February 1, 2013

KO Digest Interview - Steve Cunningham: "People underestimate me"

USS Steve Cunningham
Sometimes, bad things happen to good people.

Over the course of his career, two-time cruiserweight champion turned heavyweight challenger Steve Cunningham has become all too familiar with this unfair but prevalent part of life. More than once, Cunningham has braved the politics of boxing, dropping many a controversial decision and leaving the ring with an unsatisfied feeling, robbed of the deserved taste of victory.

Despite these misgivings at the hands of boxing's judges, Cunningham maintains a positive attitude. He's confident, willing to fight anyone in the heavyweight division but carrying himself with dignity and respect.

At 36 years of age, he still looks and feels youthful, and his quiet confidence may have earned him the role of this decade's version of "The Road Warrior," Glen Johnson. At the surface, this is a compliment, for Johnson and Cunningham both are revered among boxing fans for their fighting spirit. However, each man's career carries a complex legacy. With so many razor thin losses and lacking well-deserved recognition, it's not hard to wonder if each combatant could have done a little bit more, if their careers and talent are unfulfilled, albeit by no fault of their own. With the career hour glass running out of sand, Cunningham is determined to seize his destiny and capitalize on the opportunity at hand—that is, if the misguided powers that be will allow him.

KO Digest: After high profile fights both in America and abroad, fans are familiar with Steve Cunningham in the ring, but not many are familiar with Steve Cunningham before boxing. Tell us about your upbringing in Philadelphia.

Steve Cunningham: I grew up with my mother and father until I was about 7, then tension arose when we moved around throughout the city in three or four different spots. I was very angry and started fighting a lot, always getting in trouble because of fights in school and getting suspended. In 10th grade, I started to take school seriously and decided to join the United States Navy. After I joined the Navy, I got the chance to go to the gym and box, beginning boxing at age 19. My first amateur fight was against the light heavyweight champion of the Navy.

Cunningham does PT in Philly
KOD: Over the years, Philadelphia has developed both a reputation as a well-established boxing hub, but also as a city of trials and tough times. Was is difficult to stay out of trouble in your youth, and did that encourage you to pick up boxing?

SC: Not really. I always wanted to get into a boxing gym when I was young, but the only neighborhood gym was in was a place where the guys didn’t like me, and I couldn’t go. I tried to play basketball and was a good defensive player with energy, but I couldn’t score!

KOD: What lessons did you learn during your service in the United States Navy?

SC: The main thing I learned was attention to detail. We woke up so early, worked so much, and by noon we still had tasks to do and half of the day left. I also learned to appreciate what I have, and it helped me understand who I could be. I went around the world in the Navy, and it showed me there’s a bigger world outside of Philly.

KOD: In amateur boxing, you earned the title of National Golden Gloves champion at 178 lbs. in 1998. Do you feel that amateur boxing did a good job preparing you for the professional ranks?

SC: Indeed. I believe anyone who is going to fight professional needs to have a significant amount of amateur experience because it truly does prepare you. I had less than sixty amateur fights, and I fought all different kinds of styles, and you get used to fighting away from home. This is key, because you won’t always fight at home, and it prepares you for that step up.

USS Cunningham sinks Marco Huck
KOD: “USS” is one of the more unique nicknames in the sport of boxing. How did this nickname come about?

SC: Everyone in boxing has a catchphrase or nickname. “Iron” Mike Tyson, Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield. A name helps market you, helps identify you, and understand where you’re coming from. My wife and I were going through names, and she suggested “USS.” I thought it sounded great; nobody had it and I was like a ship of war. Later, I traveled overseas to fight just like a warship, so the name fits perfectly.

KOD: How difficult was the transition from cruiserweight to heavyweight? Do you think you are as dangerous and challenging a fighter at heavyweight as you were at cruiserweight?

SC: Yeah, I totally do. People underestimate me. They saw me go down to Adamek the first fight. They think I’m small and I don’t have power, but let them think that. At the end of the day, Steve Cunningham comes to fight, and I fight my best every time. Critics say I shouldn’t have fought Adamek the second time. Critics said I would go overseas and lose, and I was successful. Critics outside of boxing said I wouldn’t do what I’ve done in boxing, but I’m a two time world champion and trying to become heavyweight world champion. Critics criticize—that’s what they’re supposed to do.

KOD: In your early career, you fought seemingly everywhere. Of your first twenty fights in America, you fought in thirteen different states. Why not stay in one city and develop a fan base?

SC: I started with a small promoter down South, and I was cool with it. I’m not one of those guys who needs a crowd rooting him on to succeed. You need to do what you need to do no matter where the fight is. When I was a kid watching boxing, the world champions used to fight all over the world. But now, guys want to stay and home and be protected in front of their fans. That’s a sign of weakness to me.

KOD: Were there any disadvantages to frequently fighting away from the friendly confines of home, or were you used to venturing from city to city?

SC: I was used to it, and there wasn’t that much pressure for me to perform in front of people. I fought Marco Huck in the city he grew up in, and in a case like that, he needs to perform and fight with the extra pressure.

KOD: As your career progressed, you’ve fought multiple title fights in Germany and Poland. How different is the boxing atmosphere in Europe? Do you find the crowd to be more receptive to divisions like cruiserweight and heavyweight than fight fans stateside?

SC: It’s much better in Europe. For the cruiserweights, it’s an accepted, money making division. When I switched promoters and focused on America, the fight purses were extremely low. I might as well have been fighting for the NABF title. Right now, boxing in Europe is like boxing used to be in America. The fighters are appreciated and treated as though they’re special athletes. If you aren’t fighting on TV in America, then nobody gives a damn about you.

KOD: For better or for worse, when boxing fans think of Steve Cunningham, the first thing that comes to mind is your adversary Tomasz Adamek. Two great, grueling fights, and two very close and contested decisions. Is he the toughest opponent you’ve ever faced in the ring?

SC: No, he wasn’t the toughest opponent. Fighting Adamek was like fighting two different people in two different fights. The other person I was fighting was the politics of boxing. I never argued the result of the first fight—he won that cleanly. I thought it was going to be a decision, and who can argue three knockdowns? But the second fight wasn’t close like people said. He was clearly outboxed and the politics and incompetence gave him that win. Adamek is one dimensional. All he can do is come forward and throw shots, he’s just big. He doesn’t have leg movement and he can’t box. I outboxed him.

Adamek attacks but never sinks USS Cunningham
My new trainer Nazim Richardson showed me the things I was capable of doing, and I've seen why I lost the first fight. I went into that first fight being a world champion, my first time fighting on American television. I was coming off the Marco Huck stoppage and wanted to be a star by knocking him out. We underestimated him a little bit. This second fight, I didn’t underestimate him and took him for what he was, a good fighter with a solid chin. Not even Vitali Klitschko could knock him out. My goal wasn’t to knock him out this time, I just wanted to beat him up and outbox him.

KOD: Although you looked great against Adamek in December, you are 36 years of age. Have you begun thinking about your life plans after the bell tolls on your career as a fighter for the final time?

SC: We’ve been thinking about that for years. We invested the money I made as cruiserweight champ. We bought a pizza hop, we own two apartments, and have some operations going on the pay the bills and do what we need to do once the boxing stops. We don’t splurge. I don’t have a $100,000 car, we don’t live in a mansion. It’s about living within your means, because boxing won’t be around forever. I hear the age thing a lot. I am 36, but I look good and I feel good. I answered that question the same way Bernard Hopkins and Sergio Martinez answered that question. I feel great, I live in the gym, and I feel awesome.

Adamek and Cunningham have thrilled millions
KOD: The second fight against Adamek aired on network television on NBC. How special was it to be a part of boxing return to NBC’s airwaves, and do you feel fights accessible to the general public on network television are crucial for boxing to thrive again and receive a rise in popularity in the 21st century?

SC: In order for boxing to really get that jump start, network TV needs to play a big role in that. Over four million people watched my fight, and it was the average fan that watched and kept the channel on. The fight was good and people stuck around.

KOD: The scorecards in the second fight did not reflect the opinion of most viewers present ringside, nor did it mirror the observations of those who watched on television. After the final bell, did you believe the result of the fight was in question? What was your initial reaction after hearing the judges score totals?

SC: When the final bell rung, the first thing that popped into my head was “you’re going to win this decision.” There was no doubt in my mind that I didn’t just beat this guy. I looked at my trainer face, who is a straight shooter, and he had that look on his face like “we lost.” I’ve seen that look before at the second Hernandez fight, where I didn’t perform to my duties. He was almost in tears clapping for me, and so was my wife, as if to say “you did it!” When they announced it was a draw, I was disappointed. We were watching Adamek before the decision, and everyone in his corner had a somber look, even his wife, who was praying. He was looking down, and when they said it was a draw, he lifted his head up and accepted the draw.

Afterwards, the Pennsylvania boxing commissioner was writing numbers into the scorecards, and all I can think is “why are these numbers changing? What’s going on?” If you remember, one judge had an impossible score without knockdowns. It was all shady and shifty, and the commissioner was right in the middle of it. That split decision was total bull! I was so disappoint that, after a performance like that, people will still pull off a robbery. I thought at first that these judges didn’t know what they’re doing. The tenth round was my best round of the fight, but two judges scored that round for him. They must have had their scorecards already filled out before the fight, it was ridiculous.

Cunningham on the wrong side of unpopular decision
KOD: We’ve seen this happen before. Bouts against Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, and the aforementioned Tomasz Adamek have each had controversial endings. Why does this always happen to you?

SC: The first fight against Wlodarczyk was in Poland, and those Polish guys do it dirty. You can blame it on me not knocking guys out, but I’m fighting upper echelon guys and not every fight will end by knockout. It’s a business. When I was with Saurerland, I fought Hernandez, who was also promoted by Sauerland. The week before the fight, I learned that Sauerland was also his manager. If I won, the promoter still kind of wins, but I’m an American who doesn’t speak the language. He had a TV deal and spoke the language, so the whole team benefited. But, I’m a Christian, and I believe God has a plan for everything that happens. I’ll get through it and keep pressing on.

KOD: If Tomasz Adamek wasn’t the toughest fighter you’ve ever faced, then who was?

SC: The toughest fighter I’ve ever had to face is Sebastiaan Rothmann. I fought him in South Africa in Carnival City, which is close to Johannesburg and has a very high altitude. I trained there for four weeks in hopes that it would help me. It did, but in the fight, he was coming off of just losing his IBO world title and he was trying to get back in the mix. If you look at his record, he brought most guys to him to fight at that altitude. He was a very good fighter, and by about the fifth or sixth round of that ten round fight, I started feeling the altitude bad. It was off the charts and it was killing me, another fight where it was like I was fighting two different people. I had to fight the altitude and I had to fight him, and it was definitely my toughest fight.

KOD: Do you want a third fight with Adamek?

SC: If a third fight presented itself on HBO or Showtime, I would take the fight. But do I want it, would I call for it? No. I did what I set out to do. Tomasz Adamek beat me that first fight because I fought his fight and he had a rough time doing it then, as well as in this fight. For years, it burned in me because I beat this guy. Every time I watched that fight, I was mad because I fought a bad fight and could have beaten this guy. It took us less than thirty minutes to fight this dude after he called us. After I performed my job, I feel like I did what I set out to do and quenched that thirst. Adamek knows he has a problem, put out two or three posts about why he looked the way he did, he crashed his car, and he’s a depressed man. He’s having issues.

KOD: What’s your take on how the heavyweight division currently stands, particularly in regards to the dominance of Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko?

SC: The Klitschkos are dominant because they’re in shape, they work hard, and they utilize their size. They’re the most dominant heavyweights of our time. I would be honored to fight one of them. The only way to be the best is to fight the best. European heavyweights have come up because they watched us beat guys and have been learning from us, and now they’re the dominant fighters. American heavyweights think just because you’re big, you’ll win. But weight makes you sluggish and sloppy, it doesn’t make you powerful. All it does is make you big, and that’s why we’ve seen the downfall of the American heavyweight. It’s pitiful.

Tyson Fury & Wladimir Klitschko
KOD: In recent days, a lot has been made about the possibility of a fight between you and Tyson Fury in April in New York. Are these reports true? If they are, how close is the fight to being finalized?

SC: My promoter has been talking with his people, but I haven’t heard anything solid yet. I haven’t gotten a contract to sign yet. I just want to fight if he’s willing to come to America. I also know there’s other guys he’s deciding on.

I'd have to step outside of the box a bit and do something different with this guy. He’s big, he’s massive! I want to be recognized for doing things people haven’t seen before, and I want to knock him out. But he'd better hurry up and decide, because we can go some other routes. 

KOD: Fury is a prospect with a lot of money behind him and many important people banking on his success. Are you concerned you’ll be robbed again?

SC: I just go in there to fight, to win, and to win convincingly. It’s not the sport of boxing if the guy with the most money behind him wins just because. That’s ridiculous, though we know that’s what happens sometimes. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m not concerned about that. 

The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio.
Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.  

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli