By Gary Purfield
Two years ago I penned an article about Steve Cunningham titled “Steve Cunningham: From Philly, Fighting in Germany” discussing how a title holder from a boxing crazy city of Philadelphia actually rarely ever fought a meaningful fight anywhere near his hometown. A genuinely good guy who served his county in the Navy and was twice champ couldn’t get a chance to fight in his own country because he fights in the division of cruiser, right below boxing’s glory division.
I even made a picture of Cunningham’s head staring into the skyline of Philadelphia to drive home the point that a proud champ just wanted his shot alongside the other great boxers that have thrived in the fighting city that embraces its athletes. So after years of success in the ring fighting in Europe or anywhere else he could as a cruiser, Cunningham follows the path of many before him, jumping to the heavyweight division where he can get some attention.
Again the same picture was used but this time it has a different connotation. This time Cunningham stares at this city with the thought that he could achieve his dream of being big at home. Saturday afternoon he begins his foray into the heavyweight division and his new found chance to be home. He will be the co-main event to Tomasz Adamek vs. Travis Walker when he takes on Jason Gavern (21-10-4, 10 KO) at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
Cunningham is already seeing more attention before he ever steps into the ring at heavyweight.
“Actually yeah, we didn’t know it was going to be, a lot of people caught on to the press releases this and that. We didn’t know it was going to be that much care I guess. I mean you’re talking to the guy who wins his title overseas twice and comes to the airport and no one’s there. Defends it successfully and there’s no reception. I haven’t had a parade in Philly. I haven’t had a block party so I was like surprised. A lot of people do give a damn. Wow, people are paying attention to Steve Cunningham. With that being said that motivates me more.”
Cunningham for years had to deal with being one of the best in the sport and being one of the hardest workers in the gym without being noticed and without getting big paydays. Trainer Nazim Richardson, who is one of the best and most respected in the business, expressed his disappointment that Cunningham was not noticed despite his hard work. The trainer best known for being the master with Bernard Hopkins and ripping off Philly lines in the corner like “swim without getting wet” talked about the necessity to move to heavyweight at this point of Steve’s career.
“I’m in favor because the cruiserweight division is such a lost division. It’s hard being champ working as hard as the other champs. Maybe training harder than the other champs, but not getting the compensation. You see guys at welterweight winning fights and their not working half as hard as you. You see these guys losing their belts over weight and you get a guy like Steve who comes in the gym at fight weight now. It’s hard when you’ve done that and you’ve won the belts but you’re still not getting compensated. So now you move to the division, eventually every cruiserweight has to go heavyweight to be compensated properly.”
Of course being successful and getting the attention plus the paydays at heavyweight is not as easy as simply weighing over two hundred pounds. The move has serious risk. In the land of the giants one can train to perfection, fight a perfect fight, and then have it all go to waste in the blink of an eye or more specifically from one punch. Richardson discussed how he has asked Cunningham to be flawless to survive at heavyweight.
“It’s been hard on me because he’s boxing quality dudes like Chazz Witherspoon and what I’m asking of him is to almost be flawless which is nearly impossible but I have to ask that. You’re not going to be flawless against a guy like Chazz because Chazz’s IQ is too high, but I have to ask this because in the heavyweight division you could dominate ten rounds. I mean you can lose every round in the heavyweight division and land clean and erase everything. Heavyweights carry that eraser.”
So what does Richardson have to do with his pupil to prepare him for the big men?
“Just making him conscious that there are no lulls. Taking a break and jabbing, there’s none of that. You have to be intense for twelve rounds straight. You relax when you’re in the dressing room with your shoes off then finally you can exhale. Until then, walking through the audience you never know when someone’s crazy cousin gonna do dumb stuff. So relax when we in the dressing room with our shoes off.”
Cunningham for his part is confident about the move.
“I feel confident. You know feeling anxious. I don’t know a lot of feelings. I’m comfortable with the fact that I’m a fighter and this is what I do. I gotta fight. This is how I make my living. I love fighting and this is the next step so I’m excited to make the next move and see where it goes. In the long run I’m going to come up successful in this and see where we go.”
Moving up has its training perks as well. Cunningham has adjusted to keeping weight on instead of making weight and has been able to enjoy eating a better diet.
“Just, only thing tricky is I like to work out so much. I like to run so much. So I had to tone down my cardio or switch it. Instead of running I’m swimming now. Not sweating as much, not wearing down as much, but you’re still getting that intensity. I’m doing more sprints and stair climber. Truthfully I haven’t run more than three miles of long distance this training camp. So I been doing the sprints.
“Actually I feel great man. I don’t feel drained. Normally when I was a cruiserweight when I left the gym I’d feel drained because my eating habits weren’t awesome. I could eat once a day as a cruiserweight and be cool. Go all day cause I’m always doing something. Now I’ve changed my eating habits. I’m eating more like three times a day. I’m drinking milk.”
Again with some good comes some bad. It is not just the fights at heavyweight that are tough. Preparing for the fight means sparring true big men including fellow Philly contender Chazz Witherspoon. The shots and sheer weight of tangling with these men can be taxing for Cunningham who barely cracks heavyweight and plans on coming in against Gavern around 208lbs.
“The only thing I feel different is the sparring I’m doing. The sparring I’m doing with Chazz Witherspoon, very good pressure. He punches all the time. I been sparring all the time with an amateur kid Jamal 6’ 6”, 250lbs. The feeling is just the weight. Going through two guys like that switching up. I sparred with Chazz numerous times before. I sparred with him before the Huck fight and a couple other fights. Now we got a guy coming in even bigger after so it’s wearing on my body.”
Finally, he may be enjoying the new geography more than anything. Instead of going to Europe he will be fighting less than two hours from his home in Newark, NJ. A nice treat for a fighter so used to fighting on foreign soil away from his home, his family, and his fans.”
“Yeah we do. We’re already feeling a comfort. Normally around this time we’d be preparing to fly over to Europe fourteen to ten days before the fight, but now we’re talking about driving up, driving in our own car the day of the press conference. So we’re like wow that’s a couple days from the fight. I don’t know how to act now.”
To make the move Cunningham chose to sign with Main Events Promotions based out of Newark, NJ. Several years ago when he decided to commit to fighting at cruiser in Europe he signed with European promoter Sauerland Promotions. Cunningham hoped the move would bring him big fights and big paydays in Europe. It worked out at times, but never fully materialized the way Cunningham envisioned. So, when the chance came to split with Sauerland earlier this year he took it. Cunningham did his thing at cruiser with no regrets and knew it was time for a change.
“Well, because for one we were tired of going to Europe. We did it and it was over. Like I said one of the main reasons I went to Europe was I’m close friends with Chris Byrd and he was regretting after he retired not doing a European tour. People fighting over there more because that’s where we build our fan base. Cruiserweights here in America as I said before are doing nothing. No television and no money so we went with them (Sauerland) but at that time Main Events wanted a relationship with us. We decided to go to Europe, it was 50/50 but now we chose to go with Main Events because we know they are promoting their fighters. We know their interested in putting good fights on and we know that it’s close to home.
“We believe in Kathy Duva (Main Events CEO). She has vision, she works for her fighters. We see that, we know guys that are promoted by her. So it’s like, I don’t want to say she’s a mother hen. She puts you out there and you got to do your job. It’s just good business. She seems to be one of the better promoters that I experienced.”
Cunningham starts with Jason Gavern on Saturday. A tough fighter but one he should handle well if he is going to be capable of competing in the new division. He is well aware that to achieve his goals at heavyweight of winning, drawing a crowd, getting attention, and making money he not only has to win but be exciting.
“It’s really Naz comes in with a game plan and the game plan is do what we do, win. Overall, win, second look spectacular winning. We’re going for the most spectacular win. We know Jason Galvern is a rugged guy. I know he’s rugged and he’ll upset you. The plan is to win and look good winning.
“There’s always pressure. Especially with this move because of the other cruiserweights that moved up. David Haye did great. Adamek did great. It’s like I know all that, I see all that, I play it in my mind, but like I said, the main objective is winning and moving on to the next one. But, winning spectacularly is what we really want to do so if it doesn’t happen spectacularly it won’t be because there wasn’t effort.”
Richardson worked with Gavern in the amateurs and talked about taking him in the first bout at heavyweight.
“I remember he’s strong and a heavyweight, I mean he’s a heavyweight. The young heavyweights are taking Jason Gavern as a step up, as a test. It was like they wanted to give him a test so they gave him Jason Gavern. We coming right into the division taking our test. Jason Gavern is definitely a test.”
Anyone who knows boxing knows the move from cruiser to heavy is the most difficult jump in weight in the sport. It is not the difference of seven pounds or so but can mean taking on someone fifty pounds heavier. Cunningham draws on the difficult fights he had at cruiser over the years and has set the bar high.
“Love to be heavyweight champion. I’m a two-time champion in another weight class and people don’t understand the cruiserweight division is a very hard, tough division. What made it even tougher is no money so everybody with the person who’s the man makes the money. So everybody is jockeying for position. So being the champion and going through all those tough fights. You look at my resume I fought former champs, soon to be champs, maybe champs back to back, so that’s all I know. Me being the heavyweight champion, I’m not hoping for less.”
If he needs confidence or motivation he looks to the past when the heavyweight division was not just the glory division of the sport but of the sporting world. He also has the assurance that others have made successful jumps recently from cruiser to heavy and knows the only way to find out if he can be successful is to the take the risk. Without the risk one cannot have the reward.
“I look at the old school heavyweights. Not that I’m ignoring the giants we have now. I look at Ali, 6’3”. I look at Foreman, his height. I look at Joe Frazier, shoot he weighed less than 212lbs. Mike Tyson, not that I’m hitting like these guys you know but I’ just looking at their size. Shoot, look at David Haye, 210lbs. I’m just like I can do it. I believe I can do it, I can do something. We can be great at this and the only way you know is to try.”
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