|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - March 31, 2014||
Story by John DiSanto
The legend of Amir "Hardcore" Mansour will either be written or unraveled Friday night when he takes on Steve Cunningham in a 10-round heavyweight fight at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia. Depending on who you ask, the enigmatic power puncher is either a combination of Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson, or an over-hyped, unproven, 230-pound commodity. The answer is still up for grabs, and Friday's fight should help to settle the debate, one way or another.
Mansour and Cunningham clash before a live North Philly ringside audience in the nationally televised main event on NBC Sports Network. In addition to Mansour's USBA title belt, the fight's stakes also include the puncher's very reputation and future identity.
A big knockout victory against Cunningham will galvanize Mansour's status as a legitimate prospect and fearsome puncher. However, an emphatic defeat against the former two-time cruiserweight champ and heavyweight upstart could forever brand Amir as an exposed washout just as his career rises to a national level.
So to say that the pressure is on for the 41-year old is an understatement. However, the powerful southpaw appears to be taking the stress of the situation in stride. After all, even though this is the biggest boxing match of his life, Mansour has been through many tough times in his life before.
"When I stood before a judge, and that judge could have sentenced me to 24 or 25 years in prison, that was the biggest fight of my life," Mansour said. "That was the scariest moment of my life."
Mansour did not get 25 years for the drug possession charge that put him away and all but snuffed out his fledgling boxing career in 2001. He was sentenced to ten years and served most of it before being released in 2010.
"Living in prison for eight and a half years, that was the biggest fight of my life," Mansour said. "Being able to achieve faith in myself, keep moving forward, and keep my dream going beyond prison walls. That was the biggest fight of my life. Nothing out here can compare to something like that."
Certainly not just a boxing match with a guy some say isn't a real heavyweight.
"If this was the cruiserweight division, I would say he's going to be a real tough opponent," Mansour said. "But this is the heavyweight division. It's a different ball game when you add on 10, 15 more, 20 more pounds of pressure to each punch. So it's a whole different ball game."
Mansour's position is an understandable state of mind. He's been a heavyweight his entire career. He's beaten every opponent put in his path, and guys like Cunningham aren't supposed to be able to slap on a few extra pounds and be effective in the sport's biggest division.
Add to the argument that Cunningham has been knocked down several times as a cruiserweight and even knocked out once at heavyweight, and one can see why Mansour sounds so confident.
"I'm the hardest puncher that he's ever, in his life, been in the ring with," Mansour said. "So he's obviously never been hit like I hit. He has been stopped before. I really think that once I put some hands on him, his whole game plan is going to change up. And if it doesnít, thereís just no game plan that he can come up with to beat me."
For those backing Mansour in the fight, this seems to be the logic.
Poking holes in Cunningham's reputation has become a sport of its own since the 6-foot, 3-inch, 200-pounder decided to leave the cruiserweights and begin a campaign to become heavyweight champion. Finding believers in Cunningham's quest for bigger paydays and even bigger championships has been difficult, and have raised questions about the West Philadelphian.
"Not questions about him competing as a heavyweight," Mansour said. "Questions about him competing against this particular heavyweight. I just don't think he's strong enough mentally to endure what I'm prepared to endure. I really donít think that he or any other heavyweight is willing to go to the depths of hell, as I am willing to go, in order to get that win in that ring. I'm at a point in my life where losing is just not an option."
To be certain, Mansour cannot afford a loss in the fight Friday night. To help guard against such a setback, he has escaped to training camp in both Georgia and Arizona, and says he applied himself as never before.
"Iím training a lot harder," Mansour said. "Iím doing a lot more sparring, getting a lot more rounds in. Iím doing a lot more running. A lot more cardio. Just all around, Iím just stepping my game up."
In his last bout, Mansour scored his 15th career knockout, but struggled to get it, against Kelvin Price in Atlantic City. Amir showed attitude and resolve in the bout, but also displayed a few flaws along the way. He's counting that the extra work and new-found focus will give him the edge he needs against Cunningham.
"The type of shape I'm in right now, I don't think he can keep up the 10-round pace that I got in me," Mansour said. "I really don't think he can last with me. I really don't. I don't think he can take this onslaught. I don't think he can take this pressure. I don't think he can keep my pressure off him. I don't think he's going to last to the end of ten rounds. This is by far the biggest, most important fight, but I don't think it's my toughest opponent."
Cunningham brings the far-deeper experience into the fight and has shown, even as a heavyweight, that he can box with the best of them. Officially he lost to Tomasz Adamek in their rematch, but most feel it was Cunningham who should have earned the decision. It was his best night as a heavyweight, but it wasn't enough to sway the judges, or Mansour.
"I'm on the lookout for him making the fight boring," Mansour said. "That's the only concern, that he makes it a real boring fight. I don't like boring fights. I never want to be a part of a boring fight." This is the heavyweight division and sometimes you have to go out there and take chances. I just hope he engages and donít just run all night long. But if he does, Iíll eventually catch up to him. Nobody's going to run from me for ten rounds straight."
However, Mansour has been extended to the full limit twice in major fights before. Maurice Harris went 12 rounds with him last year, and Dominick Guinn lasted a full 10 rounds in 2011. Neither have boxing skills quite as good as Cunningham, but both were career heavyweights.
"I have to make sure I use my boxing skills a lot more and not just rely on power punches," Mansour said. "If I just use some skills and speed, I can make it an easy night for me. With everything Iím doing, you can tell that I did something different this time, as far as preparing for the fight and training. Everyone can tell the difference in my form and everything."
He's one win away from proving this to everyone in Philly and the national television audience watching at home. Mansour is on the cusp of proving that he is for real, and that is the legend he intends to write on Friday night.
"The only thing I can do is keep winning," Mansour said. "I would love to fight the winner between Stiverne and Arreola, but I'm not looking past this fight right here. Once this fight is over with, we can look to that question."