PHILLY BOXING HISTORY                                                                           April 20, 2013


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by John DiSanto

Photos by Rich Graessle / Main Events


Heavyweight giant Tyson Fury came off the floor in the second round to score a knockout of Steve Cunningham in round seven on Saturday afternoon at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. It was a gritty heavyweight grudge match full of action, excitement, high stakes, and all of the the ill will that began brewing at the first press conference to announce the fight.

Fury enjoyed size advantages that measured 6 inches of height and 44 pounds of weight, and the colossal contender used every extra inch and ounce to his advantage.

The atmosphere at the Garden was supercharged, thanks to the clash in personalities between the two combatants, which brought out a great deal of emotion in each of their fan bases. Everyone cared how this one would turn out. Except perhaps for the Garden's concession stand workers, not a casual fan or anyone with no opinion on the fight could be found in the entire venue.

When the fighters met for the pre-fight instructions before the first bell, the size differential between Fury and Cunningham was obvious. However, Cunningham locked his deadpan gaze on Fury, searching for the insecurity and inexperience he believed was bubbling under the giant's surface.

Fury returned the stare, but flecked his with a tiny twisting smile. Was it confidence squeezing out, or just more gamesmanship and promotion? When referee Eddie Cotton's instructions were through, Fury smashed Cunningham's extended glove with a wild chopping slap that answered the question.

Fury was still selling this fight, and himself, to everyone who was watching, the thousands at ringside and the millions tuned in to NBC.

But then the promotional campaign was over and it was time to fight.

The fight started as expected with the smaller but more experienced Cunningham zipping in and out of the action, and peppering Fury with jabs. Steve also launched a few arching bombs at his elevated target. 

Fury bounced around with his hands high and a concentrated expression that froze his face. He jabbed too, moving forward and maneuvering a darting Cunningham to the ropes when he could.

It was a high energy round, with both fighters landing, but the fight was about to take a sudden turn.

Early in round two, Cunningham drifted into the fray and hurled a high looping right hand that cracked Fury square on the face. The blow toppled him to the floor with a sudden thud. On his back, Fury cupped his gloves around his ears, but it was too  late to block the devastating punch. 

This was the scenario that all Cunningham fans had hoped for. With one crushing punch, the former two-time cruiserweight champion had appeared to legitimize his move to heavyweight, capture the #2 spot in the rankings under Wladimir Klitschko, and (hopefully) silenced the most bitter rival of his career. It was beautiful. 

However, Fury showed that he is more than a sideshow attraction by rolling over and getting up from the jolting shot that threatened to forever make him a joke - the Duane Bobick of the new millennium.

As Fury got to his feet, Cunningham fans were still elated, as more than two minutes remained on the clock for the round. Surely USS Steve would land another bomb that would end the fight.

However, that never happened.

Unfortunately for Cunningham the punch he landed hit high on Fury's head, and not on his jutting jaw. If only it had been a direct hit to the button, the fight may have been over. The irony was that the vertically challenged Cunningham landed too high. He had actually reached too far. What were the chances of that? 

Although at this point, the outcome of the fight was still in question, the knockdown set the tone for the rest of the bout, and probably determined the result in a surprising way.

Fury returned to the action and fought a resourceful fight after his trip to the canvas. He held, checked his defense, and began using his size to his advantage. He focused on the long-term in the fight and began building his victory.

Conversely, Cunningham, off the strength of his knockdown, began to wage a war with the big man, confident that he could take him out with another rocket of a right hand. It probably cost him the fight, but it made this fight a great heavyweight battle.

The fighters fought at close quarters in round three. Cunningham was quicker and sharper, but Fury started landing. Steve took the shots like a champ, but he was in the danger zone.

In round four, Cunningham cracked Fury again with a right that, this time, was better placed on the Brit's chin. Fury buckled and fell into Cunningham's wall of muscles. Tyson grabbed tight and avoided hitting the canvas, but he was still quite groggy from the punch.

Referee Cotton pried the fighters apart, and took an untimely moment to walk a rubbery legged Fury to a corner to warn him about holding. Cunningham fans may have appreciated the discipline Cotton handed out, but they were frustrated that his actions delayed Cunningham's ability to capitalize on his big punch.

As Cotton warned Fury, Cunningham's knockout window closed. And after this, Fury kicked his game into high gear and did everything he could to avoid any more Cunningham traps.

Starting in round five, with Fury effectively using his weight and beginning to land some heavy shots, Cunningham started to wear down. Fury landed well and was by then backing Cunningham up and pushing him around the ring. Steve stayed in the fight and threw his homerun punches, but his chances began slipping away.

Fury cracked Cunningham along the ropes and hurt him. Cunningham held on, but you could see that he was starting to fray. Fury pushed Cunningham to the ropes and leaned all 254 pounds on Steve's weakening frame. Then just for added measure, Fury rammed his head into the right side of Cunningham's face.

Cotton stepped in and penalized Fury one point for the head butt. Tyson was having a good round, but due to the loss of that point, he only came away with an even round on the scorecards.

However, this was a good illustration of how Fury was now winning the fight. He wasn't concerned with points. He was trying to take Cunningham apart, one way or another.

If he didn't yet have the pure skills to win, he'd secure the victory by using his biggest assets - his size and his overwhelming desire to become a boxing star. His punching power didn't hurt him either.

Some of Fury's tactics were dirty, but few of them were outright illegal. Cotton penalized him for the one that clearly was.

In round six, Fury came on strong and further punished Cunningham. To his credit, the former champ kept fighting and kept testing Fury, but he was swimming against the tide by then.

In round seven, Fury rocked Cunningham with a hard right uppercut along the ropes. Cunningham wiggled out of further trouble but he was hurt and Fury knew it.

The giant bulled Cunningham back to the ropes near Steve's corner, looking for an opening. When one didn't present itself, Fury straightened Cunningham's frame with a stiff forearm pressed against his neck and shoulder. The tactic teed up Cunningham's chin, and Fury struck it with a sweeping (and cheap shot of a) right hand. 

Cunningham dumped to the floor. He sat up, grabbed the bottom strand of the ropes and struggled to rise. Cotton counted while Steve shook his head and tried to collect himself. He struggled a bit more, but not before Cotton reached the ten count. The time was 2:55.

The terrific fight was over. Fury celebrated, sang to the crowd, and planned his next move.

Cunningham accepted the defeat but it hurt him. The leadup to the fight had been so bitter, and Cunningham had so wanted to make Fury pay for all the disrespectful comments and harsh tone that he had thrown his way. However, it was Fury who was standing in the middle of the ring with his arms raised.

How difficult this must be for a fighter. They are always ready for more fight, but sometimes the fight is over. Cunningham may need a lot of mints to get the bad taste out of his mouth from this one. 

However, the Philadelphian performed extremely well and should be proud of himself. He fought a blazing fight with Fury that will be remembered for a long time.

Fury also fought well. He showed his toughness by getting up after being hit with the hardest punch to ever come his way thus far. He may not have everything he needs to beat Klitschko, but he is a compelling new figure in the heavyweight division.

Watching his prefight antics and the way he carried himself during and after the fight with Cunningham, I'm still not sure if Fury has the best sense of humor in the world, or is boxing's biggest asshole. Chances are it's a little of both. Either way, it sells tickets, and I'll certainly watch his next fight. 

The victory raised Fury's record to 21-0, 15 KOs, and made him the #2 heavyweight in the IBF. Technically he's one more win away from being Klitschko's mandatory challenger, but the fight could happen at any time, given Tyson's marketability, especially in Europe. 

Cunningham slipped to 25-6, 12 KOs, but I believe, he again confirmed that he can compete as a heavyweight. More importantly (certainly to this site), Cunningham galvanized his status as a Philly fighter - full of heart, long in skill, and the participant in a number of great fights.  He might never become heavyweight champion, but his legacy is already forged.

All in all, this fight was a great heavyweight contest. If there were more like this one, and on national, free TV to boot, boxing would be back in the mainstream.

On the undercard, Curtis Stevens, 24-3, 17 KOs, finally got in some rounds. Derrick Findley, 20-10, 13 KOs, lasted a full 8 rounds with the Brooklyn bomber who has made quick work of his recent opponents. The middleweight fight was a barn-burner with both fighters landing freely and trying hard to score the KO. Stevens won the unanimous decision by scores of 79-73, 78-74, & 78-74. The fight was also televised live on NBC. 

Adam Kownacki, 5-0, 5 KOs, stopped Calbert Lewis, 0-3, at 1:43 of the second round in a scheduled 4-round heavyweight bout.

Hughie Fury, 2-0, 2 KOs, the 18-year old cousin of Tyson Fury, remained undefeated with a 1st round TKO of Alex Rozman, 1-1, 1 KO. The fight was stopped after Rozman hit the canvas for the third time in the opening round.

Philadelphia's Karl Dargan, 13-0, 7 KOs, looked extremely sharp in his 2-round defeat of lightweight Edward Valdez, 12-10-2, 9 KOs. After drubbing Valdez for two rounds, the New Yorker called it quits in his corner before the third round began. He claimed a hand injury, but I never saw him land a punch. Maybe it came from blocking one of Dargan's hard incoming shots. The result goes into the books as TKO at 3:00 of round two. Dargan looked better than ever.

In the fist bout of the afternoon, Josh Harris, 9-6-1, 7 KOs, upset Sevail Sherifi, 9-2-2, 8 KOs in a scheduled 6-round cruiserweight fight. Harris lost the first three rounds but then boomed back with a knockdown toward the end of round four.  Sherifi survived, but Harris ended things at 19 seconds of the 5th round.

The fight was promoted by Main Events and Hennessy Sports. The two televised bouts were broadcast on NBC as part of the "Fight Night" boxing series.   




John DiSanto - New York - April 20, 2013

Photos by Rich Graessle / Main Events