PHILLY BOXING HISTORY                                                                        January 01, 2009


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Steve Cunningham fought the fight of his life on December 11, 2008 against Poland’s Tomasz Adamek.  It was a thrilling all-action struggle that had the fans at Newark, NJ’s Prudential Center on their feet.  Cunningham lost the bout by decision, unable to overcome three surprising knockdowns on the official cards.  Adamek also put up an inspired performance, no doubt spurred on by the legion of Polish-flag-waving locals of his adopted hometown who came out in force. 

The fight was close; the decision split.  Everyone in the arena got their money’s worth - and then some.  Well, maybe everyone except the fighters.  The national TV audience watching live on the VERSUS cable network had finally seen one worth staying up for.  The TIVO users yet to watch the bout, had a surprise in store for them. 

As the last bell sounded and each fighter’s supporters anxiously awaited the official result, the same thought wiggled its way into everyone focused on the fight that night – “When is the rematch?”

The decision deservedly went to Adamek, and with it went Cunningham’s IBF cruiserweight belt, but Cunningham showed his stuff that night and made his Philly boxing forefathers proud.  Cunningham, a throwback fighter who is always in shape, always willing to fight anyone, always to travel anywhere for a fight, always ready to show his grit and his finesse, found himself belt-less when he awoke on December 12th.  The feeling must have been strange for the young ex-champion. 

In all my years as a boxing fan, a Philly boxing fan especially, I have never seen a world champion wear his belt so proudly.  I assume it is part of his effort to be the most accessible champion of recent years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Steve without his belt in tow.  Some fighters wear their belts as their calling card, as their entry ticket to various events and to distinguish themselves from the rest of us non-champs.  But not Cunningham.  He always carried his belt for another reason.  I think he brought it along so that he could share his championship with his fans.  I have seen him wear the belt some, but it is more common to see him just carry it into a place, lay it down, and often even walk away from it.  He made us all feel like that belt was as much ours at it was his.  That is a very unusual attitude for a boxing champion of the 21st century.  I bet more fans got a peek at an actual championship belt thanks to Cunningham than any other champ in history.  I’ve touched his belt, and even held it once. 

So what does Cunningham do now?  What will he do without that belt?  Well, it seems that this very special fighter who lives his life and plies his craft in a traditional way, will have to get his rematch the right way.  The old school way.  Like so many old school fighters of the past, Cunningham will have to fight for his rematch.  You see, because Adamek was a mandatory challenger, there was no rematch clause in the fight contract.  Get this, the two best fighters in the division sat down to sign a contract, which was drawn out by two of the most powerful promotion companies in the business – Don King Productions and Main Events.  Everyone agreed on a venue, a date, a price, and a variety of other terms.  Everyone involved hoped for and promised a great fight, one that would be remembered by anyone willing to make the trip to Newark and pay their way in.  Every detail was considered and agreed upon.  The only item left out was maybe the most important thing – a rematch clause.  If the fight was going to be as good as expected, then why not plan for a second match?  I know this is the business of boxing.  A win by Adamek would shift the balance of power from one camp to another.  And so it has. 

Adamek will defend his new belt in the same arena in March, presumably before the same partisan crowd.  Meanwhile, Cunningham’s schedule is wide open.  He returned to the gym last week, looking to pick up the pieces and move forward.  But his dance card is empty at the moment.  What’s a recent ex-champ to do? 

For the old-school Steve Cunningham, it looks like he’s got to do it old-school style.  Cunningham is going to have to fight for another opportunity.  And I mean that literally.  He is going to have to get back in the ring and show everyone that he is the most deserving contender.  And as much as I think he deserves an immediate redux, the old-school way is best.  Doing it that way will benefit Cunningham in the rematch and generally benefit his stature and legacy.  The time he’ll have to wait will bolster his desire to win back the championship.  A non-title fight or two will also help him to better hone his skills.  Cunningham is one of the best in his division without question, but the Adamek fight revealed a few defensive holes that need plugging. 

The fighters of yesteryear had a simple confidence to them that was derived from their hard work, honest effort, and the knowledge that they earned everything they accomplished.  This cloak fits Cunningham too.  He worked his way up the ranks the first time, fighting in anonymity, off-TV, lost in the shuffle of those endless Don King shows.  He fought in everyone else’s backyard, and only had the comfort of his hometown on a Bernard Hopkins homecoming fight.  Talk about being in the shadows.  Even for his defense against Adamek, after three consecutive bouts on foreign soil, Cunningham fought in Newark before a crowd that could have been airlifted from Warsaw.  The promotion itself was built around Adamek, not Cunningham.  Steve was brought in to provide the belt. 

What happened in the ring was a great example of a hard-fought and exciting championship fight.  Both boxers worked hard and gave a fine effort.  It was one of the best fights of the year.  Tomasz Adamek came away with a close but fair title winning effort, and the post-fight clout to call the shots going forward.  Cunningham almost won the fight, despite his trips to the canvas, and seemed to be close to dropping Adamek in the last round.  But the bell sounded, the fight ended, and Cunningham came back to Philly with his head high but his leverage compromised.  However, there still is hope. 

We all know that there is a great fight to be made out there, and that fight is Adamek-Cunningham II.  It has to happen.  Steve wants it, Tomasz probably wants it, the fans want it, and the major cable networks would be crazy not to want it.  So we all want it, but it is up to Steve Cunningham to go out and get it. 

Life would be easier if the powers that be just handed Cunningham another chance.  He certainly deserves it.  But that wouldn’t be old school.  Steve has to prove himself all over again.  And this is exactly what some of the best fighters in history have had to do.  For Steve, it won’t take as long or be hard as hard to do, as it was the first time.  But he has to do it.  It will make him a tougher challenger and it will make him a better fighter under the watchful eye of boxing history.  Steve Cunningham can do it.  He can do it his way – the old school way.  He will grind it out at Shuler’s Gym in West Philly.  He’ll bounce around the other Philly gyms looking for the city’s best fighters to spar with.  He’ll stay in shape and he’ll stay focused on the things that clearly drive him as a man – his wife, his children, God, and the earnest quest to be the best at what he does. 

For Cunningham it will seem like a long wait, but one day, later this year, he’ll get his chance.  And on that day, Steve Cunningham will once again wear the IBF championship belt.  He’ll carry it to the gym; he’ll have it around town; he’ll trustingly lay it down for us to see.  And we’ll all look at that belt, and again feel like it is our title too.  For whatever Steve has accomplished in the ring, it is this quality, his willingness to share his success with everyone, that will always be his magic as a boxing champion.  I’ve never seen a champ quite like him. 

And one other thing is for sure; I bet Tomasz Adamek would never let me lay a finger on his belt.




John DiSanto - January 01, 2009