PHILADELPHIA — Steve Cunningham has been in this place before. Looking up at a larger, favored opponent who most feel poses a formidable problem for the two-time cruiserweight world champion.
Cunningham just grins, shakes his head and then laughs.
He knows about British heavyweight Tyson Fury (20-0, 14 knockouts), who will be making his United States debut against Cunningham (25-5, 12 KOs), on April 20 at Madison Square Garden on NBC. He knows Fury is 12 years younger than he is. He knows Fury is a 6-foot-9 giant who weighs around 255 pounds.
“USS Cunningham” also knows how to win.
Cunningham addressed assorted media at a recent open workout in his hometown, after speaking to RingTV.com exclusively. He reminded everyone that he has won two world titles—both abroad; once in Poland, the other time in Germany.
He also carries a powerful hammer. The sting of the Tomasz Adamek loss, on Dec. 22, 2012, a controversial split-decision defeat that left most ringside observers scratching their heads, still resonates. Still motivates.
Even Adamek’s Polish co-promoter, Ziggy Rozalski, thought Adamek’s victory was “a Christmas present.”
Now Cunningham is left to regroup and try to knock off Fury. But there’s one major problem and no other way to say it: Cunningham is small. He was a light cruiserweight and is a terribly light heavyweight. This will only be Cunningham’s third fight in the top weight class, while the behemoth Fury, it seems, came out of the womb as a heavyweight.
He won’t let the Adamek setback change him.
“I’ve been winning fights doing the same thing I’ve been doing, but with Adamek, that was one of those things involving the judges,” said a jovial Cunningham, one of the genuine good guys in boxing. “The judges were in error. I don’t know if they purposely [saw the fight a certain way], or if they were incompetent. It was all on them. I did my job. I performed. But I did ask myself after the fight what I did wrong, and what I could have done better.
“With me, I look at my fights and I always see what I did wrong. I saw the Adamek fight and I saw some mistakes I made. I will do things differently against Fury. I’ll use a little more aggression and a little more intelligence, especially with someone like Fury, because he brings different things to the table.”
Cunningham said the Adamek rematch did reinforce in him the notion that even if a fighter is heavier, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s stronger.
Naazim Richardson, Cunningham’s trainer and one of the game’s best strategists, devised a plan to break down Adamek. Team Cunningham is working on a similar plan to chop down Fury, who is six inches taller and may be about 50 pounds heavier than Cunningham on fight night.
“I learned to stay the course against Adamek,” said Cunningham, who weighed 203 for Adamek. “Naazim put in a great fight plan and you have to be smart. I have to stick to the game plan against Fury. Things can change in the ring in a split second. Fury is an undefeated giant, and we’ll adjust as the fight goes on. We’re preparing for a brawl and a boxing lesson. I learned to box, and I can do what I need to do to win. I still want to be intelligent and know when to bring my aggression. I know people want to see a fight. But at the end of the day, the goal is to win.”
Though he boxed, Cunningham was entertaining against Adamek. He used angles and his reach. He scored with calculated aggression. Two judges, however, apparently felt Adamek applied more pressure and that Cunningham ran.
Fighting in Europe, Cunningham knows what it’s like having a whole country against him. Fury will no doubt bring a heavy Brit contingent to the “Mecca of Boxing.” But Fury isn’t a superman. He was knocked down by Neven Pajkic in the second round of their fight on Nov. 12, 2011, before stopping Pajkic with a third-round TKO. Fury was also in early trouble against Nicolai Firtha in September 2011 before ending him in the fifth.
Nevertheless, the physical advantages are enough to make Fury the solid favorite.
“I don’t know how I would act if I wasn’t the underdog,” said Cunningham, who last fought in Madison Square Garden in January 2006, though this will mark the first time he’s fighting at the Garden as a headliner. “This is a different stage—on NBC, televised throughout the nation. This is a must-do-what-you-have-to-do-to-win fight. If I have to get bloody and grimy, that’s what it’s going to be.
“I’m going in more motivated. I have the world to gain if I beat this guy. I haven’t made the two-time world championship money, or the grandeur of a two-time champion. I have a lot to gain and I’m coming to get it.”
And again, there is the Adamek fight. It still resonates. It still motivates.
“I know I beat him; everyone knows I beat him. He even knows I beat him. His Polish fans know that I won, even though I didn’t get the decision by the judges,” Cunningham said. “I look back at Adamek with a smile. My Facebook fan page was flooded with Adamek fans becoming fans of mine. The support I got has really helped me get over the hump.”
That’s what he’s taking into the Fury fight.
Photos / Al Bello-Getty Images