|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - April 01, 2014||
Story & photos by John DiSanto
When Steve Cunningham, 26-6, 12 KOs, takes on Amir Mansour, 20-0, 15 KOs, Friday night at the Liacouras Center in North Philly, the stakes for the former two-time cruiserweight champ won’t just be Mansour’s USBA heavyweight title, an IBF world ranking, and the bragging rights to the biggest Philly fight in years. No, Cunningham will also be fighting for his future as a professional boxer.
Most observers believe that the nationally televised fight is a must-win for the 37 year old fighter, and that a loss – especially by knockout – would end his days as a serious player in the sport.
Sounds like a lot of pressure, especially when you poll the average fan, most of whom feel that the hard-punching Mansour will score a big KO over Cunningham. They cite that Steve isn’t big enough to be a heavyweight and question whether his chin is solid enough to absorb even a decent shot from his upcoming opponent.
But Cunningham has heard all of this before. In fact, he has been hearing the same story ever since he decided to move up from the 200-pound division about two years ago. Questioning Cunningham has become a sport of its own lately, and like it or not, he will once again have to provide answers on Friday night.
“It’s part of the game,” Cunningham said. “The things they’re saying about me, the negative things, they fuel me up. It fuels me up and helps get me ready in camp. Every fight in my career, especially as champion, was showing these people that I’m supposed to be here.”
For a guy who has accomplished so much in the sport already – two world championships, deep international experience at the top level, a reputation for always being conditioned and ready, a 26-6 overall record with eight world title fights, and a deceiving 2-2 run as a heavyweight – Steve Cunningham just can’t seem be taken seriously.
“Look at who I beat,” Cunningham said. “Champions that I beat, guys that I beat in the cruiserweight division are reigning champions right now, not just champs with a couple title defenses. (WBO champ) Marco Huck, this dude’s got like 10 or 12 defenses (13 actually). I stopped him in the 12th round. Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, from Poland, WBC champ, he’s a reigning champ (with 6 defenses).”
Both Europeans became dominant champions, after Cunningham defeated them and left the division. But still Cunningham can’t seem to catch a break.
When he rematched with Tomasz Adamek in a December 2012 heavyweight fight, Cunningham appeared to do more than enough to win the 12-rounder and silence the critics of his heavyweight campaign. However, the judges awarded the decision to Adamek in a scoring shocker.
“I won that fight,” Cunningham said. “It’s an “L” on my record, but in my heart and in the hearts of the fans, they know what it was. Can’t nobody tell me that I lost that fight.”
Instead of the controversy earning Cunningham an immediate third fight with Adamek, the “loss” sent Cunningham to the back of the heavyweight line. With no other offers on the table, he accepted a fight with the undefeated, 6-foot, 9-inch, Tyson Fury, and spotted the giant 44 pounds in their 12-rounder.
The fight was a war, with Cunningham flooring the goliath with a hard right hand in round two, and staggering him again in the fourth, before succumbing to Fury in round seven. By his own admission, Cunningham lost his cool and perhaps fought too physically with the Brit.
“I let that Adamek decision affect me,” Cunningham said. “When I was landing those good shots (on Fury), it was in my mind that I have to show these judges. So I went at Fury a little bit more than we planned.”
And Cunningham paid for it. He was eventually worn down and knocked out by Fury. It was the only time he didn’t get up from a knockdown in his entire career.
Cunningham won a head-clearing tune up against Manuel Quezada in his last outing, and the Mansour fight materialized next. Some have criticized the powers that be for making the match – a 10-rounder between two local boxers both in need of a the same victory. Some feel that pairing them together now dictates that one of them will be derailed, and the argument claims that it should not be up to another “Philly fighter” to do the job.
“The fight was brought to us,” Cunningham said. “If this is the fight that has to be made, then let’s make it work for us. Money, his title on the line, and it’s in Philly. So great, awesome. Let’s go.”
“Philadelphia has a history of the Philadelphia bragging rights,” Cunningham’s trainer, Brother Naazim Richardson said. “Some guys put more emphasis on that than others. For us, it’s a job we need to do. It’s not about who’s the baddest guy in Philadelphia. We’re not interested in that. This guy (Cunningham) has proven that he’s one of the baddest guys in the world twice. So now he’s on the verge of proving that he’s one of the baddest guys in the world in this division too.”
A win over Mansour will put Cunningham in the heavyweight rankings, but probably won't wipe away the doubts that seem to follow him from fight to fight.
“People have written him off,” Naazim said of his fighter. “They’re not going to tell you in your face, but people have written him off. They look at him half-heartedly in person and they say they wish him the best. But in their mind, they think he’s too small and they write him off. But they’re supposed to think like that. It’s his job to change their opinion.”
So Friday night, Cunningham will fight Mansour as well as all those expectations against him.
“What helped me in my career to stay on point,” Cunningham said, "was always thinking whatever fight I was fighting, was the most important, biggest, fight of my career. If I would have lost my last fight, Quezada, if I took that guy light and lost to him, I’d be done. Same thing with any other fights that I won. So I’ve always looked at every fight as the biggest fight of my career. Because it is. You don’t want to get set back. You don’t want to lose, ever. This is a special fight for me too, because it’s at heavyweight, and because Mansour is the powerhouse. They’re calling him the next Mike Tyson.”
“One thing is for certain and for sure,” Naazim said. “We take Mansour absolutely as a serious threat. We have to work harder than Mansour and we have to do more to prove something to the public. We know that.”
At 41 years of age, Mansour has punched his way to a solid reputation as an up-and-comer. He’s endured a stop-and-start career and enters the fight with Cunningham undefeated and one KO away from finally making some serious noise. Another big knockout – on national television, against a fighter of Cunningham’s caliber – and he will be on his way to bigger and better things. But he too has questions to answer on Friday.
“Mansour is an athlete,” Naazim said. “What is most impressive about Mansour is that he’s a guy that has gotten it done with what he has. That makes you special. People find a way to get it done. Mansour is that. So you have to take him seriously. And we do.”
One of the questions about Mansour is whether he is ready for the big stage.
“This is the biggest fight of Mansour’s life,” Naazim said. “For his whole team, this is the biggest fight of their life. They make a name for themselves by dealing with Steve Cunningham. So Steve has to wake America up and wake the world up. And let them know, he’s still valuable, he’s still here.”
“I got a lot to prove,” Cunningham said. “There is still stuff that I still need to get. I’m hungry. Mansour continues to say how hungry he is. Dude, you don’t know hunger until you’ve had a taste of what’s on the plate, but then having it pushed away from you. I’ve been looking at this plate for so long, but I haven’t been able to eat the main course.”
“You want to know what hunger is,” Naazim asked. “He’s done all the work you’re supposed to do to be involved in those kind of (big) paydays, and they don’t want to give him those paydays. I told him to collect all the jewelry (championship belts), because the jewelry gives you access to the room where the money is kept. It don’t mean you automatically get the money, but you get in the room.”
Cunningham made the move up in weight to take his shot at becoming heavyweight champion, but he also did it to finally realize the big paydays that he thought would come with it.
“I’ve got situations going on right now,” Cunningham said. “Just emotional stuff. I need money for my family, for our future, for sound mind. I need to make that two-time world champion money. So that’s my motivation. Provide for my family. I’m already in the history books. Two-time world champion. I would love to be in the history books for being three-time world champion, a heavyweight world champion. That would be awesome. So that’s where we going.”
“You find a way,” Naazim said. “You find a way. If Mansour shows up with one of them small aluminum bats, we got to find a way to deal with it. That’s just the sport we’re in. You can’t make excuses. You got to try to find a way to deal with it. Some of the things we’ve implemented in training, I’m confident that we found a way to deal with it. “
The biggest question surrounding Mansour concerns exactly how real his abilities are. He’s bowled over numerous opponents, but has been surprisingly extended by others.
“People talk about when he fought Maurice Harris,” Naazim said about Mansour. “Maurice Harris was never at the level that Steve Cunningham was. He was a bigger man, and a much older man that had been battled up already by the time he (Mansour) got to him.”
Harris had been stopped eleven times before meeting Mansour last August, yet he lasted the full 12 rounds. It’s a hint that perhaps Mansour’s power may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. But Team Cunningham won’t know for sure until the bell rings.
“They got to show me I’m going to lose in the ring,” a defiant Cunningham said. “I’m not finished.”
“He has to be himself,” Naazim said about his fighter’s game plan. “He has to maintain his identity. We just plan on Steve Cunningham being Steve Cunningham. He can’t let Mansour, or anybody else, alter him. They say Mansour is the next this, or the next that. (But) you have to prove that you are that. That’s what lays on his shoulders. That’s what he faces, and has to deal with.”
Both fighters have something to prove, and boxing fans can’t wait to see who will succeed on Friday night. It’s that type of match. The fight could go in either direction, depending on the answers to the many questions that surround both boxers.
“It’s a national title,” Cunningham said. "It moves me up in the rankings. This is one thing I wanted to accomplish, to fight in Philly on a level such as this. I always wanted to campaign in Europe. I did that. So now I’m back home.”
“Collect that jewelry,” Naazim said. “Collect all that jewelry.”
The jewelry and that long overdue respect.