PHILADELPHIA–It’s been four years and Steve Cunningham hasn’t let go. He won’t. His first fight with Tomasz Adamek was a classic, one of the best cruiserweight fights of the last decade and a 2008 Fight of the Year nominee.
But it doesn’t lessen the sting any from the three knockdowns Cunningham sustained, nor does it ease the pain of losing the IBF belt he had traveled the world to get to Adamek.
“USS” Cunningham, 25-4 (12 knockouts), is a different fighter than he was then, and he plans on showing it 4 p.m. this Saturday at the Sands Casino Resort, in Bethlehem, Pa., when he faces Adamek again in a rematch. This time, the fight is at heavyweight, on the first NBC network broadcast since 2004.
“That first fight stays with me; I can watch the fight, but now I feel I’m a different fighter than I was the last time,” said Cunningham, 36, who will stepping in with trainer Naazim Richardson by his side. “The last knockdown, that hurt. I still felt it was a draw, but there were three knockdowns, so I can’t argue. I learned that if you underestimate someone just a little bit, it can cost you a world championship title.
“I knew Adamek was a world champion, and I felt he was a tough fighter. But I was coming off the Marco Huck win, and I was feeling real good about myself. I stopped Huck [defending the IBF cruiserweight belt] in the 12th round in Germany, in front of his people. I felt strong, and it’s why we felt we were going to be able to knock Adamek out. It was the wrong game plan and I was in there to blow him out of the water. I was mad I lost my belt. I trained to knock the guy out, and I look back and I get a little angry, because I’m better than that now; I’m smarter. I made mistakes that first fight. It’s going to be real different on Saturday.
This will be Cunningham’s second heavyweight fight. His first foray with the big boys came on Sept. 8 of this year, when he won a unanimous 10-round decision over 239-pound Jason Gavern. It happened on the undercard of Adamek’s fifth-round TKO over Travis Walker, in Newark, N.J.
The 36-year-old Adamek, 47-2 (29 KOs), will be fighting for the fourth time this year and is coming off a major scare against Walker, in which he picked himself up from a second-round knockdown to survive and get the stoppage.
Cunningham replaced Anthony Chase with Richardson since the Adamek loss, and feels he has more ammunition this time around with the change. Richardson has been with USS for three years now, covering six fights.
Cunningham says it’s been educational.
“I thought I was a hard worker, but I haven’t done anything in comparison to what I’m doing now,” Cunningham said. “I was a small cruiserweight, and I weighed 207 for the Gavern fight, so I know I’m a small heavyweight compared to these giants today. I’m working on things during my down time now that’s awesome; Naazim is a hard man and he works you hard. I feel I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Cunningham knows his time is ticking. He knows this will be the closest he’ll have to a dream hometown fight, since he hasn’t fought in Philadelphia since 2003, on the Bernard Hopkins-Morrade Hakkar undercard in the Spectrum, a building that doesn’t exist anymore.
Cunningham also knows Adamek comes in with far more heavyweight experience than he has, having fought Jason Estrada, Chris Arreola, Michael Grant, Eddie Chambers and Vitali Klitschko.
“I know I’m the underdog, but that’s nothing new,” Cunningham said. “It’s been that way my whole career. Adamek is more experienced at heavyweight. He’s been in with Vitali Klitschko and I sparred with Wladimir. Look at the guys he’s beat, Grant, Estrada, Chambers. He’s beat some solid dudes, but I don’t really think he beat Eddie, that’s the way the decision went.
“I know a lot of people are counting me out, but that’s been my career. I’ve always wanted a big fanbase … and I know Adamek comes with a big fanbase. There will be more people there for me this time than last time [when they fought in Adamek's adopted hometown of Newark, N.J.], because I felt that I was fighting in Poland.”
Still, Cunningham senses that the stakes are high.
“There is some pressure on me—this is it, this is my career at stake, I have to win this for my career to go forward,” he said. “There’s no doubt this is the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life. I’ll use everything I can to get the win. If it goes to banging, I’m capable of taking it there. You want a Larry Holmes jabfest, I’m capable of taking it there, too. We have a game plan I feel real confident about. Expect to see the best Steve Cunningham yet.”
Photos / Al Bello-Gettyimages; Boris Streubel-Bongarts/Gettyimages