Steve Cunningham doesn’t have a problem with European dudes, though the feeling likely isn’t mutual: He’s dished out more punishment to fighters from that continent than Jägermeister has to collegiate livers.
Even in doing so, however, things haven’t always gone Cunningham’s way.
Too many times, in his estimation, he’s been the boxing equivalent of Charlie Brown trying to boot that ever-elusive football, but with ringside judges in place of the hated Lucy.
Still, Steve Cunningham keeps pressing forward—in the ring and in life.
As he prepares to take on Antonio Tarver on Friday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (Spike TV, 9 p.m. ET/PT), he reflects on his Greatest Hits and some less-than-great decisions.
3 vs Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, May 26, 2007, at Spodek in Katowice, Poland
After losing a highly debatable decision to Wlodarczyk in Poland six months earlier, Cunningham was about as excited to return to Wlodarczyk's homeland for the rematch as a kid is to get a handful of broccoli tossed into his trick-or-treat bag—and like said kid, he’d get his revenge.
No, he didn’t toilet paper Wlodarczyk’s house.
Instead, Cunningham took care of business with his fists over a dozen or so rolls of Charmin.
“I was just written off,” Cunningham says of the hit his reputation took after losing to Wlodarczyk. “People said that I wasn’t a knockout fighter, I didn’t have a big punch, this and that.”
In the rematch, it wouldn’t matter how big Cunningham’s punches were when he landed so many of them.
“I literally went HAM (i.e. “hard as a mother,” for the Urban Dictionary impaired) on this guy for the first six rounds,” he says, “broke him down, beat him up and just took it to him.”
He also took Wlodarczyk’s title in the process, winning a majority decision to become a world champion at 200 pounds.
“To win that title, finally, I’ll never forget that feeling.”
2 vs Marco Huck, December 29, 2007, at Seidensticker Halle in Bielefeld, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany
After going into the lion’s den to defeat Wlodarczyk, Cunningham then went into the bear’s cave or, uh, wherever it is a rhino sleeps to take on Marco Huck in his native Germany.
Huck was a big puncher coming off an even bigger win at the time.
“Huck had just beaten Vadim Tokarev, who was supposedly the future of the [200-pound] division,” Cunningham remembers. “Huck trashed him, made him look bad. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Cunningham was less enthralled by the insults Huck sent his way, however.
“He talked a lot of trash,” he says, recalling how Huck had particular fun with the fact that Cunningham and his wife had recently invested in a pizza joint. “He said that he was going to beat me up so bad that he was going to make me go back and make pizzas for the rest of my life.”
Instead, Cunningham served up an extra-large butt kicking garnished by the towel that Huck’s corner threw in during the 12th round.
“By the time I got to the third and fourth rounds, it was over,” he says of his TKO win. “I knew that he couldn’t fight the way that I fought because he didn’t fight like a thinker. He fought like, ‘Aaargh! I’m going to go knock you out!’ When fighting a thinker, that type of fighter will lose 98 percent of the time.”
1 vs Tomasz Adamek, December 22, 2012, at Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
After narrowly losing to Adamek in a fight-of-the-year candidate in December 2008 when he was dropped three times and yet still fought on, Cunningham pined for a rematch with Pavlovian anticipation.
“For four years, I was just salivating at the opportunity to fight him again,” he says.
This time, the two would meet at heavyweight, and though Cunningham outworked Adamek and had many ringside observers believing he won, Adamek received the split decision.
“I’m a hard critic of myself, and I felt that I fought an 8.5 that fight,” Cunningham says, grading his performance. “I nullified his right hand and landed some big shots, buzzed him a few times in there and didn’t really get hit the way he wanted to hit me. I felt like I did a great job. After the 12th round, you can see it on my face. I knew I had beat that man.”
Though an emotional Cunningham was nearly reduced to tears in the ring after the judges’ scorecards were read, he now sees the bright side of that dark moment.
“Even though it was a blatant, bold-faced robbery, that fight told people that I was a formidable heavyweight, no matter the size,” he says. “Nobody in the world can tell me I lost that fight. No one.”