Steve Cunningham dissects his stirring win over Amir Mansour
By Ian Aldous: Three weeks ago, Steve ‘USS ‘Cunningham (27-6) faced the ominous task of beating, the then undefeated, Amir ‘Hardcore’ Mansour (20-1) and staying relevant in the heavyweight division. A gut-check win in an exciting bout on the NBCSN televised fight-card from his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was exactly what he and the fight fans got. It gives him as much chance as any heavyweight contender of getting a shot at heavyweight kingpin and ruler, Wladimir Klitschko. This past week, the experienced veteran of the sport took some time to talk with me over the phone about the fight and what lies ahead for him.
Going into the bout, ‘USS’ Cunningham had suffered four defeats in his last six fights – albeit against very tough opposition and some debatable decisions that went against him. The defeat to Tomasz Adamek was very controversial, as was the technical decision loss against current IBF cruiserweight champion, Yoan Pablo Hernandez. This meant that a lot was on the line for Cunningham as far as staying in the mix for ‘big fights’ in the future. “You can always get lined up for something, no matter what. I always look at every fight as the next big fight – as a world championship fight. That helps motivate me to grit my teeth and go harder.”
After a positive start by Cunningham, in the fifth round, Mansour, who outweighed his opponent by 16.5lbs, scored with a massive right-hand. Another heavy knockdown followed and it looked as though the fight was disappearing from Cunningham. Despite that success, he landed little else during the ten rounds and his big-swinging punches were mostly telegraphed. “He loads up a lot. It’s a good thing I got a great trainer in my corner, Buddy Osborn and Brother Nazim Richardson. They watched the tapes and they let me know this is what we’re doing, this is what he does and that was part of the camp. He’s a big swinger and Nazim and Buddy made that play to our advantage, you know. Make him miss, he’ll get tired.”
The two knockdowns looked like they would have finished many other fighters. Terms like ‘heart of a lion’ were used to describe how Cunningham survived the storm and went on to prosper, being firmly back in control of proceedings by round seven. In a situation like that, all the world championship and big fight experience he’d gained in his career might just have proved priceless. “That’s probably the case and there’s another part I can’t explain (laughs). I’m looking at some of these fights that I’ve been down in and got back up and continued on or won the fight and it’s like ‘what got me up?’ I attribute that to God, inner strength and my spirit because I can’t take credit for that. Once you get up and you’re back on your feet, then you can credit experience to that, you know what to do. If you’re still a little dizzy or a little woozy, you know how to make it through the round, you know how to tie-up with a guy or launch a punch. You see how when I went down against Amir, I got up and launched a right-hand at him because I’m letting him know ‘I’m still here’ and I’m gonna do what I need to do to win.”
He went on to dominate the last four rounds with jabs and counters as Mansour began to tire. During the television broadcast, co-commentator BJ Flores noted that he heard Cunningham talking to Mansour during the eighth round. In the tenth and final round, Cunningham knocked his man off-balance and down to the mat with a succession of quick shots (showing great hand-speed for a heavyweight) to secure the unanimous decision win. Scorecards of 97-90 and 95-92 (twice) confirmed this. The USBA heavyweight title was captured as well as, and more importantly, a No.12 ranking with the IBF.
The event was also a homecoming for the 37 year-old Philly native. He’s fought in South Africa, Poland and Germany since his last fight in Philadelphia way back in 2003. It’s something that has never fazed him in the slightest. “Like I told the guys at NBC at the interview before the fight – I don’t really care if I fight at home (laughs). It’s not something that excites me. What excites me is fighting in the lion’s den, fighting at somebody else’s hometown where you know they’ve got the advantage, where they feel comfortable, where they are expected to win because the hometown guys normally get the nod, you know. It’s like an extra challenge for me, I’m very motivated when I go overseas and when I’m not fighting at home. Like you said, I been fighting not at home for most of my career. Then you’ve got the other factor of dealing with family and friends, everybody wants tickets, they wanna call you and come to your house. When it’s training camp time – it’s time for me to train, rest, be with my family, relax and be in the mindset of ‘I’m about to go to war’. And I don’t need my cousins that I haven’t seen in two years calling saying ‘hey man, I’m trying to come to your fight, get me a ticket’ (laughs). I don’t look forward to fighting at home. I fought in Pennsylvania (his home state) against Tomasz Adamek and I got a bum decision at HOME!”
It’s now been just under two years and five fights since Cunningham made the choice to switch to the once ‘glamour’ division of the sport – heavyweight. A successful career as a two-time world cruiserweight champion led to the progression, but Steve would be the first to admit he was never a big cruiserweight. Now he’s firmly settled in the land of the heavyweights. “Yeah, the only fight that I felt a little uncomfortable – I was like ‘let me see’ and test (fighting at weight) I really wanted to go those rounds with Jason Gavern. That was my first heavyweight fight, I was 208lbs and I never fought at that high of a weight. I’d never really been that high before, I was always a small cruiserweight, you know, 196lbs or 195lbs. I never went over the 200lb limit at cruiserweight, in season or off-season. So, I wanted to go the rounds with Jason Gavern with him being a tough guy, a rugged guy that fought a lot of guys and will upset you if you let him. That fight was the only fight that I was just checking on weight and I felt great.”
In the post-fight interview on the NBCSN broadcast, Steve mentioned that one-week prior to the fight, he was in an ankle brace. He explained to me what had led to the unfortunate situation. “It was like a freak injury. I’m training a week before the fight and we did great sparring that Monday night. So, Tuesday we came back and did some light work and Nazim was happy. He said ‘You’re ready and we’re gonna go in there and do this thing’. We had Wednesday off and Tuesday night I’m in bed and my ankle was just swelling up gradually over the night. By the time I woke up at like seven in the morning – I couldn’t put pressure down on it. I’m freaking out! I wait ’til Friday to see if the swelling goes down – it doesn’t. I go to the doctor, he tells me I have tendonitis and says ‘I’ll put you in a cast’, and I’m like ‘woah doc, I’m fighting next Friday’ (laughs). This just so happened to be a doctor from South Africa and he saw me fight in South Africa and he’s like ‘I know, I know, this is what we can do. We can check it out, put you in a brace.’ Next thing you know, a few days later I went to another doctor who massaged the area and it was feeling great, every day it just felt better and better.”
He went on to reveal just how close he came to calling-off the fight. “I was literally minutes away from calling Main Events to be like ‘the fight is off’. I picked the phone up and was ready to dial the number when me and my wife said ‘let’s see how it looks on Monday’.”
So, as we wrapped things up, my final question to Steve was a simple one – will your heavyweight journey result in a world heavyweight title fight? “I believe it can. I believe it can, I believe it should and I believe it may. Just for the one simple reason -I’m willing to fight whoever to get there and do it. I’ve been there before (at cruiserweight) and I know what it takes to get there and perform at that level. I would love to fight for the title and get the opportunity, if I do, that’s why I’m trying to win these fights to make the opportunity myself. That’s the major goal – to become a world champion again.” He continued “I’ve been hearing people talk about my age. Listen, don’t judge by the numbers, judge me by how I look. How do I look in the ring? How do I look in the gym? My trainer and wife will tell me before anybody ‘hey, you looking old’ and then it’s time to sit my butt down. I feel like I’m getting better, so I’m not sitting down any time soon, so they better watch out.”
He’s traveled to Europe to win world titles before and maybe, just maybe, he’ll get one more opportunity to do so.
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