Steve Cunningham-Troy Ross Saturday in Germany is the fight of cruiserweights who would be stars. “Would be” is the key phrase. Cunningham’s Fight of the Year-caliber duel with Tomasz Adamek at the end of 2008 should have launched the charismatic ex-Marine into at least minor stardom, but the networks never took to him and promoter Don King didn’t exactly keep him busy in the interim. If Ross had emerged the victor in an earlier season of The Contender reality show, when it was on NBC or even ESPN rather than Versus and when the promotional firm set up to work with the show’s graduates didn’t seem so disaffected, maybe he becomes a bigger deal.
But I count myself as a fan of both men, especially Cunningham, who made the second live fight I ever attended – Adamek-Cunningham — one I’ll always remember. So I’ll put them on the radar to the degree I can with this humble blog.
Cunningham is deservedly ranked #1 in the division by Ring magazine, and Ross #5. Oh, and guess what: It figures as a good fight, Cunningham-Ross. Cunningham ought to be a technical boxer, but he’s got too much warrior in him these days. Even after people said he fought stupidly by engaging Adamek, he did the same thing whe he didn’t have to against Wayne Braithwaite. Ross is more of a puncher, but he can box some too. When in doubt, both men start winging shots like there’s no tomorrow.
Since their pivotal fights, neither Cunningham nor Ross have given us much information about how they’re doing. Cunningham’s fight against Braithwaite was his only since the narrow Adamek loss. Since winning The Contender in February of 2009, Ross has fought just twice himself.
Cunningham ended up employing Naazim Richardson, the trainer who’s held in mighty high esteem by knowledgeable fans for his guidance of Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley. From what I saw of the Braithwaite fight, I can’t say he’s broken Cunningham of some of his bad habits. The tendency to throw wide punches that leave him open to return fire was still there, as was his tendency to fight with his hands down. But it’s clear Richardson is working on the latter: During one segment against Braithwaite, and I’m quoting him roughly, Richardson shouted at Cunningham to get his hands up. Cunningham didn’t. Richardson shouted again, “Show me you’re listening to me.” Cunningham got his hands up after that, at least for a little while.
But Cunningham has a lot going for him, even with the bad habits. He’s extremely fast for a cruiserweight. His jab, especially when he doubles and even triples it. Otherwise, boxers with good to great chins will walk right through the jab, because Cunnningham isn’t a big puncher. Good for Cunningham, then, that with his jab established, he can work off lateral movement and come back behind his jab with a straight right. And when all else fails, he throws hooks with both hands, uppercuts and overhand rights with abandon. Despite not punching all that hard, he can do some damage that way – he stopped Marco Huck in the 12th round three fights ago with a sustained assault like that, and he even had the iron-chinned Adamek hurt in the 4th round of their bout. He’d been down once before prior to the Adamek fight, and he went down three times there, so it’s fair to wonder about his chin, but he’s always recovered after getting dropped, so it wouldn’t be fair to wonder about his heart.
Ross hasn’t been in with the elite of the division the way Cunningham has, but against some fringe and ex-contenders (ironic!) on The Contender, he rather definitively proved he was better than them all. Of his four wins in the tournament, three came by knockout, and the one decision wasn’t close – he took all five rounds on all three judges’ scorecards. He upset Felix Cora, Jr., picked by some to win the tournament, with a 1st round knockout, then won it all with a 4th round KO over Ehinomen Ehikhamenor in the finale. Since, he has won an ugly but clear decision over Michael Simms and scored a 1st round KO of Daniel Bispo, neither proving anything.
What’s most impressive about Ross is that he knocks people out with both his right and left hand, despite being a southpaw. One good shot is often enough, and his opponents haven’t often been able to recover once they get hurt. And it can happen real early, too. He tries to work behind his jab, which is fairly stiff when he throws it, but sometimes he forgets about it. Defensively, he leans forward and holds his gloves up and facing outwards, then swivels at the waste backward when he doesn’t block punches with his arms, which is more effective than it sounds. But he might have trouble with that approach against Cunningham. He’s slower, and maybe more importantly, he’s much stubbier – at 5’11” and with a 72” reach, he’ll be four inches shorter and encounter 10 inches worth of reach disadvantage against the lanky Cunningham.
One of the things that warrants watching Saturday is who will take the lead. Neither man enjoys being backed up. Cunningham likes to go first, and usually ties up his man after he finishes doing what he wants to do; if he goes second, he goes for the tie-up right away. Ross does the tie-up thing, too, when someone’s coming at him. But their usual answer to someone coming at them is to go at the other person harder. If that happens, the fight turns to Ross’ favor.
Like I have for all of this weekend’s upcoming fights, I’ve got significant doubts about my pick to win, but I’m going with the boxer who’s more proven. Cunningham’s chin has been shaky at times and Ross may have more one-punch power even than some of the bigger punchers he’s fought, but Cunningham has always made it to the final bell. I like Cunningham’s chances to outbox Ross to a decision win unless he gets caught. I’m gambling he doesn’t.
[TQBR Prediction Game 2.0 is in effect. Don’t forget the rules. Extension to post predictions: until noon Saturday.]