Petra Kirsch – Gelsenkirchen
Last weekend, at the Fraport Arena in Frankfurt, a new champion was crowned by The Ring magazine who awarded their prestigious belt to 200lb kingpin Yoan Pablo Hernandez. While two words alone can market Hernandez – “Cuban southpaw” – his opponent was a man who could call upon a library of distinguishing and accurate statements, yet Steve Cunningham remains a largely unheralded prizefighter on his side of the Atlantic.
A fighter from the proud town of Philadelphia… a four-time world title challenger and two-time world champion… a former amateur standout despite taking up boxing late… the only man to beat (and kayo) Marco Huck, as well as edging Guillermo Jones, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, Wayne Braithwaite and Enad Licina… he was a navy man, a serviceman on board USS America and USS Enterprise where he refuelled aircraft and, in his first amateur fight he upset the odds by trouncing the light heavyweight king of the whole US Navy.
At 35-years-old and with two successive defeats on his resume, Cunningham’s foray at world championship level may be over, much to the fighter’s chagrin who is keen to challenge for the highest honours for a fifth time.
That, though, embodies the spirit of Cunningham (24-4-0, 12ko).
Boxing in a weight class that is one of the focal divisions in Germany and virtually dismissed in the States, he has found himself campaigning on foreign canvas for his past four fights and has not even boxed in his home state – PA – since 2003. Considering his background, his accomplishments, the man is deserving of fanfare but is cruelly overlooked in the USA in favour of boxers like Floyd Mayweather Jr, Bernard Hopkins, Andre Ward, Andre Berto, Adrien Broner, Lamont Peterson, Devon Alexander and, with a match-up with Manny Pacquiao looming on the horizon; Timothy Bradley.
While he may not attract the press of any of the aforementioned pugs, Cunningham does have one thing… the unswerving respect of the industry.
In victory, Hernandez (26-1-0, 13ko) was swift to talk-up the opponent he dropped twice in the fourth round but could not finish off. He said: “I take my hat off to Steve, he is a great, great fighter and once again proved his world class.”
Like he was in October, last year, Cunningham was discounted by way of decision, only this time round he boxed the full 12 rounds, unlike the first square-off when the contest was stopped on account of cuts. Two words seemed to epitomise his performance: “warrior” and “courage”: “There were two warriors in the ring and this warrior still wants the belt back,” said Cunningham, when reflecting on the fight.
What was evident, in both fights, was that despite Hernandez’s pedigree, it was Cunningham who was the superior boxer. What prevented the man dubbed ‘USS’ from emerging triumphant was his inability to cope with Yoan Pablo’s power. Had it not been for the knockdowns he suffered in both fights, then the IBF and The Ring magazine titles would be wrapped around his waist and not Hernandez’s.
While the premature technical decision ruling ensured an anti-climactic finish in the first, the second contest was anything but as the Frankfurt audience were treated to boxing as well as fighting. Technical finesses as well as a donnybrook. This was not lost on Wilfried Sauerland, who helped stage and promote the fight. He said: “This was fantastic… one of the best fights on German soil in a long time. Cunningham proved his class, as did Hernandez. This was a real treat for boxing fans.”
Hernandez’s trainer, Ulli Wegner passed his congratulations onto Cunningham for his participation: “He was very impressive. How he recovered from those two knockdowns was amazing. Everybody knows he is a world-class fighter, one of the best out there. I am proud that Pablo defeated him tonight.”
The best was reserved to last by his unmistakable, highly-likable and world-renowned coach, Brother Nazim Richardson: “Steve´s courage was impressive. Had I got hit by those shots, I would still be down. Not many fighters can recover from something like that. But Steve got back up, twice, and fought on.
“His courage is incredible,” he said, in a final, fitting salute.