STEVE CUNNINGHAM weighed just 210 pounds the day before he exploded a right hand on the chin of Tyson Fury and floored the six-foot-nine, 254-pound Englishman inside Madison Square Garden in 2013.
He was undersized, as was his custom at heavyweight, and expected to fight the way an undersized heavyweight typically does against the beasts of the division: he’d move for a few rounds, look to survive, peck and prod and spoil, before eventually being put out of his misery somewhere around the halfway mark.
Cunningham, though, a former two-time IBF champion at cruiserweight, had other ideas. Unimpressed by Fury’s form and technique, he set about the bigger man from round one, refused to give ground or cower, and soon found it was he, rather than Fury, who was landing the telling, heavy blows.
“Going into the fight I felt Fury couldn’t beat me,” remembers Cunningham. “That was my mindset. My trainer, brother Naazim (Richardson), instilled that in me. He said he can’t outbox you; he can’t touch you. I thought exactly the same.
“We showed that a bit. But the residue from my last fight made the whole thing dangerous.”
Cunningham’s previous fight, also at heavyweight, was a 12-round split-decision loss to Tomasz Adamek, another fighter who’d drifted through the weight divisions. It was a disputed verdict, a downright robbery in Cunningham’s eyes, and this detail, more than a sudden inclination to brawl, helped influence the American’s game plan against Fury.
“It was such a blatant robbery,” says Cunningham, 29-9-1 (13). “I literally outboxed Adamek. It was a beautiful boxing lesson. Stevie Wonder would have given me that.
“I’m p***ed at the judges after that Adamek fight. I apologise to my team and they’re like, ‘You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.’ But, in my mind, if any judge sees a way to cheat me, that means I didn’t dominate. That’s my goal: to dominate.
“So, going into the Fury fight I felt I had to show I was winning rounds big. What else do these judges want? I know everyone was looking for someone to challenge Wladimir Klitschko. Me being one of the smallest heavyweights, if not the smallest heavyweight, and not being a knockout artist, nobody’s looking at Steven Cunningham and saying, ‘Oh, man, he can test Wladimir.’
“I felt I had to show them. I gave them pure boxing in the Adamek fight, but they didn’t want that as a heavyweight, I felt.
“I had to show them a little more banging in the Fury fight, to my trainer’s annoyance. He didn’t want me doing that. He wanted me to box and he was right. But as a fighter I think a lot. I think too much. I’m always thinking about how the judges are seeing things and I didn’t know they had me ahead at the time of the stoppage. I’m thinking I have to fight a little more to get the decision.”
And fight he did. A confident first round led to a breakthrough second – in which he dropped Fury with the biggest right hand of his career – and some other good rounds after that.
In fact, Cunningham, more than anyone, seemed capable of landing on Fury, of badly stunning and hurting him, and was blessed with the smarts if not size to bring about his downfall.
“When I knocked him down I was thinking, stay down, stay down, stay down,” says Cunningham. “Then I saw him get up and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go back to work.’
“But I knew I could hurt him now. I just needed to line up another good shot.
“And I did. I hit him with another right hand in the next round that really hurt him. It stunned him. I thought, okay, line him up again.
“He then switched up his game a bit. More than that, I wanted to get that knockout and make a statement as a heavyweight. I wanted to say, ‘I’m here, I can beat these big guys, I can bust them up and knock them out.’ I wanted to do that.
“It kind of backfired on me, but this is boxing. If you’re not willing to lose, you shouldn’t be in there.”
Despite boxing well and leading on two of the three scorecards (the third had the fight even), Cunningham eventually found himself trapped against the ropes, manhandled by a bigger human being, and clubbed to the floor in round seven, a knockdown from which he was unable to recover.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “I sat in there with Fury and gave him the opportunity to lay on me and tire me out.
“I was doing good in the fight, too. I got the knockdown and hurt and stunned him a few more times. But then, by the fifth round, the laying on me started to weigh on me.
“I knew I’d get a second wind. I thought let me get out of this round and then I’ll be back on track. That’s when he did what he did and got the KO win. It’s all good. It’s part of the game.”
Two-and-a-half years after that near-miss, Fury dethroned Wladimir Klitschko in Dusseldorf, Germany, winning several world heavyweight titles and shaking up a division accustomed to being controlled by a Klitschko (be it Wladimir or Vitali, his older brother).
Looking back, the emergence of Fury as a Klitschko contender never surprised Cunningham. It was, he believes, all part of the plan. But the fact Fury then defeated Klitschko is something he still has trouble getting his head around to this day.
“A lot of the fans say Fury’s no good because a cruiserweight knocked him down,” he says. “Then others say it doesn’t matter because he knocked Cunningham out anyway.
“But, remember, I wasn’t expected to do anything in that fight. That was the consensus opinion. The media were saying Fury was going to clean me out early and be too big. But then I shook up the world for a second.
“I didn’t think Fury would beat Wladimir but I didn’t think he was going to get stopped on his way to Wladimir, either.
“I’m not tooting my own horn but I’m a very skilful fighter and have a good boxing mind. At that time, I’d been boxing for about 13 years. There were things we were doing in camp to make certain things happen – including that big knockdown – and I didn’t think there were too many people who could do that. That’s probably why we haven’t seen Fury knocked down since.”
Fury, of course, having beaten Klitschko and won it all, soon reverted to type, lost everything he’d earned, and for the best part of two years went missing altogether.
He’s back, however, on Saturday (June 9) in a routine tune-up against another natural cruiserweight, Sefer Seferi, and should come through it unscathed. He’ll presumably have it all his own way, too, despite the layoff, and despite Cunningham’s warning that cruiserweights – good ones anyway – can have plenty of fun against bigger men.
“People can call me a cruiserweight, but you’ve got to realise and respect what I did,” he says. “You didn’t think I had power; I showed you it’s not about power. It’s about the right placement of shots and timing and technique.
“As a cruiserweight fighting a heavyweight, timing will create knockouts and cause damage that will stop fights. I fought another big guy, Natu Visinia, who was around 270 pounds, and he was too big and slow. We stopped him; he quit on his stool.
“Even though I was a cruiserweight, I showed I carried pop in the Fury fight. Then Fury goes and fights Wladimir and Wladimir does nothing to him. That makes me look great.”