NEWARK, N.J. — During a weekend in which the heavyweights are again treading water, the cruiserweight division (200 lbs.), the neglected cousin among big men boxing divisions, are going for the gold on Versus Thursday night. Steve Cunningham, the #1 ranked cruiser, and Tomasz Adamek, the #2 man in the weight class, are squaring off for Cunningham’s alphabet title belt and, most importantly, the most legit belt of them all: the vacant Ring magazine lineal championship.
I’ve long wished boxing fans could turn their attention a tad south of heavyweight to the cruiserweights; almost all of the best big men in history — from Joe Louis to Evander Holyfield — fought around the cruiserweight limit for stretches of their careers. Part of the problem is that yes, the cruisers themselves haven’t given the division much respect. Two of the three recent lineal champs, O’Neil Bell and David Haye, have used the division as the same kind of rest stop other big men have over the years. Now Bell and Haye are fighting with the very, very big boys, fighters like Wladimir Klitschko (up this weekend against Hasim Rahman) who don’t have the grace or speed of the cruiserweights or, by extension, the heavyweights of old. In short, the heavyweight division of old isn’t dead — it’s just a division with a new name, waiting for someone to revive it. It’s had some recent kick starts with some very excellent fights over the past two years and a tendency toward fighting for the lineal championship, but the engine hasn’t fully caught.
Cunningham and Adamek, while prone to the usual flirtations with heavyweight that every cruiserweight induldges in, probably wouldn’t make good heavyweights and as such have talked about sticking around for a while, which is a great trend I’d like to see them make worth everyone’s while. Adamek spent most of his career at light heavyweight (175 lbs.) and doesn’t seem to have the power to mess with a heavy, and Cunningham doesn’t appear to, either. Adamek’s Polish nickname translates to “The Highlander,” and now, to quote the catchphrase from the movie of the same name: “There can be only one.” Champ, that is. I expect a technical boxing match out of these two, but don’t be afraid of it, because both thrive on volume, which means there should be plenty of blows traded.
“U.S.S.” Steve Cunningham has a good story to tell, and he’s finally getting a chance to tell it. He is perhaps the most obscure high-level American boxer we have, in part because he’s a cruiserweight and in part because for the life of him, he couldn’t get a big fight on American soil until recently. He’s an ex-Navy man who takes pride in both his service to the country and his hometown of Philly, where he runs a pizza shop on the side. Everyone who meets him says he’s one of the most polite, nice dudes you’ll ever run into. The 32-year-old won his first title last year, and he did it the hard way: in Poland, on the home soil of another fighter, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, in a rematch of a fight most everyone thought Cunningham won but two of the three judges. He left no doubt the second go-round. Cunningham’s resume includes some other top names of the division, too, like Marco Huck, whom he knocked out in the 12th round, and Guillermo Jones, whom he defeated by decision, among others.
Cunningham’s style is that of a sharp boxer who thrives on speed, a great jab and good defense. He has sneaky power, the kind of power than comes from quickness, but he has only scored 11 knockouts in his 21 wins. He doesn’t have a lot of flaws. For as good as his defense is, Huck connected on him a fair amount, but there’s a reason for it. The knock on Cunningham in the first Wlodarczyk fight was that he gave the judges too much leeway to give the other guy a decision by coasting on his defensive prowess for stretches. He learned his lesson by throwing more shots in the rematch, which, of course, leaves one open to taking more shots. In other words, that fight made him both more exciting and more prone to winning clearer decisions but also more vulnerable going forward. He’s had excellent sparring for the Adamek fight, facing quick, sharp-boxing heavyweights like Eddie Chambers and Chazz Witherspoon.
If you primarily remember Adamek for his two wars with Paul Briggs — and who could blame you? those were two of the very best fights of 2005 and 2006 — you should probably adjust your TV set. Adamek was a very good light heavyweight, but he was fairly one-dimensional. He could box some, sure, but he seemed like he’d rather come straight ahead and slug it out. Against Briggs, it landed him in a world of trouble, but he pulled out both wins in two exceptional brawls. Against Chad Dawson, it was fatal. The trickier, faster southpaw throttled Adamek with relative ease, at least until Adamek sent him down hard with a big right hand in the 10th. Adamek wasn’t able to capitalize, in part because Dawson recovered well and in part because, as he says now, he had been having trouble making weight.
As a cruiserweight, Adamek is an entirely different fighter. Suddenly, his excellent amateur background has come into sharp relief. He’s a mover and a boxer at cruiserweight, although, like Cunningham, a busy one. He’s going to be faster than most of his opponents, and he sees more of their punches coming, so he slips and blocks a lot more of them. He’s got a hard right hand still, too. He used all of that to completely flummox the erratic O’Neil Bell in April to become Cunningham’s mandatory challenger. Adamek dropped Bell in the 1st round, although Bell wasn’t badly hurt. Bell had some good moments, but the degree to which Adamek, who looks a little stiff at times, outmaneuvered him was very impressive. It’s hard to tell whether Adamek just caught Bell in one of his kinda insane moments by forcing him to quit — Bell’s a very strange man, with an alleged hatchet-hurling incident in his past — but it was a big win.
I’m very much looking forward to being in the Prudential Center for this one, because I think it’ll be a well-fought battle. It looks like there could be a pretty good crowd, between a large Polish community in the region who know and like both fighters — Adamek for his Polish heritage, and Cunningham from fights in Poland — and fans coming over from Cunningham’s hometown. If Cunningham wins, he’ll confirm that he’s been one of boxing’s best-kept secrets in recent years, and there’s a chance he could rule the cruiserweight division for a couple years to keep building up his name, given that the weight class is a little thin right now. Boxing writer Cliff Rold even thinks Cunningham could plausibly get a little Bernard Hopkins if B-Hop moves up to cruiserweight for an all-Philly battle. If Adamek wins, he’ll have the same opportunity to rule the division for a while that Cunningham does, and he’ll energize the Polish-American community in such a way that he could become a very big ticket-seller in his adopted country. Most importantly of all, there will be a real divisional champion Thursday night short of a draw, something you can’t say about the heavyweights, and maybe that will inject some much-needed and much-warranted credibility into the weight class.
My prediction: Cunningham by close decision. Adamek says he expects to be faster than Cunningham, but that’s not my read. I think Cunningham will be able to get his shots off more quickly and more frequently. Adamek, though, is pretty crafty, and I think he’ll find a way to connect with his share of shots. I just think Cunningham will do a little bit more.
Confidence: 70%. Adamek may be the #2 ranked man in the division, but I still think he’s relatively unproven in it, given the strange nature of his win over Bell. Adamek could catch Cunningham and knock him out, perhaps, but both men have shown great chins and the ability to rebound when they get in trouble, and I don’t think Adamek can hit Cunningham as hard as he’s ever been hit. Nor do I think Adamek, for all his surprising boxing skill, can outbox Cunningham for 12 rounds.
My allegiance: This is a tough one. I’m going to say I don’t have a preference. I’m inclined to side with the American-born Navy man on one hand, but on the other hand, Adamek made a fan out of me with those Fight of the Year candidates against Briggs.