Story by John DiSanto – PhillyBoxingHistory.com
Photo: John DiSanto
Four months after Steve Cunningham lost to Tyson Fury in their heavyweight grudge match at the Madison Square Garden Theater, the former two-time cruiserweight champion from West Philly was still livid about the way things went down in the fight. Cunningham lost by KO for the first time ever on that Saturday afternoon in April, and the bitter taste of defeat was not easy to get rid of.
Cunningham felt that Fury’s victory was tainted by some questionable tactics by the 6-foot nine-inch UK giant. And he wasn’t alone in thinking that Fury pushed the limits of the boxing rule book. Unwilling to accept the official decision, Team Cunningham filed a protest with the New York State Athletic Commission in hopes of having the result of the fight reversed, or at the very least changed to a “no contest.” However, after a brief letter from the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) arrived, Cunningham quickly learned that his hopes were dashed.
So where would Cunningham go next? His decision would surprise everyone. In an attempt to put the whole situation in the past, Cunningham shocked everyone by accepting an offer to work with Tyson Fury to help him prepare for an important fight with former champ David Haye.
What!? Yes, it’s true. Steve Cunningham put away his anger and joined forces with the man who most believed was Steve’s enemy.
“We’re getting along great, like old pals,” Cunningham said from the Fury training camp in Essen, Belgium. “It’s so funny. I really want him to beat Haye. Camp is going great.”
It seems hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, when that letter from the NYSAC arrived, Cunningham was still fighting-mad about the whole situation. The rejection of his protest seemed to fuel the fire even more. In that brief letter, Commission Chairperson Melvina Lathan wrote, “Upon examination of the materials available to the Commission, including staff review of the video, we have determined that there is inconclusive evidence of clear controversy.”
The letter went on, “…modification of the official result is not warranted. Accordingly, your request is hereby denied in its entirety.”
The record books will always state that Fury came off the floor in round two, survived another scare in the fourth, but managed to eventually use his considerable size advantages to wear Cunningham down and knock him out at 2:55 of round seven.
However, for many who watched the fight at the Madison Square Garden Theater, or live on NBC network television, the fight didn’t exactly go that way.
“Basically he shoved his forearm in my face, hoisted me back and cracked me,” Cunningham said about the end of the fight. “I didn’t even see the punch. My eyes were covered, and that’s why I went down. When I see that fight (tape), I just get angry.”
After the bout, many others were angry too. Several written accounts of the fight focused on Fury’s unsportsmanlike methods and the numerous times he either bent or broke the rules of boxing. Boxing writer Michael J. Jones (LiveFightForum.com) ran a cumulative list of Fury’s offenses in his report, tallying a total of 56 separate fouls by Fury, including the final forearm, and several head butts and rabbit punches.
Respected scribe Thomas Hauser wrote, “As the fighters made their way to their respective corners at the close of the stanza, Tyson conspicuously and gratuitously shoved Cunningham. It wasn’t a bump; it was a shove. A hard one. Referee Eddie Cotton should have taken a point away on the spot. Instead, he let the matter pass, which was a clear signal to Fury that the rules didn’t fully apply to him.”
“Boxing has rules for a reason,” Cunningham said. “I’m not complaining about his size. I’m not complaining about anything but the rules. Rules are here for a reason. I adhere to the rules, and everybody else should too. The referee is in the ring to uphold the rules, to make sure the fighters uphold the rules. He’s there for that specific reason.”
Referee Eddie Cotton received much criticism after the bout. He managed to take a point from Fury in round five after a flagrant head butt, and issued a couple mild warnings during the bout, but by most accounts, he did not take control of the fight and did a poor job of enforcing the rules.
“We don’t 100% solely blame Tyson Fury for what he did in the fight,” Cunningham said. “We can’t. When you are in the ring fighting, things go on. That man was trying to survive. The man knew he was going to get his butt kicked. He probably knew he was going to get knocked out. He didn’t want that. So he did what it took not to let that happen – inside the rules or outside the rules.”
“Who we blame is the referee and the NYSAC,” Cunningham continued. “We blame them because their sole job is to make sure everything is on the up and up.”
On his many reviews of the fight on tape, it was obvious to Cunningham that he had been fouled. He read reports that stated Fury used unclean tactics and he spoke to many with the same opinion. However, when it came to his opinion that the result of the fight should be changed to a disqualification or “No Contest,” Cunningham seemed to stand alone.
It is interesting that so many agree that what Fury did was wrong, but so few will go as far to say that he should have been disqualified. The attitude seems to be that boxing is a dirty sport full of shady tactics, and that Fury should be commended for doing what it took to win, including several infractions, and that nefarious set up to the knockout blow. Forget the fact that Fury was the favorite and had 44 pounds and 6 inches on Cunningham.
“Listen, we’re not complaining about his size,” Cunningham said. “We’re not talking about all the dirty stuff Tyson Fury did during the fight. We’re talking about the maneuvers he performed in order to seal the knockout punch. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Assuming they would agree with his view of the fight’s conclusion, Cunningham was shocked and disappointed when his own promoter, Main Events, failed to see the basis of his complaint.
“They called us back,” Cunningham said of the telephone call he received from Main Event’s Kathy Duva and Jolene Mizzone three days after the fight.
“Of course I’m on fire, still mad. I haven’t been that way in years. When they started talking, I knew they were going to say something I didn’t like. You know how you can hear in the person’s voice? They said they looked at the tape from different angles and couldn’t believe that the commission would ever change the result. Before they could even finish, I exploded. I don’t really cuss a lot, but I exploded. I haven’t cussed that much since I was in the Navy. Basically they said that they couldn’t get fully behind us in our endeavor to pursue the protest.”
“Main Events’ actual position was that they agreed that what happened was wrong, but did not feel like anything could be, or would be done,” said Livvy Cunningham, Steve’s manager and wife. “They supported our decision to protest.”
So Steve and Livvy basically prepared to go it alone in their protest to the powerful New York Commission. With help from their attorney John Hornewer, Livvy wrote the official appeal, a 10-page letter that included screen captures from the fight and various other exhibits that illustrated their position. She also received help from Main Events attorney Pat English, who helped with the necessary research and getting the appeal stared.
“We produced pictures for the NYSAC that show Eddie Cotton’s line of sight,” Steve Cunningham said. “Clear line of sight to the elbows, the pushes, the forearm. After the knockdown, he (Cotton) should have waved it off and said disqualification. I mean really.”
However, the Commission did not agree and threw the complaint out.
“The commission, they want to save face,” Cunningham said. “They don’t want to look like they dropped the ball. They don’t want to publicly admit that this was wrong. The NYSAC is known to be one of the most prestigious commissions in the world. We thought that with the evidence and what the rules said – the rules say that exactly what he did was illegal – we thought we had a slam dunk. We thought based on everything that happened that we were going to win. It was obvious (to us).”
But it didn’t turn out that way. Cunningham’s hopes of a reversal ended with that letter from the NY commission. “I’ll tell you,” Cunningham said. “This fight, it has changed me a bit. I can honestly say that. It has changed me a bit. I’m not saying that I’m going to get in the ring and elbow somebody. That’s just not me. My mind is nowhere near doing dirty stuff. I don’t train like that. I’m on the stage where millions of people are watching me, millions of children, and I represent Jesus Christ. So I can’t put that at risk just to get him back. I know I can get this dude back with my skills. That’s why I didn’t resort to anything. I’ve lost before,” Cunningham said. “I even got cheated before, and I just licked my wounds and kept it moving. Beat me (fairly) and there’s no problem. Hands down, you won. Congratulations. But this fight here, was bull.”
So Cunningham moves on with his career. But the loss to Fury has put him in poor position to climb the heavyweight ladder and earn good paydays. And at 37, he’s not looking to rebuild his career now. So all he can do is keep doing what he does best.
“This fuels my energy to go back to the gym,” Cunningham said. “It’s just changed the way I’m going to deal with business and the way we’re going to handle a lot of things.”
It may have been very difficult for Cunningham to let this whole thing go. He’s a fighter and his instinct is to fight. He looks at the various injustices that he’s experienced, even before the Fury fight, and wants the world to know that boxing can be better. He holds the sport to a higher standard. And it is a standard that he is more than willing to abide by himself.
But then, Cunningham isn’t like most fighters.
“I’m a two-time world champion,” Cunningham said. “That’s in the books. It can’t be erased. I’ve done my work. Everything else, if I become heavyweight champion, that’s extra, and I’m going to continue to work hard for it. But I’m going to be open and honest and tell the truth. Nothing is going to change in boxing unless fighters speak up. Fighters need to get together and work together. We’re going to fight each other, but we don’t have to hate each other.”
As it turns out, those weren’t just words. Cunningham proved that he is willing to back up his words by doing the one thing NO ONE ever thought he would do. He agreed to go to Europe and help Fury prepare for his next fight. Steve had helped champion Wladimir Klitschko get ready for the same David Haye a few years ago. So he represented a valuable asset to the Fury camp. When the call came from Team Fury, Cunningham couldn’t believe it. His initial reaction was “No Way!.”
But after giving it some thought and negotiating a few details including a heavyweight salary, Steve changed his mind. Then USS Cunningham set sail for CampFury and turned the most bitter rival of his career into a friend.
“It was a little standoffish the first few days,”
Cunningham said about his reunion with Fury. “But then we began to talk about general stuff. Now we’re getting along great. We even talked about our fight. He said that it was hard to land heavy blows on me and difficult to handle my speed and movement, so he said he had to grab and hold.”
Not many fighters would even consider helping an old rival, especially one who came so close to “arch enemy” status. However, Cunningham did exactly that. He left the anger and controversy behind and got back to business. As crazy as all this sounds in the present, the move makes good sense for Cunningham in the long run. Many fighters, even decades after their careers are over, often still harbor ill feelings toward certain opponents they faced. I’ve seen many former fighters, old men, still haunted by losses of long ago. Clearly all that these old warriors could do with their disappointment was to let their anger fester.
Cunningham took another route. As he’s done in so many other aspects of his life, Steve decided to take a different path. Forget the path less taken. Going to camp with Tyson Fury constitutes the path never taken. It was a move that perhaps only Cunningham was capable of making.
Cunningham let go of the hurt and resentment that he was feeling and agreed to help the man he believed had wronged him. His actions are inspiring. Rare in boxing, but par for the course with Cunningham.
It this quality that best illustrates the type of champion that Cunningham is, and the one thing that the records books can never show.
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