Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Cunningham and Stevens

We never really know. We subject ourselves weekend after weekend to mismatches, showcases, stay-busy fights, undeserving mandatories, overhyped prospects, mediocre belt holders and all sorts of other atrocities for the hope of seeing something transformative. We stay in on weekends, miss social opportunities and put strain on relationships. All because we do know this one fact: when boxing is at its best, there is nothing better. 

So on Friday night we cleared our schedules for a rather unheralded NBC Sports Network card featuring two fights that looked nothing more than "interesting" on paper. But maybe this would turn out to be something, and we wouldn't forgive ourselves if we missed it. 

Steve Cunningham, the aged former cruiserweight champion who had struggled in his forays in the heavyweight division, was taking on Amir Mansour, a 41-year-old untested knockout artist who had spent much of his prime earning years not in the ring, but in a prison yard. The undercard featured Curtis Stevens against an unproven and very much unknown Tureano Johnson. Cunningham-Mansour figured to be an interesting fight in that it was a fairly classic clash between a chinny boxer and a raw slugger; those are often good matchups. For the undercard, perhaps Stevens would add to his highlight reel; he often has looked tremendous against boxers below the elite level. 

It was a random Friday in early April. Nothing much was expected other than maybe a diverting way to pass a few hours, a little something to give us fight fans our weekly fix. But it turned out to be something much more. For those fortunate enough to be watching, we were treated to easily the best U.S. boxing card of the year. Cunningham-Mansour featured three knockdowns, tremendous swings of action and one of the finest displays of heart you will see in a boxing ring. Stevens-Johnson was a savage phone-booth war. Moments away from a significant upset, the fight turned in the final round and featured a truly controversial stoppage. I was one of the lucky ones; I was there live. It was truly an unforgettable night at the fights in Philadelphia. 

The results from Friday imparted no new significance upon the greater boxing world. We still know that Stevens has a great left hook, that Cunningham is a fighter of great intestinal fortitude but chinny, that ref Steve Smoger has a particular brand of genius for knowing when to let fights go on even when most of his peers would stop them, that ref Gary Rosato is not Smoger and that Mansour has power and is raw (we did learn that Tureano Johnson is someone to keep an eye on). So there was no real new ground broken, but so what, we got wonderful entertainment, riveting action, boxers rising to the best of their abilities and fantastic matchmaking. 

Let's start at an inflection point for Cunningham-Mansour – the fifth round. Cunningham got knocked down in the second half of the round by a right hook that he never saw. Cunningham beat the count, but Mansour pounced on him immediately and he dropped to the canvas again. There's no reason to sugarcoat it; Cunningham was in bad shape. To those in the arena, the fight was as good as over. Some fans left their seats and headed to the exits feeling no need to stick around for the inevitable official announcement. Yet ref Steve Smoger, as he does with fighters, especially with those with whom he is familiar, gave Cunningham every chance to continue. He inspected Cunningham after the second knockdown and somehow let the match go on. Within seconds, the bell sounded and Cunningham was out of the round. 

I have no doubt that 80%-90% of the refs in professional boxing would have stopped the fight after that second knockdown. Hell, Gary Rosato waved off the opening match of the broadcast with the loser still on his feet and yet to go down. But Smoger has a different philosophy from most refs. From an interview I conducted with him in 2013:
  
 "[Y]ou know there are a lot of clich├ęs. 'Better a second too early than late,' for example. And everyone can hide behind safety, and no one is more concerned about safety than myself. But, you’ve got to let the fighters fight. I call it allowing the fight to come to its natural conclusion. Let the fighters decide the fight." 

What gives Smoger confidence in his judgment is his preparation for fights. While some refs choose not to learn too much about the boxers they are assigned to for fear of bias creeping into their decision making, Smoger believes that this information is imperative for making an informed judgment. From the same interview:

    ..."[I] want to know everything about the fighters that I’m assigned to. Do they have a tendency to get cut? Are they bleeders? Can they take a shot? What are their recuperative powers? I want to know more about their losses than their victories. I want to see, if they are not undefeated, who beat them and how."

Prior to Friday, Cunningham had been down five times in the last four years. In a fight against Troy Ross and two against Yoan Pablo Hernandez, Cunningham rallied after being down on the canvas (this also happened earlier in his career in his first bout against Tomasz Adamek). In his second match against Hernandez, Cunningham was down twice in the fourth round and yet was coming on strong by the end of the fight. This was the context that Smoger was working with on Friday. He had known about Cunningham's ring history and made his decisions accordingly. 

While many view Smoger's ability to extend fights that turn out to be compelling as almost a singular gift, he has continually produced these results only because of the sublime marriage of his philosophy with his preparation.  

What followed in the sixth round immediately rendered Smoger's decision prescient; Cunningham may have had the most impressive three minutes of his career. On wobbly legs, he delivered a master class on survival. Using the ring to his advantage, circling left and right, holding when appropriate, ducking shots and firing off a few right hands, Cunningham was the brilliant matador to Mansour's relentless bull. Fighting off of muscle memory, guile and sheer guts, Cunningham bought himself the time he needed to clear his head and he avoided further damage. It was a stunning display of craft of ring IQ. 

Within a few short minutes, Cunningham started to win rounds again. Showing spectacular defense and scoring with short right hands to the head and body, Cunningham's superior conditioning started to manifest. Mansour had only gone 10 rounds twice in his career and both of those contests were uncompetitive in later rounds. By the final round on Friday, Mansour was sucking on air and almost looked like he would go down on account of sheer exhaustion. And Cunningham was having a good final frame. In the latter stages of the round, he connected with a short right hand that stunned Mansour. After a few follow up punches, it was Mansour's turn to taste the canvas. It was an improbable turn of events in a wild fight; the crowd erupted for its hometown fighter.

When the final scores were announced, Cunningham raised his hands in exaltation. The 37-year-old won a hard-fought decision in front of his home crowd and a nationally televised audience. Although the victory may not have been the biggest of his career, it would certainly rank among his most satisfying, for Cunningham had often been a man without a home throughout his career, spending his salad days in Europe fighting in a division that was viewed as an afterthought in the U.S. Now he finally had the experience of enjoying pure, unadulterated euphoria in front of his own fans.  

As for Mansour, he was gracious in defeat. He showed throughout the fight that his power, however crude, was real. His wild left hands and right hooks gave Cunningham fits at points, especially in the first two rounds and in the fifth. On my card, he was in the fight until the very end. (The official scores were 95-92, 95-92 and 97-90, all for Cunningham – the 97-90 was far too wide. I had it 94-93 for Cunningham.) Mansour may only have a little time left to make a mark on the sport but his performance earned him another TV fight. After the bout, his level of respect for his opponent and his compassion for Cunningham's daughter – who suffers from a congenital heart defect – was touching. It was a wonderful display of sportsmanship in a sport often dreadfully lacking in that department. 

For Cunningham, he demonstrated how far conditioning, craft and intelligence can take you in the sport. As a heavyweight, he really doesn't have the punch or the chin to beat the very best; but don't tell him that. He's a proud man, a deeply religious one, and one who has often defied expectations. He will take on all comers until the ring retires him. For now, he lives to fight another day, and most likely as a headliner on another Main Events broadcast in the near future. 

As the Liacouras Center started to empty out in North Philly, I made my way down towards the ring. Cunningham walked out into the stands and received hugs and well-wishes from his supporters. The elation on his face was unforgettable. 

A couple of boxing writers and fans crowded around Smoger. I reintroduced myself to him and all who were there complimented him on his performance. He said to us, "Cunningham was lucid both times after he was knocked down. A referee should always use his powers of observation. I told Steve he had one more knockdown and then it was good night, and look how he responded." Smoger had to run to talk with some officials but said that he would come back shortly. 

Before his return to the group, a boxing acquaintance of mine approached Smoger. The acquaintance was distraught because he believed that Smoger had administered a long count during Cunningham's second knockdown, and he told him this, which essentially impugned Smoger's professionalism. In an instant, Smoger's sense of satisfaction from the evening turned to anger. "You know what," he said to the acquaintance. "Get the fuck out of here. Questioning my integrity. Go fuck yourself." It was a moment of pure New Jersey from Smoger. 

Smoger took a moment to settle down and I later had an opportunity to talk with him about the fight for a few minutes. I told him, "You know this fight will be one of those that add to your legacy."

"I know." He flashed a smile and walked away. His work for the night was finished.  

****************************************************

I'm pretty sure that Curtis Stevens wasn't expecting the assault he received from Tureano Johnson on Friday. Johnson, had made his reputation as an aggressive sparring partner, but prior to Friday, not much was known about him in the ring. He had beaten a middling prospect, Willie Fortune, over a year ago and only had one other victory against a fighter with a winning record. He had fought in one eight-rounder in his career and that was it.

Although Johnson was an unknown, that didn't stop Stevens' camp from taking the fight. After all, Stevens had recently gone eight rounds with Gennady Golovkin, one of the most lethal talents in boxing, surely their fighter would overcome a novice like Johnson. 

However, as early as the opening rounds of the fight, it was clear that Stevens didn't have his best conditioning. He could barely move his legs. On the rare occasions where he did, his foot speed was painfully slow. Although Stevens had always been a straight-line fighter, he could move when he had to. On Friday, he needed to use his legs, and he could scarcely budge an inch. 

And make no mistake; this fight was a savage display of inside fighting. The bout was almost all power shots from close range. I doubt that there were a dozen landed jabs in the whole fight. It was power vs. power. Johnson felt best pressuring Stevens and smothering his opponent's opportunities to land big shots. Stevens was waiting for openings along the ropes where he could end the greenhorn's night.

Although Stevens expected Johnson to go down from his money punch, his crushing left hook, it didn't happen. And in the first few rounds, Stevens had several sequences where he landed a number of his best hooks. But Johnson continued – undeterred, pressing and relentless. 

Johnson unloaded all of his power punches throughout the fight, punishing Stevens along the ropes with the kitchen stink, from the southpaw stance, orthodox or squared up right to him. His work rate was tremendous. Although he didn't have the same power that Stevens' did, his shots weren't insignificant. He rattled Stevens throughout the fight. I was most impressed with his right uppercut out of the southpaw stance. Johnson also went to Stevens' body throughout the match. 

As the fight reached the later rounds, Johnson started to pull ahead. Stevens was good for a few sustained flurries a round, but he couldn't match Johnson's output. Going into the last round, Stevens was down big on all the cards; I had him behind 87-84, or six rounds to three. 

In the 10th, Stevens found his opportunity to change the fight. With a minute left in the round, Stevens landed a right hook and then a left hook to the body. Johnson disengaged for a brief moment and pulled back with his chin up and his gloves down. Stevens unloaded a short and powerful left hook to the head which sent Johnson stumbling clear across the ring to the ropes on the other side. Stevens followed up with a barrage of shots (most of them missed) and ref Gary Rosato waved the fight off. It took only five-and-a-half seconds from the left hook to the end of the fight; that's one significant reversal of fortune. 

The crowd hated the stoppage. Although Stevens fired off a number of unanswered shots, Johnson remained on his feet. I've seen the stoppage over a dozen times and I think that Rosato was a little too hasty. The ref needed to give it a few more seconds. Johnson could have held, dropped to the canvas for a 10-count, fired back or took more punishment. All throughout Stevens' barrage, Johnson, was using his left shoulder and dropping his legs to avoid taking the full power of Stevens' follow-on shots. There was too much doubt left by the stoppage and a more definitive resolution could have only been a few brief moments away. 

Nevertheless, Stevens picked up a come-from-behind victory. He remains an intriguing fighter to watch. He has enough power to hurt anyone, but he can be outthought in the ring. He never really adjusted to Johnson, and when he had opportunities to take a step back in the ring and create distance for his power shots, he too often smothered his own work. Stevens may not be consistent from fight to fight, but that left hook is a special weapon. He remains in play for something bigger in the middleweight division. He's a threat to lose to different levels of fighters at 160, just as he has a real opportunity to win a title with his hook. He continues to retain his status as a wildly entertaining TV fighter. 

As for Johnson, he impressed a lot of people with his performance and I'm sure that additional good fights will come his way soon. He has some things that he needs to work on, as all young fighters do. It would help him to learn not to hook with a hooker. Although he showed a strong beard throughout the fight and stood up to all of Stevens' best punches until the final round, maybe if he hadn't taken as many hooks as he had earlier in the fight then that left hook in the 10th wouldn't have impacted him as significantly as it did. He also squares himself up way too often in close quarters, providing an enormous target for his opposition. If Stevens moved his hands more in the fight, Johnson may have been in real trouble a lot sooner. 

Finally, it was a great night for Main Events. Now in its third year of its output deal with NBC Sports Network, the promoter finally produced a truly memorable fight card for the network. There had been other moments of note during its tenure, like the discovery of Sergey Kovalev and Bryant Jennings, and good scraps featuring Gabriel Rosado, Tomasz Adamek and others, but this was the first time on NBC Sports Network that the boxing world was truly abuzz. Hall of Fame promoter and matchmaker Russell Peltz (who helped put the card together) deserves a ton of credit, convincing the powers that be to approve a 41-year old heavyweight with a limited pedigree and an unknown middleweight who had never even gone 10 rounds as a professional. On this night everyone shined – Main Events, Peltz, Cunningham, Mansour, Smoger Stevens, Johnson – everyone but Rosato. 


Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 
@snboxing on twitter
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