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thomas hauser, tyson fury, steve cunninghamTyson Fury makes a good villain.

Fury is a braggart who calls himself “the best fighter in the world.” To the casual observer, he comes across as an obnoxious big-mouthed lout. As of this writing, the 6-foot-9-inch Brit (or is he is bit shorter than he claims?) has compiled a 21-0 (15 KOs) record against mostly club-fight-level opposition. On April 20th, he made his American debut in New York.

Fury’s latest designated victim, Steve Cunningham, was three months shy of his 37th birthday. Cunningham has now lost four of his last five fights and hasn’t beaten a credible opponent since toppling cruiserweight Marco Huck in 2007.

Fury tipped the scales at 254 and outweighed Cunningham by 44 pounds.

The bout was in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Main Events (Cunningham’s promoter) kept the NBC license fee. Team Fury got the British TV money (which explained why the fight was scheduled for 4:00 PM instead of that night). The costs associated with renting The Garden were split evenly between the two camps.

It was an exciting fight. An inartful first round saw Cunningham missing with wild overhand rights and Fury bringing his jab back slowly and low. As the fighters made their way to their respective corners at the close of the stanza, Tyson conspicuously and gratuitously shoved Cunningham. It wasn’t a bump; it was a shove. A hard one. Referee Eddie Cotton should have taken a point away on the spot. Instead, he let the matter pass, which was a clear signal to Fury that the rules didn’t fully apply to him.

Prior to the bout, Fury had come across like a high school bully who torments smaller boys in school. One hoped that Little Steve would punch the bully in the nose and make the him run away.

Ten seconds into round two, that seemed possible. Fury threw a sloppy jab, and Cunningham responded with a right that was straight enough to land flush on the big man’s jaw.

Fury went down flat on his back with a thud.

“What were you thinking when you got knocked down?” he was asked afterward.

“You don’t think of things when you’re lying flat in your back,” Fury answered. “You get back up.”

At the count of six, he did just that.

Thereafter, Fury used his size well and turned the bout into a brawl. His constant aggression and wild swinging punches forced Cunningham to trade with him to the smaller man’s disadvantage. Equally important, Eddie Cotton allowed Tyson to lead with his shoulder, forearm, and elbow; push down on the back of Cunningham’s head; and otherwise illegally rough Steve up (headlocks are illegal in boxing).

In sum; Cotton lost control of the fight. Although if one were being cynical, one might say that the referee was controlling the fight precisely the way he wanted to. Indeed, at one point when Fury seemed a bit buzzed by another blow, Cotton stopped the action to give him an inappropriately-timed warning for fouling (which afforded Tyson time to recover).

In round five, a head-butt by Fury cost him a one-point deduction. But by then, Cunningham was weakening and the momentum of the bout had shifted irrevocably in Tyson’s favor. Whatever modicum of respect he might have had for Cunningham’s punching power was gone, and he was firing his own punches with abandon.

The start of round six was delayed while trainer Naazm Richardson sloooowwwly repaired some loose tape on Cunningham’s glove. That confirmed the obvious; that Steve was exhausted and would have a hard time surviving the second half of the fight.

The end came in round seven. With forty seconds left in the stanza, a paralyzing right uppercut to the body forced Cunningham to the ropes. Fury then moved in and finished his opponent off, setting up a final crushing right hand by jamming his left forearm into the smaller man’s throat and pushing his head directly into the line of fire.

Two judges had Cunningham ahead on points 57-55 at the time of the stoppage. The third judge had matters even.

“I hunted him down like a lion hunts down a deer,” Fury proclaimed afterward. “In a dog fight, the bigger stronger dog always wins.”

“He did what he was supposed to do,” Cunningham acknowledged. “He put his weight on me. He kept leaning on me and leaning on me. It felt like I was fighting two people.” Then Cunningham added, “He can fight, but he did it dirty.”

So . . . What should we make of Tyson Fury?

First, give Fury credit for getting in the ring. All fighters deserve that. He was in good condition against Cunningham, fought a physical fight at a fast pace, and showed a fighting spirit. He’s fun to watch, less so to listen to. It would be interesting to know whether he’s a jerk in person or if his public persona is just an act. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Meanwhile, the heavyweight division is thin enough that Fury stands a reasonable chance of becoming a beltholder some day. Whether he can become a champion is another matter.

Fury’s partisans would like to see their man in the ring against Wladimir Klitschko. In their view, Tyson’s size, free-swinging style, and roughhouse tactics would bother Wladimir. It’s likely that Wladimir’s skill and punching power would bother Fury more.

Either way, Fury versus Klitschko would be fun to watch while it lasted. If Fury got blasted out, that would be entertaining too.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His next book (Thomas Hauser on Sports: Remembering the Journey) will be published by the University of Arkansas Press later this spring.

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