|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY July 06, 2012||
MOVIN' ON UP
If you ask any cruiserweight about the old saying "Less is More", most of them will probably tell you the adage isn't all it's cracked up to be. And how can you blame them? On the boxing appreciation meter, cruiserweights are just one notch above flyweights. So one by one, all the good 200-pounders eventually leave the cruiserweights behind to move on up to heavyweight, where the paydays and the potential glory often match the added size of the opponents.
West Philly's "USS" Steve Cunningham, the former two-time IBF cruiserweight champion, is the latest cruiser to get that urge. So the perfectly conditioned boxer who was robbed of his title last October and then legitimately lost a challenge for his old crown this past February, is tampering with perfection and doing his best to add the necessary weight to make him a viable heavyweight fighter.
"We want to go up and campaign at heavyweight," Steve said. "We are working to get a little more weight on, and then we'll make the move up."
Since February, Cunningham has been idle inside the ring, but busy as can be outside of it. With his manger / wife Livvy Cunningham, Steve has been sorting out his promotional woes and developing a game plan for the rest of his boxing career. Recently Cunningham became a promotional free agent after splitting from the German promotional company Sauerland Event.
Almost three years ago, the partnership with Sauerland appeared to be exactly what Cunningham needed. With Germany recognized as a hub for cruiserweights and Sauerland in business with most of them, it appeared that Steve would have numerous options when it came to opponents and important bouts. Cunningham got some fights, but still had to endure lengthy gaps between his starts that kept him far less active than he wanted to be. Further an anticipated cruiserweight tournament that promised high-level, belt-unifying ring action never materialized. It was a disappointment.
"We knew what we were getting into when we signed with them," Cunningham said. "We knew that we were the foreign guy. But we knew we had a fan base (in Europe). We felt the Marco Huck rematch was something that they were interested in. They said they were, but it never happened."
The Sauerland favorite son, Marco Huck continued to develop after his 2007 TKO loss to Cunningham. Afterward, he was excellently matched, provided career movement and kept safe from Cunningham, the only man to defeat him up to that point.
"We ended up fighting a good fighter in (Yoan Pablo) Hernandez," Cunningham said. "The first fight I felt was fishy, with the doctor doing what he did. But then we still got the (second) opportunity to beat him, but I lost that second fight. So here we are."
The fact that cruiserweights don't turn many heads in the boxing world, perhaps gave Cunningham the same itch felt by Evander Holyfield, David Haye, Tomasz Adamek, and many others before him.
In theory, only a single pound separates a cruiserweight from a heavyweight, so the move up one division seems simple enough. Holyfield did it best. After his stellar career as a 200-pounder, he became a heavyweight and succeeded well beyond even his laser-sharp vision and winning attitude could have imagined. Holyfield set the level that every cruiserweight since has dreamed of reaching. Evander proved it was possible, created the blueprint, and showed exactly how huge the payoff could be - from both the financial AND legacy perspectives.
So, after a long and hard look at their options, Steve and Livvy decided that USS Cunningham should deploy to the dangerous waters of the heavyweight division.
"I was never a heavy cruiserweight," Steve said. "I was always a light cruiserweight. I'm walking around now at 204, 205 which is great for us."
The tricky part of moving up to a new weight class, for a boxer of any size, is to add weight without adversely affecting your style, strength, and general conditioning. For new heavyweights, this is particularly complicated given that 1) weight is unlimited up there, and 2) the division has become 'The Land of the Giants'. The reflex is often to pack on the pounds in an attempt to match size with the Klitschko brothers and other behemoths that populate the division. Usually this is a mistake, and one Cunningham does not plan to make.
"We saw Eddie Chambers perform like Superman at 202 (against Adamek)," Cunningham said. "Weight doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a good heavyweight. I'm probably looking to do my first fight at 208 and then probably max out at 215. I'm not interested in getting up to 225. I'm not interested in that. I don't even want to go beyond 215."
For another recent test case, Cunningham need look no further than former foe Marco Huck, who took a crack at the WBA heavyweight title against Alexander Povetkin in February. Povetkin won the close majority decision, but Huck did pretty well.
"I saw what Marco Huck did," Cunningham said. "I though Huck won. I'm not a judge, but I thought, 'Wow! If Huck can do that with him, you know, why not? Why not me?' I'm six foot, three. I'm 204 right now. It's time to make a move."
Cunningham certainly has the frame to carry more weight, but adding size is a science. Cunningham explained how he's doing it.
"Eating what I need to get the weight on properly and working out properly," he said. "Like I'm doing a little more weights, a lot less long distance running versus swimming more and sprinting. Anything to keep the weight on."
But even if he can effectively transform himself physically, will Cunningham be able to compete with the biggest and the best of the division? Eddie Chambers fought Wladimir Klitschko a few years ago, but didn't look like Superman on that night.
"I would love to fight Wladimir," Cunningham said. "Wladimir is the best guy in the division. He's one of the best in the world. He's the heavyweight champ. What heavyweight wouldn't want to fight him? It's not for the money. For me it's strictly for the challenge."
Technically Cunningham has already been in the ring with Wladimir - as a sparring partner in Germany.
"I felt I did very good in sparring, Cunningham said. "It was good work for them. It was very good work for me because I was learning. But sparring is sparring. Fighting is something different. Lord willing, we build ourselves up, we win fights. If we get to that point that I may challenge for the heavyweight title, if it's Wladimir or 'Any-Mir', I'll fight him," Cunningham said with a laugh.
Even those who believe in Steve, and agree with the assertions that size isn't everything in boxing, remember that a few cruiserweights have had him on the deck, and worry that a true heavyweight's artillery will just be too much firepower for Cunningham to handle.
"Don't get me wrong, 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. People can say I don't have a chin, but not having a chin means I would have never gotten up."
Every time Cunningham was floored as a cruiserweight (7 times in 4 bouts against Tomasz Adamek, Troy Ross, and Yoan Hernandez), he got up, dusted himself off, and fought back well.
"I can get up and I kick butt," he said. "That's not something that I work on. That's not something that I've trained to do. It's just the way God made me. So I just gotta work with what I got. If I go down as a heavyweight, I guarantee I'ma get up, Lord willing, and keep on trying to win."
"It's how you fight these guys. My advantages are being in shape, speed, movement, and being a complete boxer. Power is there with speed. I'll tell you the truth, I see me stopping more guys at heavyweight, because of my speed. Speed and movement."
Still there are some poor match-ups for Cunningham as a heavyweight. Instead of running directly at the biggest guy, perhaps a path through Povetkin or some of the more reasonably-sized heavies makes more sense, at least until he's adapted to his new environment.
"Povetkin is the ideal challenge for me," Cunningham said. "That's the one we're going for, even though in this business we know that what you're going for is the stuff that doesn't happen. I would love to challenge Povetkin, but you are talking to Steve Cunningham. I've never had that opportunity to have a game plan with a promoter or with television, that says 'this the route we're going to take - the safe route to get you to the big fights'. I've never had that. On my resume you can see I been fighting the toughest in my division since 2004, and I expect that as a heavyweight. That's what I'm used to now. So I can see me fighting a Chris Arreola. I can see me fighting a (Seth) Mitchell. I can see me fighting an (Tomasz) Adamek. I can see that happening back to back. Who knows? I would love to do it, because that's the only way the fans are going to respect you - by beating guys that are respected and performing well doing it. I want the respect."
Cunningham, who has watched many of his prime years go by without a steady fight schedule, is eager to make the next phase of his career really count.
"Above all, I'm looking to make fights that make sense for television. That make sense for fans. That make sense for us. Fights that will get us up the ladder," he said. "I'll be 36 this year, but I feel like I'm 26. God has everything in control."
Even the always good-natured Cunningham bristles when it is casually suggested that this upcoming phase is the final portion of his boxing career.
"Age doesn't mean anything," he said. "It's totally how you feel. I don't feel like I've only got a couple years left. But maybe I do. When that time comes, I'll bow out gracefully. But until then, I'm going to work and do like I normally do. I'm still learning. I'm still getting better. We'll see."
For Cunningham fighting before his own country - whether in person or on TV - is also important.
"I've been televised around the world," Cunningham said. "It's just America that hasn't seen me. I've only fought once in Philly as a professional, not even as an amateur, because I started my career in the Navy. I haven't gotten that love, that fanfare. It's not because people don't like me, it's because people don't know. If you're not on HBO, ESPN, Showtime, they don't see you. They don't know you."
Perhaps moving up to heavyweight will attract interesting opponents and provide enough of a storyline to get Cunningham on one of the major television networks. But still Cunningham knows how the game of boxing marketing works, and knows it won't be easy.
"It would be good to go up to heavyweight with a belt," he said. "If Antonio Tarver (who recently tested positive for steroids) gets stripped, then we will stay cruiserweight and fight for that vacant belt - and then go up to heavyweight right after that."
Cunningham has fought his career in practical anonymity and deserves a chance to display his skills and make some big money. More importantly he deserves the chance to compete at the highest level, prove his championship caliber, and show everyone exactly what he is capable of. Every professional athlete wants that. They never stop trying to prove themselves. It is a big part of being a champion. And Steve Cunningham has been champ-ion twice. So far.
"I think about legacy." Cun-ningham said. "I think about what people will remember me for. Or if I'll be remem-bered. To an extent, the way I am - we aren't fame-hunters or fame-chasers - so at a certain point, it won't matter if nobody remembers. As long as I know that I did this, and my family knows. (As long as) my sons see me setting an example in the ring and in life. But of course, every man wants to be remembered for what they did. I spent so many years as a professional. I would just like people to say that I gave my all, that I didn't cheat - we got this steroid thing going on right now. And I always gave my all in the gym, in training - even in the off season, and in the fight. And I would like everyone to say 'Hey, I met Cunningham. He was a cool dude.' I'm down to Earth. That's just the way I am. Don't put me on a pedestal. Boxing is just a job to me. I'm just a normal dude."
Definitely normal, but also extraordinary.