Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Steve Cunningham -- a Champion in Exile

Over the last century, there has been a long tradition of Americans leaving for Europe to earn a better livelihood.  American blues and jazz greats often found more supportive audiences for their music across the Atlantic.  During the Red Scare in the '50s, many screenwriters and directors were blackballed from Hollywood and found work on the Continent.  Since World War II, Europe has been rife with American engineers, financial professionals, industrialists, speculators and educators.  In sports, U.S. athletes have plied their trades in Europe for generations, including top soccer talent and second-tier basketball players.  

In modern boxing, elite-level cruiserweights go to Germany for their most lucrative opportunities.  In the recent history of the division, two promoters have dominated: Don King from America and Sauerland Event from Germany.  As King's influence has waned in the sport, the balance of power in the division has shifted to Sauerland, whereby fighters from all over the world come to Germany for their best financial prospects.  Just in the last five years, title fights have been waged in Germany featuring American, Canadian, Panamanian, Cuban, Russian, English, Israeli, Argentine and, of course, German boxers. 

Steve Cunningham is no stranger to Germany.  Later this year, Cunningham, a two-time cruiserweight champion from America, will make his fourth ring appearance in Germany, facing Cuban defector Yoan Pablo Hernandez.  For Cunningham, Germany has become his de facto home base for prizefighting; he is even promoted by Sauerland, after boxing previously for King.  

Cunningham's life story is unique among modern American fighters.  Originally from Philadelphia, he enlisted in the navy after high school.  Stationed in Virginia, he learned to box while in the service.  After his enlistment ended, he competed in amateur tournaments, eventually winning the National Golden Gloves in 1998 at 178 lbs.  As a professional, he didn't launch his career in the boxing hotbeds of Philadelphia or New York, but he trolled around the lightly-regarded southeastern United States circuit, fighting in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. 

Taking the nickname "USS," which references his time in the navy aboard the USS Enterprise, Cunningham’s career has been as itinerant as a sailor, docking in ports like South Africa, Poland and Germany for some of his biggest fights.  He has fought only once in his hometown, and that was in 2003. 

In fact, only one of Cunningham's fights has even been televised live in America – his 2008 battle with Tomasz Adamek, which appeared on Versus, a second-tier sports network with a limited boxing pedigree.  The fight was a tremendous showcase for Cunningham's tenacity and technical acumen.  Even though Cunningham lost a split decision, many thought he won the fight, despite suffering three knockdowns.  After the strong showing against Adamek, Cunningham expected additional domestic opportunities (especially a rematch with Adamek), yet no major fights materialized.

From 2007 to early 2010, which were his last three years under Don King, Cunningham fought only four times.  During this period, King was promoting fewer cards and he was unable to persuade the best European cruiserweights to fight in America.  Sadly, Cunningham was spending much of his prime away from the ring. 

For most American boxers, the prospect of fighting for a German-based promoter would run counter to their hopes and dreams.  Fighters want to become stars in the U.S.  They dream of appearing on HBO.  They want to be recognized when they walk through the streets.  But already 34, Cunningham had more basic needs.  He wanted to regain his title, stay active and make some decent paydays before retiring.  His subsequent promotional contract with Sauerland made perfect sense for where he was in his career.

As Cunningham's promotional fortunes turned, he made a key change in his boxing regimen.   He hooked up with Naazim Richardson, a fellow Philadelphian and one of the world's most well-regarded trainers.  (Richardson also trains Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley).  Together they have had a promising start to their union, with Cunningham beating Troy Ross, a tough Canadian fighter, to reclaim the cruiserweight title and Enad Licina, a mandatory challenger from Germany.
Should he defeat Hernandez in October, Cunningham could find himself with several attractive options.  A rematch and title unification fight against German Marco Huck, whom he beat in 2007, would be the biggest fight in the division.  Additionally, lucrative bouts could materialize against the rugged Denis Lebedev of Russia, or even Antonio Tarver, if he remains at cruiserweight.

For Cunningham, being a two-time cruiserweight champion has not yielded untold riches or mass appeal.  He has fought most of his major bouts in far-flung outposts in relative anonymity.  However, he has made a living and beat the odds to become a champion.  Throughout his career, Cunningham has delivered memorable performances and never turned in an effort any less than professional.  He will retire with his name etched in the boxing record books and a reputation beyond reproach.

One gets the feeling that there will be a fruitful second act of Cunningham's career after boxing.  In the Philadelphia fight community, he is a popular figure.  He is very generous with the media and a great interview.  A devout Christian, Cunningham has pursued varied interests outside the ring.  He owns a pizzeria in West Philadelphia.  He has done some male modeling and he is currently designing a boxing-related comic book.  Should he remain in the sport, he would be a natural as a commentator. Yet Cunningham, with his rich life experiences and multitude of interests, could proceed in several directions.  Acting?  Drawing?  Preaching?  Community Organizing?  None of these options would be surprising.  Hopefully, his second career will be closer to home.   

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