cakewalk, but we’re going to show him there aren’t going to be no jokes. This is serious!”
Fury talked a good game at the press conference, but Cunningham saw some insecurity behind Fury’s words.
“He’s a fighter,” Cunningham explained. “He’s undefeated. We know he’s not a chump. We know he’s not scared, but something’s up. There were four guys on his list to fight, solid heavyweights almost his own size, but he chooses me, the smallest guy on the list, and the one who’s supposedly not a heavyweight. So why would he want to fight me? Like I said, something’s up with him.”
The explosive presser got a lot of play in the media. The general impression was that Fury got the upper hand with his surprise attack behind the microphone. But with one month to go before the fight, Tyson’s fury, clearly intended to intimidate and derail Cunningham, may have had an opposite effect on the former champ.
“He talked and he woke up a little anger in me that probably wasn’t there before,” Cunningham observed. “Now camp is more intense because I want to beat this dude right. I want to do it properly. He sparked a little fire in me that’s helping my drive. It’s helping me get up and run and do what I’m supposed to do. He woke up another dragon that’s in me.”
So as usual, Cunningham is back at work in the gym. He’s preparing for the fight that may provide the signature win that will propel his career where it’s never gone before.
Most eyes are on Tyson Fury to make a splash in his American debut, but Cunningham has a different plan.
“He’s getting his show,” Cunningham commented. “He’s having his fun now. He’s getting all the attention from the press conference. I’ll let it go, and I’ll just be me. It makes me want to beat him even more. It makes me want to get in there and show the world that I’m supposed to be here. I’m storing it up, and saving it for fight night. Then it’s going to be my turn. April 20th is going to be the time to have my show!”
Steve Cunningham is always a gentleman, always professional, and always humble.
He never assumes anything, not even victory.
But he’s showing an edge that feels new to his game as he prepares for Fury.
He seems ready to teach Fury a lesson for all that talk, and might just be looking at his colossal foe as the vehicle to get the respect that has eluded him.
If Cunningham can convincingly beat Fury, maybe he will finally be treated with the deference he deserves, and those opportunities that he’s longed for will be his.
“The main thing I like about boxing,” Cunningham said, “is out smarting and out working a guy. So if I do that, I win! You are fighting to get that respect every time. That’s what I do. I just worry about being ready, being right, and performing.”
To read more about the Philly fight scene, visit www.PhillyBoxingHistory.com.