Christmas Comes Early: Judges Sink USS Cunningham
This fight took place in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the perfect location for a pre-Christmas fight. For Adamek, Christmas came early…
In the last big fight of the year, the judges once again got it very wrong awarding Tomasz Adamek a split decision victory over Steve Cunningham, effectively sinking USS’s hopes of a big money fight.
This was a rematch of a 2008 cruiserweight fight held four years ago where Adamek won another split decision, this one justified by Cunningham hitting the canvas three times. But four years later, the fighters were different, the fight was different and the final decision should have been different.
Before the bell rang, the odds were with Adamek. He had ten heavyweight fights under his belt to Cunningham’s one. He outweighed Cunningham by twenty pounds (Cunningham could have spit and made cruiserweight). And the Pole had already beaten the Philly fighter once. But Steve Cunningham had Naazim Richardson in his corner, a master strategist who understood that to beat Adamek, USS needed to fight within himself for all twelve rounds. Adamek claimed he too was a different fighter because of his new trainer, Roger Bloodworth, who’d tightened his defense and increased his speed.
Cunningham entered first, saluted all four sides of the ring like the military man he was and waited for Adamek to step through the ropes. When he did, the size difference was clear and I remembered the first time I saw Adamek up close and personal. My brother and I were sitting ringside for a local card in Jersey when two men sat down in front of us. One was hoop-star tall. He turned out to be Mariusz Wach, who just lost a decision to Wladimir Klitschko. The other, my brother and I quickly decided, was the strongest-looking man we’d ever seen. Under his short-sleeve shirt were slabs of muscle, not the pumping-iron variety but the kind of muscle that suggests brute, brutal strength. We soon realized he was Tomasz Adamek. With twenty extra pounds on Adamek’s frame, new muscle packed onto old muscle, Steve Cunningham had to be worried. The sleek sailor was taking on the Polish tank, and if heavyweight boxing is indeed different from all other boxing, this fight looked to be an easy late afternoon for Adamek, the only legitimate heavyweight in the ring.
From the first round, Steve Cunningham moved side to side, using his long jab to touch Adamek’s face over and over. Adamek moved forward, his hands cocked to fire, but the moving target in front of him provided few opportunities to score with clean blows. Round 1 went to Cunningham. And so did rounds two, three and four. Cunningham stayed disciplined, he controlled ring geography, he landed crisp jabs and looping shots to Adamek’s body set up by his range-finding left hand. At the end of each round, Adamek lunged, desperate to steal the round with a heavy right, but for the first third of the fight he was consistently too little, too late.
Adamek looked like a plodding fighter, moving forward, stalking and stalking, but Adamek is unique in that he rarely tires. Plodders with stamina eventually catch their prey and danger lurked in Adamek’s patience. In the fifth, Adamek struck hard. Cunningham was breathing heavy, his movement seemed less fluid, his step a few inches off. It looked like the fight was going to turn. Constant pressure can make lesser fighters fold, which was clearly displayed in the undercard fight when Tor Hamer quit on his stool after a mere four rounds, unable to will himself to stand and face the forward-moving Vyacheslav Glazkov. Cunningham is no Hamer. In the sixth, USS came storming back, the Philly in his blood revolting against Naazim’s wise words. Cunningham planted his feet, stayed in the center of the ring, and landed a series of rights that moved Adamek back. The heavy-handed man was taking heavy hands from the fast man and the fast man took that round and the next. Between rounds Naazim warned his charge, “Don’t start fighting. You don’t have to prove your heart. You already did that in your last fight. Prove you’re smart.” Cunningham listened and in the eighth, while Adamek kept the round close, a final double-jab, right combination tilted the balance to Cunningham.
The last four rounds had both men slowing. This was a rough fight, physically and mentally, and it was taking its toll. There were lapses in concentration, a few tells that Cunningham’s mind was starting to play tricks, a couple of smiles, a couple of head nods. A clash of heads increased the swelling on his already swollen eye. As for Adamek, his mouth was cut and he was breathing heavy. Round 12 was full of action, punch for punch, but Cunningham’s punches were more frequent and sharper. When the bell rang, USS raised his arms to the sky, completely confident he’d won the fight.
I called my brother. He had it 8 rounds to 4. I had it 9 rounds to 3, favoring the moving boxer who’d outscored the pursuing puncher. But I predicted a rough decision. Adamek is a marquee name and therefore a rainmaker while Cunningham has always stood just outside the money door, knocking loudly but never setting foot into the house where big bucks reside. Sure enough the decision was read and it was rough. At first, Michael Buffer announced a split-decision draw, but then Greg Sirb, Pennsylvania’s boxing commissioner, walked into the ring, double-checked the scores and a 115-115 card turned south for Cunningham as it was changed to 115-112 for Adamek. For this rematch, Steve Cunningham fought a different fight, a smarter fight, a better fight, but the final decision was no different from the first fight and that’s a crime.
Once again, the triumvirate of ringside announcers failed to express more than mild surprise. It’s great that boxing is back on prime time and kudos to NBC for bringing the fights back to the masses, but just because network TV shows homogenized shows doesn’t mean boxing commentary needs to be homogenized. Kenny Rice, the blow-by-blow man, was flat. Freddie Roach provided no insight into the ring action. Only BJ Flores seemed like he wanted to be ringside. I expected at least one of these paid observers to question the scores a little more vehemently.
This fight took place in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the perfect location for a pre-Christmas fight. For Adamek, Christmas came early. He was awarded a gift he didn’t deserve. Boxing should be a place where victors get their spoils, but too often the spoils go to the big-name fighter, the well-connected fighter, the fighter who will generate the most spoils for boxing’s behind-the-scenes men. The last big fight of 2012 was a very good fight, but the decision stunk.