NEW YORK – The 12-year age gap between Tyson Fury and Steve Cunningham is never more apparent than when they open their mouths.
Fury (20-0, 14 knockouts), a 24-year-old British heavyweight contender, carries the confidence and feeling of invulnerability that comes with having never tasted defeat. His boisterous self-promotion draws liberally from the youthful excesses of Muhammad Ali and the cartoon-like violence of Mike Tyson, while his 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame give him a larger-than-life presence whenever he walks through a door.
Raised in the “Irish Traveler” culture in Manchester, England, Fury’s bout with Cunningham this Saturday at The Theater in Madison Square Garden will be his first time performing in the U.S. And performing he has been, coloring the press conferences with talk of wanting to “smash [Cunningham] in the face” and promising to retire in the ring if Cunningham gives him a tough fight.
“I’m not interested in getting inside of his head,” said Fury, when asked about the purpose of his trash talk at Wednesday’s press conference in New York. “That fist is going to smash his jaw in. Then I’ll be inside of his head when he wakes up unconscious.
There was also this inflammatory line: “Steve is actually a brother of mine in Christ. If God is with you, who can be against you? It’s one of those things where God has bigger plans for me than Steve obviously because he’s already been defeated and whatever.”
Cunningham (25-5, 12 KOs), a 36-year-old veteran from Philadelphia, Pa., is as understated as he is undersized as a heavyweight, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in around 200 pounds for his two prior heavyweight clashes. Although having won the cruiserweight title twice, Cunningham often finds himself as the “B-side” of the promotion, traveling abroad to Europe for opportunities.
“I’ve been sick of the talk before it all started,” said Cunningham, who was accompanied by his wife/manager Livvy and two of their sons. “I’m not a talker, that’s just not me, I’m a fighter. I leave all of the promoting to the promoter. The promoter doesn’t get in the ring and take the punches for me, why ‘I’ma’ do her job?”
When the show’s promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events attempted to settle the dispute over which fighter would enter the ring last (which traditionally denotes being the star attraction), Fury objected to leaving that decision to chance. Or just saw another opportunity to tell the world how great he was.
“There’s only one star here and it’s not Steve Cunningham,” said Fury. “This is the Tyson Fury road show and we’re bringing it to New York. Steve Cunningham is the opponent here; he’s not the champion, he’s not the man. It’s all about me. Me, me, me. Why should he go in the ring first?”
Fury then offered to put a cash bet on the outcome of the toss to make it lucrative, which Duva informed him was illegal in New York. A less-than-amused Naazim Richardson, trainer of Cunningham, offered his own explanation of Fury’s behavior to Duva. “Do you have children, Kathy?” asked Richardson. “Then you already know.”
But while it’s easy to dismiss Fury’s behavior as being a sign of immaturity, it’s worth noting that another British fighter invaded New York 16 years ago spewing over-the-top threats and boasts to great success. “Prince” Naseem Hamed made his name in The Garden, dancing and talking up a storm against former featherweight titleholder Kevin Kelley before knocking him out in four thrilling rounds. Many credit Hamed’s run during the late-‘90s with the popularity the featherweight division enjoys today.
Heavyweight boxing in America has found itself taking a backseat to the deeper, lighter weights in the past decade. Still, it remains irrefutable truth that the biggest guys still punch harder than anyone on the planet. A return to the big stage – like the 4:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon time slot on NBC that this fight is receiving – could bring interest back to the division stateside.
One can only hope that the division represents itself better than it did in Cunningham’s last bout against Tomasz Adamek in December when, in front of an NBC-televised crowd, Cunningham was on the wrong end of a laughable split-decision verdict.
The winner of the bout will earn the No. 2 spot within the IBF heavyweight rankings, positioning himself for an elimination bout with unbeaten Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev for the mandatory spot to champion Wladimir Klitschko. Cunningham, who has spent time in camp with both Wladimir and his older brother Vitali Klitschko, says he has not had a single thought about fighting anyone else past Fury.
Fury on the other hand has generated his strongest responses from insulting the Klitschkos, who hold three of the four major titles with Wladimir holding THE RING lineal title.
“I think they’re both bitches,” said Fury. “They fought people that can’t fight back, mainly no-hopers with good records. They don’t want to fight; they’re making me fight 25 eliminators just to get a fight. After a fight with Pulev, I’m going to have to fight another five eliminators and then I might get a fight with them. Obviously they’re scared of me.”
This will be Fury’s second consecutive elimination bout, having beaten American Kevin Johnson in December in an eliminator to meet WBC heavyweight titleholder Vitali Klitschko.
Richardson, who has trained 48-year-old Bernard Hopkins to overcome significant hurdles related to age, was confident in his own low-key manner, making one request to the media for their post-fight accounts.
“I just beg that you do not de-fang and de-claw this young man,” said Richardson. “Fury is younger, he’s bigger, he’s taller, he’s stronger, all of these attributes. After the fight I don’t want people to start saying things like, ‘He wasn’t real, he hadn’t done anything, he was a fraud.’ With all of these attributes, this young man is supposed to be as exciting as he thinks he is.”
Fury-Cunningham will be the first heavyweight bout to headline at The Garden since Wladimir Klitschko knocked out Calvin Brock in 2006. If Fury is hoping to make New York a second home, an impressive performance would be a good first step.
“I’m not interested in making people impressed; they’re going to be impressed by the performance anyway.” said Fury. “I’m Tyson Fury; they’re just impressed by talking to me, looking at me, never mind fighting. Steve Cunningham’s a cruiserweight, I’m not going to build him up. That’s for the Klitschkos to do, let them do that s__t. I’m a realist, he’s a bum and he’s getting knocked out.”
Whether or not that actually happens, it might be worth a view anyways.
Video: Bill Emes
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.