Friday, April 4: As Steve Cunningham struggled to recover from the first of two fifth-round knockdowns against Amir Mansour, one could almost see him confronting his fistic mortality. At age 37, Cunningham knew that his time as a viable attraction was already running short and that another loss, especially by knockout, would have dealt a devastating blow.
These are the times when fighters learn what they are truly made of. If they rise, they know they will have to absorb even more punishment while in a terribly compromised state in exchange for a chance at victory. But if they choose to stay down, they must live with the historical and psychological consequences for the rest of their days.
But if preserving his boxing career didn’t provide enough motivation, Cunningham had even more reason to tap his deepest resources. Last month, doctors told Cunningham and his wife, Livvy that their eight-year-old daughter Kennedy wouldn’t be able to receive a life-saving heart transplant because doctors felt the risks of a fatal bleed-out during surgery was too high. They were encouraged to seek second opinions but to do so they needed more money – money that only more fights can provide. The fighter knew well that Kennedy Cunningham, at ringside with her mother, had already beaten great odds to survive this long, so if she could continue to fight, so could he.
Cunningham took most of the fifth round count on his knees, then, once he collected himself, drew in a deep breath and climbed to his feet. A few moments later, Mansour landed a salvo that included four right hooks and a left cross that again dropped Cunningham. Up at seven, Cunningham again convinced referee Steve Smoger that he was fit to continue and a few seconds later, the round-ending bell sounded.
It is a tribute to Cunningham’s fortitude that he recovered enough to answer the bell for round six. But few fighters are capable of regaining enough of themselves to sweep the final five rounds on two scorecards and adding a flash knockdown in the 10th. In the final two rounds, Cunningham outlanded Mansour 29-18 overall, 7-1 in jabs and 22-17 in power punches to secure an overall connect lead of 117-110 and capture a unanimous decision (95-92, twice, and a curious 97-90).
For longtime observers of Cunningham, his stirring victory was no surprise because staring down adversity is a big part of who he is. He had long risen above the violent, drug-infested neighborhood in Philadelphia where he was raised and enlisted in the Navy at age 18 to serve his country for four years. It was during that time he learned to box and it’s obvious he learned his lessons well. Once Cunningham turned professional in October 2000, he long campaigned in the underappreciated cruiserweight division.
He lost his first title shot via controversial split decision to Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, who won the vacant IBF belt before his Polish countrymen. However, in the rematch six months later, again staged in Poland, Cunningham dropped Wlodarczyk in round four and won the belt via majority decision.
Once he seized the belt, Cunningham expected to experience the glories that champions enjoy: big-money title defenses on either premium cable or pay-per-view before large and adoring hometown crowds. But for whatever reason, that scenario never happened. More often than not, he toiled in the shadows far away from home and if he was lucky, his hometown sports section might run the result in tiny type near the box scores. Cunningham stopped future titlist Marco Huck in Germany to keep the belt but lost it in his next fight – by split decision – in a classic against Tomasz Adamek in geographically friendly Newark, N.J. but before a Prudential Center crowd packed with Poles.
Two fights later, Cunningham regained his championship status with a five-round, cut-induced stoppage win over Troy Ross in Germany for the vacant IBF belt. Again, his reign was short-lived and conducted far away from home in Germany. Cunningham decisioned Enad Licina in Muelheim, then lost the title via strange six-round technical decision to Yoan Pablo Hernandez in Neubrandenburg, prompting a rematch four months later in Frankfurt. This time there was no controversy; Cunningham suffered two knockdowns in round four en route to a comprehensive decision defeat.
At age 35, Cunningham was at a career crossroads and the fork he eventually chose was to campaign at heavyweight. On the plus side, the 6-foot-3 height and 82-inch reach gave Cunningham the anatomical goods to compete. But on the minus side, his frame couldn’t credibly carry more than 210 pounds and with only 12 knockouts in 28 cruiserweight fights, one would have thought he lacked the power to earn respect from his naturally larger opponents.
Following a shutout win over journeyman Jason Gavern, the record book says Cunningham lost back-to-back fights to Tomasz Adamek and Tyson Fury. But in both fights, Cunningham produced positive, if not victorious, results. Many observers believed Cunningham deserved to beat Adamek and the CompuBox numbers supported that contention as he prevailed 209-169 in total connects and was the more accurate fighter in all categories (41%-33% overall, 37%-20% jabs, 48%-45% power). Then came round two of the Fury fight, which saw Cunningham flatten – and nearly knock out — the 6-foot-9 giant with a single right hand, showing power virtually no one thought he possessed. From that point forward, the 254-pound Fury used his massive size advantage (and several illegal maneuvers) to wear down his 210-pound tormentor and stop him in the seventh. At the time of the stoppage, Cunningham led 57-55 on two scorecards and was tied at 56-56 on the third.
Cunningham could have retired after those disappointments but once again, he opted to soldier on. Eight months after the Fury loss, he looked extremely impressive in out-pointing 29-7 trial horse Manuel Quezada. Cunningham won every round on every card and the stats illustrated his dominance: 238-39 in overall connects, 150-16 in landed jabs and 88-23 in power connects while landing 37% overall, 34% jabs and 41% power and absorbing just 17%, 11% and 30% respectively. The bout served as the perfect springboard for his crossroads fight with Mansour, who boasts his own tale of perseverance.
Turning pro in 1997, Mansour won nine straight before being sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison for a controlled substance charge. Following a stay at a halfway house, he resumed his career in August 2010 at age 37 and appeared on track toward bigger goals after beating former contender Dominick Guinn and stopping Epifanio Mendoza. But a probation violation landed Mansour back in prison and at the time, it appeared his pro aspirations were all but snuffed out. Once Mansour served his 14-month sentence, however, the 40-year-old felt there was still time. After all, the heavyweight division is fueled by power punchers and he knew that if a big man had the KO touch, it would be the last asset to leave him. He was proven right as he advanced his record to 20-0 (15) after defeating Dominique Alexander (KO 1), Gavern (KO 1), Maurice Harris (UD 12) and Kelvin Price (KO 7).
But undefeated prospects, even 40-something ones, must eventually step up the competition and certify their place in the sport. Cunningham was as good a measuring stick as any: experienced and armed with a championship pedigree. His was a name familiar to viewers of NBC Sports Network, whose cameras were present (but not always rolling) at his last four fights and had featured him as a guest analyst from time to time.
The scene at the weigh-in was a stark contrast to the usual testosterone-fueled antics. Mature enough to feel comfortable within their sculpted skins, Cunningham was relaxed while Mansour was playful. During the staredown, a smiling Mansour whispered something that turned Cunningham’s stony stare to a tiny grin. Also, when Cunningham flexed his upper body for the cameras, Mansour answered with a series of exaggerated bodybuilder poses that effectively broke whatever little tension was present.
That tension was reserved for just before the fight, when a dispute regarding the walk-out order nearly precipitated a pre-fight fight and, for the bout itself, a thrilling physical and psychological drama that has been rare in the heavyweight division in recent years. With one Klitschko in retirement and another a few months past his 38th birthday, the transition to a new era among big men has begun. With their efforts, Mansour and Cunningham will be included in the chapters that have yet to be written.
Cunningham-Mansour had an extremely tough act to follow, for middleweights Curtis Stevens and Tureano Johnson produced an outstanding action fight that could be a contender for “Fight of the Year” despite its controversial ending.
Given the styles, Stevens-Johnson was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Stevens may well be boxing’s most dangerous first-round fighter and many observers thought going in that Johnson’s all-out attack would result in a short, explosive and extremely TV-friendly finish. Instead, viewers got a titanic war in the trenches that entered the 10th and final round with a conclusion that ignited a chorus of boos.
A generation ago, the standing eight-count was expelled from professional boxing because its misapplication created too many contentious endings. But if ever a fight called for a one-time return of the standing eight-count, Stevens-Johnson was it.
Entering the final round, Johnson was seemingly on his way to a career-defining victory. His formidable upper body strength continually backed Stevens into the ropes and his smothering tactics prevented the New Yorker from generating his usual leverage. The Bahamian’s constant work trumped Stevens’ violent spurts and allowed him to build leads on the judges’ scorecards (89-82, twice, and 87-84) and on the punch stats (235-223 overall, 231-210 power). Stevens kept it close in the power punch department by landing 40 in round four.
But Stevens’ calling card has always been his lethal left hook and it came through when he needed it most. A crackling left to the jaw swiveled Johnson’s head and buckled his legs, the sight of which gave Stevens a massive energy boost. A series of unanswered punches including a hard right prompted referee Gary Rosato to intervene.
To most observers, including this one, Rosato’s timing appeared premature. However, the official’s hands were tied because he had only one of two choices: stop the fight or allow Stevens to continue hitting Johnson with impunity and cast aside his primary responsibility – ensuring the fighters’ safety. For his part, Johnson could have opted to take a knee but while that would have stopped Stevens’ momentum for a few moments, it was a risky strategy for two reasons. First, volunteering to absorb a knockdown is a violation of the warrior’s code, so deeply ingrained in fighters. And second, since there was no open scoring in place, Johnson couldn’t have known he had enough of a cushion to absorb the point penalty that comes with a knockdown. In fact, he could have taken two voluntary knees and still won the decision (he was ahead 89-82 on two cards and 87-84 on the third) but the tide of the fight indicated that such a move would have been chancy.
But if Rosato had access to the standing eight-count, he could have stepped between the fighters, sent Stevens to a neutral corner and assessed Johnson’s condition while administering the count. If Johnson’s eyes cleared quickly, he would have allowed the fight to continue and if not, a stoppage would have allowed Rosato to uphold his prime directive in a more optically agreeable manner. That also would have been the case had Rosato allowed the fight to continue and Johnson had taken two or three more unanswered punches before intervening. If that had happened, Stevens’ wondrous final-round comeback would have been the overriding storyline instead of the controversial stoppage.
But since there was no standing eight-count, at least in this instance, the stoppage was the story. I don’t, however, blame the referee. He was only using the options available.
As Stevens rejoiced, a tearful Johnson could only contemplate what might have been. While an immediate rematch would be terrific, I don’t believe Main Events will take that risk a second time with Stevens, at least not now. Stevens may indeed secure a turf war with WBO middleweight titlist Peter Quillin but here’s hoping that Johnson also will be treated as a winner in terms of opponent and paycheck the next time he fights.
As for the undercard bouts, one time 140-pound title challenger Edner Cherry emerged from a 14-month layoff to outpoint Robert Osiobe over eight rounds (79-73, 78-74, 77-75) while undefeated Cuban light heavyweight Sullivan Barrera easily outpointed Washington, D.C. journeyman Larry Pryor over six and Delaware junior welterweight Evincii Dixon raised his record to 4-4-1 (2) by starching Vineland, N.J.’s Edgardo Torres (2-3, 2) in two rounds. But the two bouts that proved most intriguing involved another quartet of light heavyweights as Lee Campbell (7-0, 3) muscled his way to a majority eight-round decision over Puerto Rican Roberto Acevedo (8-2, 5) and Mike Lee (12-0, 7) (better known as a pitchman for Subway) stopped Cayman Islander Peter Lewison (6-1, 5) in the sixth and final round.
Both fights were competitive, fan-friendly scraps and statistically, Campbell (nicknamed “The Silverback”) and Lee deserved to win. Leading 78-50 in total connects and 55-25 in landed power shots, Lee struck Lewison with an impressive 49% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts while Campbell (whose muscular build and facial structure resembles Ron Lyle’s) outlanded Acevedo 106-94 overall and 90-68 in power shots. After the fight, punch-counting partner Aris Pina, who, in a previous professional life, worked for promoter Cedric Kushner, came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea: Match Campbell and Lee and bill it “Silverback vs. Subway.”
Once the show went off the air, I quickly packed my laptop and headed back to the production truck for a quick slice of pizza and a cup of Diet Pepsi. Thanks to Sports Media’s Dustin Vinton and his rental car, Aris and I found our way back to the Hyatt, where I went back to my room to get some more work done before shutting out the lights around 3 a.m.
Saturday, April 5: I stirred awake five-and-a-half hours later and the rest was indeed restful. I spent most of the next two-and-a-half hours churning out copy and after checking out, I went outside to get a taxi to the airport.
The doorman enthusiastically struck up a conversation with me upon spotting my gold-colored t-shirt depicting a prime Muhammad Ali in a fighting pose and the words “Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee.” The cab arrived but only after a few delightful minutes of conversation.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of my travels is the opportunity to meet people from different countries and I learned the cab driver was a native of Somalia. It wasn’t long before he told me that he wished to find a new profession and though he felt his age (nearly 50) and nationality might be a problem, he appeared determined to follow through. After telling him about finding my dream jobs at age 42, he asked how I was able to do it. I gave him the abridged version after which I told him that if he truly wanted success, he had to identify his passion, seek out people willing to open doors for him and work like hell once that door is cracked open.
“If a guy from a town of 130 people can do it, anyone can,” I said. “If you love what you do, you will be way ahead of the game because your enthusiasm will give you all the fuel you’ll need to do a good job. Believe me; people who perform well will get noticed and that, in turn, will give you job security.”
Thanks to my first-class upgrade and the fact that virtually no other passengers were at the security checkpoint, I breezed through the process and found my gate well ahead of schedule. I bought a hot dog and a Diet Coke at a nearby Eat at Joe’s outlet, then spent the rest of the time as a “word guy” does: alternating between reading others’ work and writing my own.
The plane landed nearly 20 minutes ahead of schedule and the temperature seemed somewhat warmer than the 38 degrees announced over the loudspeaker. I arrived home a little after 6:30 p.m. after which I began tackling the first few items on what has become a formidable “to do” list.
At least I have 12 full days to whittle it down. Plus, my next trip will be a virtual “home game” for me because on April 18, I will be “working the keys” for a ShoBox card emanating from Monroeville, Pa., located 14 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Until then, happy trails.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.
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