PHILLY BOXING HISTORY  -  April 04, 2014


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USS Cunningham Weathers a Hardcore Tsunami

 Story by John DiSanto
Photos by Ray Bailey


Steve Cunningham was on the floor. His shoulders were against the bottom strand of the ropes. His head was hanging back, and he was looking up at the ceiling of the Liacouras Center – assuming his eyes were even open. His body was limp. He was finished, and so was his career. Even his most ardent supporters were crying for the fight to be stopped. “Don’t let him get hurt,” they said to themselves. But referee Steve Smoger couldn’t hear their shocked whispers. 

At that moment, Steve Cunningham’s worst case scenario had come into play. All the many pre-fight perceptions appeared to be true. Amir Mansour was for real. He was too big and too dangerous for Cunningham to handle. Cunningham, a two-time champ at cruiserweight, was too small, and his chin was questionable. And he just had too many miles on him to pull out another victory in this division. 

After his second trip to the canvas in less than 30 seconds, Cunningham was done, and Mansour had proven to all those doubters that Cunningham was indeed no heavyweight. 

Everyone would have understood it if Cunningham couldn’t have gotten up, and no one would have blamed him either. However Steve Cunningham was never one of those doubters.  This was a fighter with faith.

He not only had the word stitched on the waistband of his trunks, Cunningham also had faith emblazoned on his heart. He had faith in his abilities, faith in God, faith in his corner, and faith in his purpose. If no one else would believe that he was destined to become world heavyweight champion, then he would make it his job to keep the faith himself. 

And lying there on the floor, his faith refused to let him down. 

Cunningham got to his feet and for the second time in round five, convinced the referee that he was able to continue. Steve Smoger made it clear that he would give him no more chances after letting him go this time. However, after surviving this storm from Mansour, Cunningham didn’t need any more chances. His skills, brains, and true grit would take it from there. 

Cunningham went on to win the fight by unanimous 10-round decision, and even closed the show with a heroic last round knockdown of Mansour that clinched the victory, won him the USBA belt, and served as further proof that he indeed belonged in the heavyweight division. But what this victory proved above all else was that Steve Cunningham is a true fighter.

Cunningham’s performance was a spectacular display of determination and will on a throwback night of Philadelphia boxing. This card of well-constructed fights was the best the City has seen in a number of years, and was a nod to the countless other nights of long ago that thrilled local crowds and made Philly the ultimate fight town. Those days seem gone forever, but on Friday night they were miraculously back again. 

The Cunningham-Mansour bout started out on script. Cunningham was taller, but Mansour was clearly the bigger man, and he used his strength to pressure Cunningham from the opening bell. He bulled his way in and began throwing bombs immediately.  Steve moved a bit but mostly slipped and blocked Mansour’s southpaw attack. At one point, Mansour nailed Cunningham with a ramrod right jab that snapped the former champ’s head backward. It was a bolt of lightning and a warning of things to come.

In round two, Mansour remained in control with his aggressive style, exactly as expected. He drilled Cunningham with a hard right that opened a bad gash over Steve’s left eye. The cut poured blood for the remainder of the round.

However, beginning in round three, Cunningham appeared to find his range. He was boxing well and beginning to outclass Mansour. Amir’s left cheek began to swell his eye closed, but Mansour kept bombing away and kept the tension of the bout sky-high.

By round four, Cunningham was landing much easier, and the gap in experience between the two fighters was showing. Cunningham looked comfortable, perhaps too comfortable.

With the fight even after four rounds, things took a sudden turn in the fifth. Cunningham was on the brink of putting a third straight round into his column, when Mansour caught him going backwards into a neutral corner. Mansour clubbed Cunningham with a right hook that snapped his head back. A follow-up hook walloped Cunningham on the jaw, and he crashed hard on the canvas.

So sudden was his fall that one moment Cunningham was standing, and the next he was flat on his back. The instant in between appeared to have been removed by a film editor. The crowd gasped. Cunningham lifted his head, but it took a moment for the rest of him to follow. Slowly he rolled over to one elbow and lifted himself up, wobbling a little as he went upright. 

Referee Steve Smoger looked him in the eye and asked him if he was okay. The fight continued with about 20 seconds left in the round. Sensing the kill, Mansour jumped right in. Cunningham cracked him with a hard right, but Mansour walked through it and hammered Cunningham with another right hook.

The punch sent Cunningham back into the same neutral corner, and Mansour followed with a volley of murderous shots – a pair of right hooks, a left hand bomb, and finally another hook. This time Cunningham withered to the canvas, and lay there with his head hanging back over the bottom strand of ropes.

His moment of truth had come.

To everyone’s amazement, Cunningham pulled himself to his feet like a warrior. Steve Smoger took a hard look as he wiped Steve’s gloves, and let him continue. Never one to panic, Smoger has a reputation for letting fighters fight. Most referees probably would have ended the night right there, if not before. But Smoger believes in giving a fallen fighter every chance to come back.

“He looked me right in the eye and told me he was okay,” Smoger said after the fight. “He was lucid and clear. I told him that one more punch and we would be going home.” 

Clearly Smoger made the right decision. For Cunningham still had plenty of fight left in him.

The bell sounded before Mansour could resume his attack, and Cunningham wandered back to his corner. While cut man Buddy Osborn (who arguably saved the fight for Cunningham himself) worked furiously on the cut, trainer Naazim Richardson leaned into the ring and calmly talked to his fighter. Clearly he reminded Cunningham that he had taken the worst from Mansour and survived, and he urged him to stick to their game plan.

Cunningham came out for the sixth with survival on his mind. He moved around the ring on rubbery legs, carefully avoiding Mansour’s surges. Amir kept coming, but was beginning to look fatigued and a bit frustrated. This was the first time that someone had tasted his best punches and endured.

As the round elapsed, Cunningham drilled Mansour with a hard blow to the body, and the puncher felt it. Cunningham then ripped a right hand lead to Mansour’s head. The series changed the feel of the round, as Cunningham went from defensive mode to full on attack. Mansour kept coming but he finished the round weary.

Cunningham continued boxing, but the fight remained an intense affair. The memories of the knockdowns and Mansour’s constant bombs kept the crowd on the edge of their seats. But Cunningham was avoiding most of the incoming artillery and landing well enough himself.

Mansour rallied in a close round eight, landing the harder shots as he worked to swing the momentum back his way. Perhaps lost in Cunningham’s remarkable rebound, was the fact that Mansour, untested by most of his previous competition, was fighting hard and answering many of the questions that existed about him.

Mansour was not a fraud with a well-matched record. He had real power, much determination, and a finely tuned ticker. He had come just one punch, and a few extra seconds, away from winning the fight, and the only hurdle he couldn’t overcome was Cunningham’s experience.

The fight was close on my card, which showed Mansour up by a point entering the tenth and final round. That 10-7 score in the fifth round was keeping Mansour afloat on my tally.

In round ten, Cunningham dug deep. He fought smartly, but needed to take some risks to close the show. With Mansour fading, Cunningham stepped on the gas and peppered his foe with everything he had left. A right hand started the assault, and Cunningham followed with a volley of lefts and rights that wobbled Mansour and weakened his legs. The attack had Mansour spinning and pitching around the ring.

Cunningham followed his wounded foe and kept throwing punches. Finally Mansour toppled backward and touched his glove to the floor for balance. The knockdown didn’t compare to those scored by Mansour five rounds before, but this one by Cunningham couldn’t have been better timed. The extra point would help Cunningham secure the victory – at least on my card, which read 94-93 after ten rounds.

The excellent fight went the full limit, and was a hard fought battle, loaded with drama. So far it was the best Philly fight of 2014, and likely still will be when the year ends eight months from now.

The official judges all scored the fight for Cunningham, but had him more comfortably ahead than I did. John Poturaj and David Braslow had it 95-92 for Cunningham, while Alan Rubenstein turned in an astounding score of 97-90. To put that in perspective, Rubenstein gave the fifth round to Mansour, 10-7, and Cunningham everything else, including a 10-8 in the final round. 

It was the first loss for Mansour, 20-1, 15 KOs, but the fight did more for Mansour’s reputation than anything that had come before. Yes, he lost this fight, but he lost it to an excellent, experienced opponent. He displayed toughness, power, attitude, and picked up some fine experience in his first defeat.

“I let my heart and my soul take the best of my skills away.” Mansour said after the fight. “He was the better man tonight. He was the tougher man, and he did what he had to do.  He had an iron heart tonight. I had a steel heart tonight. And his iron was a little harder than my steel.” 

Class in defeat. Mansour will return with a bigger fan base, and more experience, than ever before.

Cunningham, 27-6, 12 KOs, kept his career going strong and the performance showed that he shouldn’t be underestimated, even as a heavyweight.

“The only thing that got me through this fight, and my whole career, was faith,” Cunningham said. “It’s the only thing that will take me through this heavyweight run. I want to be heavyweight champion. I plan to be heavyweight champion. I believe I can do it. I know how to be a champion. That ain’t nothing new for me, getting up off the canvas.”

“We’re looking at a special guy,” Brother Naazim Richardson said. “Guys look for a reason to quit these days. But this guy gets up off the canvas and knocks the other guy down. He’s not a tough guy. He’s not a puncher. He’s a boxer who can swim without getting wet. Smart and sharp. He’s a special dude. I’m privileged to work with him and his family.”

“We all know Mansour is a powerhouse,” Cunningham said. “He caught me. I started doing real good, and I got a little lackadaisical. But that (being knocked down) sharpened me right back up. Back to work, baby. This dude is vicious. So my hat goes off to Mansour and his team. He’ll be back. He’s a tough dude.” 

Despite the loss, Mansour did much to raise his stock as a fighter. There was no undressing in his defeat. Rather he revealed solid ability that proved he can still be a factor. His previous reputation as an unbeatable killer was a myth. He walks away from the fight with a new, more honest identity as a very dangerous heavyweight with a big heart. The experience picked up in this fight will make him even more dangerous, if that is possible.  

“People thought I was being fed to the wolves but I showed them that I can’t be fed to the wolves,” Cunningham said. “Wolves can’t digest what I’m made of. I hope you were entertained. We still have work to do. The USS Cunningham is underway for a heavyweight world championship.”

It was a great fight, far better than your average heavyweight contest. Constant punching, fast-paced, two-way action, gutsy performances, and tons and tons of drama. This fight was everything that boxing should be, and it was just the icing on the cake Friday night.

Luckily for fans, Cunningham and Mansour were not the only fighters on the card with true grit. This was an excellent show from top to bottom, with each fight topping the last.

In the 10-round co-feature, middleweights Curtis Stevens and Tureano Johnson waged a grueling war just before the main event. And for the time between this fight and the heavyweight main event, Stevens-Tureano looked like a sure bet to be the Philly Fight of the Year.

Stevens’ proven reputation as a knockout artist had many thinking this bout might be another quickie. But his opponent was an undefeated former Olympian who brought plenty of skill and attitude himself. It turned out to be a great match up.

Johnson started fast and kept his foot on the gas all night. Stevens strangely backed to the ropes voluntarily and remained pressed against the strands for most of the evening. It seemed like role-reversal with the puncher trapped and the boxer pressing the fight to the edges of the ring.

But along the ropes Stevens was cocked and ready to launch a knockout blow. He stayed tucked away, searching for openings and then firing. He fought well off the ropes, but the shot he was looking for never came. Instead, Johnson captured the first three rounds with more output and general body language. However the action was intense and went both ways.

In round two, Stevens exploded off the ropes with a volley of uppercuts that appeared to soften Johnson a bit. But it didn’t last. Johnson wobbled Stevens in the third and appeared to be on the verge of a stoppage. Stevens was in a funk, and it appeared the mood would do him in.

However, Stevens rebounded in round four with a massive left hook that got him back into the fight. He followed with a flurry that came close to dropping Johnson, but the underdog was sturdy and fought back.

Stevens continued his comeback in the fifth. More uppercuts found their mark, but by the end of the round Stevens looked winded. Johnson sensed the opportunity and battled back. It was a great round.

Beginning in the sixth round, Johnson began capitalizing on Stevens’ weariness, and started pulling away on the cards. Johnson won rounds six through nine, but Stevens was still swinging and trying to salvage the outing.

Going into the final round, Stevens was way behind on the cards, and needed to find that one big punch. He came out strong, but Johnson met him with his assorted attack. However, Tureano finally appeared tired and couldn’t keep the pace he had in the previous nine rounds. Stevens kept pressing and never gave up.

Suddenly Stevens caught Johnson with a gargantuan left hook that spun Johnson’s head and backed him to the ropes. Stevens seized the moment and charged in for the finish. He landed another bomb, but Johnson managed to block the rest of Stevens’ attack. When Curtis landed another punch along the ropes, referee Gary Rosato jumped in to stop the fight. The crowd booed loudly.

It was a heart-breaker for Johnson. He had fought well and won most of the previous rounds. The official cards later confirmed that he was far ahead on points.

The referee’s stoppage may have felt a bit premature, but Johnson was badly hurt and Stevens still had almost a full minute to finish the job. The time of the TKO was 2:09 of the tenth and final round.

Johnson, 14-1, 10 KOs, protested the stoppage, while Stevens, 27-4, 20 KOs, quietly returned to his corner, aware that he had dodged a bullet. Perhaps lost in the uproar about the stoppage was the fact that this was an excellent fight and another Fight of the Year candidate. The stoppage was frustrating, but give Stevens credit for hanging in there and pulling out the win. A rematch would be interesting, but is probably unlikely, at least for now.

Before these two nationally televised bouts (NBC Sports Network), five preliminary bouts began the night.

Junior welterweight Evincii Dixon (4-4-1, 2 KOs) dropped Edgardo Torres (2-3, 2 KOs) with two hard rights along the ropes in round one, and then finished him with another pair of rights in the second round. The time was 15 seconds of round two.

Light heavyweight Mike Lee (above right) remained undefeated (12-0, 7 KOs) with a sixth round TKO of Peter Lewison (6-1, 5 KOs). Lee pounded away at his opponent throughout the bout, and finally put him on the deck in the final round. Lewison got up and referee Steve Smoger allowed him to continue.

Lee resumed his beating, but Smoger halted the fight moments later as Lewison’s corner man, boxer Charles Whittaker, jumped up on the ring apron and indicated he wanted the fight stopped. The time was 1:39 of the last round.

In another light heavyweight fight, Lee Campbell (7-0, 3 KOs) upset Roberto Acevedo (8-2, 5 KOs) by winning an exciting 8-round majority decision. The fight was terrific during the first half, but the intensity fell off down the stretch when Campbell (above right) began sweeping the rounds.

After eight rounds, judge John Poturaj had the fight even at 76-76. However, Mike Somma and Alan Rubenstein saw Campbell as the winner, 78-74 & 77-75 respectively. I also scored the fight 77-75 for Campbell.

Undefeated light heavyweight prospect Sullivan Barrera (white trunks, above), remained undefeated with a one-sided 6-round decision over Larry Pryor. Barrera (11-0, 6 KOs) dropped Pryor (7-9, 4 KOs) in round one and took every round of the fight. All three judges (Pierre Benoist, Alan Rubenstein and John Poturaj) scored the bout 60-53 for Barrera. My score was the same.

Veteran junior lightweight Edner Cherry (32-6-2, 17 KOs) opened the card with a gritty 8-round decision over Robert Osiobe (14-9-4, 6 KOs). Cherry suffered a bad gash over his left eye down the stretch, but won the fight regardless. Pierre Benoist scored it 79-73, David Braslow had it 78-74, and Mike Somma saw it the closest at 77-75. I had Cherry pitching an 80-72 shutout.

All in all, it was the best night of Philly prizefighting for quite sometime, carefully constructed by promoter Main Events, in association with Peltz Boxing, Joe Hand Promotions, and Bam Boxing. They all did a great job putting this one together. The night had a throwback feel to it, and was a truly great night of boxing. If they were all like this one, boxing would be back on top.




John DiSanto - North Philly - April 04, 2014
Photos by Ray Bailey