Stand them next to one another and two things are immediately evident about heavyweight contenders Tyson Fury and Steve “USS” Cunningham, who square off the afternoon of April 20 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Fury, at 6-9 and 250 pounds, is really large, even in this era of super-sized heavyweights who often resemble a cross between NBA power forwards and NFL defensive ends.
Two-time former IBF cruiserweight champion Cunningham, at 6-3 and 203 for his most recent ring appearance, is, well, not so large. His physique is so lean he looks more like an Olympic swimmer or maybe a Calvin Klein underwear model.
At stake when they square off in a voluntary IBF elimination bout is a No. 2 ranking from that sanctioning body, a date for the winner with No. 1 Kubrat Pulev, and a title bout against IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO champion Wladimir Klitschko for the survivor of this latest mini-tournament to establish some sort of pecking order among big men not named Klitschko. (Wladimir’s older brother, Vitali, remains the WBC champ despite persistent rumors that he is considering retirement.)
The bout will be televised by the NBC Sports Network.
Fury (20-0, 14 KOs) is hardly a mini-anything. He towers above Cunningham (25-5, 12 KOs) like Goliath over David, Luis Firpo over Jack Dempsey, Ivan Drago over Rocky Balboa or 7-foot, 320-pound former WBA heavyweight titlist Nikolay Valuev would have over the late, great Rocky Marciano, who did all right as a heavyweight despite being just 5-11 and 188 pounds. But David stoned Goliath, Dempsey devastated Firpo, Rocky whittled down Drago and, to hear Marciano’s younger brother, Peter, tell it, the “Brockton Blockbuster” would have felled the 7-foot, 320-pound Valuev like a chainsaw-wielding lumberjack taking down a big tree with a soft, rotting trunk.
“Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better,” Peter Marciano said in September 2006, when queried as to how the real Rocky, who retired in 1955 with a 49-0 record, might have fared against the humongous Valuev, who at that time was 44-0 and considered by some as a possible threat to eclipse’s Marciano’s renowned unbeaten string. “That has to be made very clear to the public. Valuev is very slow and ponderous. Rocky fought a number of guys who were 30 or 40 pounds heavier than he was, and those were his easiest fights. It was the guys who were a little smaller, a little bit quicker, who threw punches in combinations, that gave Rocky a more difficult time.”
Let it be noted that Valuev’s alphabet reign came tumbling down three fights later, when he was dethroned on a majority decision by fellow Russian Ruslan Chagaev, who was Marciano-sized, at least height-wise, at 5-11, 228¼ the night the WBA version of the championship changed hands in 2009. And also take note of the fact that Valuev, who by then had regained the WBA title, was awarded a highly controversial majority decision over the then-46-year-old Evander Holyfield on Dec. 20, 2008, in Zurich, Switzerland. With the exception of two judges with sharp pencils and dubious eyesight, nearly everyone who observed Commander Vander outhustle the nearly immobile Valuev that night believed the wrong man got the nod.
So what possible advantages does Fury have over Cunningham, the U.S. Navy veteran with the faster fists, superior movement and admittedly lesser punching power? Well, let’s see. The big Englishman has one of the ass-kickingest actual names (no nickname necessary) ever. He’s ranked No. 4 by the WBC, No. 5 by the WBO and No. 8 by the IBF. Cunningham, who has had only two bouts at heavyweight since moving up from cruiser, is ranked in the top 15 by only one sanctioning body, No. 12 by the IBF.
Mostly, though, Fury has the benefit of being so very much younger (he’s 24 to Cunningham’s 36), taller, heavier and with a not-insignificant reach advantage (85 inches to 82). The old adage in boxing is that the good big man usually beats the good little man, but the difference in this instance borders on the ridiculous. As some basketball coach once said, you can’t teach large. Either you are or you aren’t. And, no, eating your way up from 157 to 257, as James Toney did over the course of his career, isn’t the way to go about altering the equation.
Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who worked with 6-5, 250-pound Lennox Lewis and 6-6, 245-pound Wladimir Klitschko before he passed away on Oct. 25, 2012, recognized the trend toward XXXL heavyweights dominating the division. Manny went to his grave advocating the addition of a new weight class, super heavyweight, to an already bloated lineup that already includes 17 divisions and four supposedly major sanctioning bodies. Such a division exists in Olympic boxing, so maybe that is an idea worthy of consideration by the powers that be. But what would that make Dempsey and Marciano if they came along today? Super light heavyweights? Junior cruiserweights?
Cunningham stepped up to heavyweight last year because he has a family to support and frankly, his cruiserweight purses weren’t apt to put him on Easy Street for the rest of his life. As he entered his mid-30s, he made the calculated decision to grab at the bigger money and greater recognition that goes to light heavyweights and cruisers who successfully make the transition to heavyweight. It’s a route taken, with varying degrees of success, by Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles and, more recently, Michael Spinks, Holyfield, Toney, Roy Jones Jr. (who fought and won once at heavyweight), Al “Ice” Cole, Antonio Tarver and Jean-Marc Mormeck. Some were able to perform comfortably and successfully at the higher weight; most weren’t.
Before his Dec. 22, 2012, rematch with Tomasz Adamek in Bethlehem, Pa., Cunningham’s trainer, Naazim Richardson, addressed the perils of having someone as light as his fighter – Cunningham stepped between the ropes that afternoon at 203 pounds, 20 less than the 6-1½ Adamek – giving away so much heft. He joined Steward in forwarding the notion that a super heavyweight division might allow guys like “USS” to move up, but not that far up, and thus compete on a more equitable footing.
“There should be a super heavyweight division for those guys who are so freakishly big,” Richardson said. “At 203, 204, (Cunningham) still isn’t very big. When the possibility was raised of him moving up to heavyweight, I was, like, `Whoa.’ It’s like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ Fee, fi, fo, fum. There’s literally giants up there at the top of the division.
“It’s not like they all fight that well, but they’re so big, it’s tough to match up with them physically. If I put boxing gloves on Shaquille O’Neal, he could probably go to 15-0 without much trouble.”
Cunningham looked much sharper than he did in his first matchup with Adamek, but the result was the same – a split-decision loss that, this time, left many observers scratching their heads in puzzlement. Even Adamek’s Polish co-promoter, Ziggy Rozalski, thought his countryman got an early Christmas present.
“You get scores like this and you’re, like, `Huh? What’s up? What’s the deal? What else do I have to do?’” a distraught Cunningham said at the postfight press conference. “
“Let me tell you, real men cry. We did our job and we did it beautifully. We did our thing in the ring. This saddens me, man.”
Cunningham also said he would take some time to contemplate his options, which some took to mean he might move back down to cruiserweight (he’d only have to take off 3 pounds, after all) or maybe even retire. But instead, he’s decided to try to scale the mountain again. It’s just that this time the figurative mountain is Everest, not a large hill like, say, Pike’s Peak. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul is a superb point guard, but it might not be the wisest thing for him to try to post up teammate Blake Griffin, the 6-10 dunking machine, in one-on-one contests after practice.
Still, the usually humble Cunningham (he serves as a youth minister to a group of at-risk youths at a storefront church in the gritty Kensington section of Philadelphia) stole a page or two from another Philly guy, the notoriously chatty Bernard Hopkins, during a press conference to formally announce his matchup with Fury. If the punches fly as fast as did the insults unfurled by the fighters, spectators are in for a treat.
“I come up right at the cusp of kids (going) from fistfights to guns,” Cunningham said in channeling his inner B-Hop. “I was a street fighter. That’s what I did. I actually enjoy fighting. That’s way before I stepped in the gym. I started boxing when I was 19; all of this (the street fights) happened when I was 13, 14.
“Back then, there’s a code, and it still runs through the streets today. And that’s that the guys who talk a lot, they’re chumps.”
That was a not-so-veiled poke at the boastful English giant, but Cunningham was far from finished.
“You can talk all that you want,” Cunningham said, turning his body toward the increasingly furious Fury. “The only reason (Fury) is winning fights is because he’s big. Scrape him down to 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, he’s garbage. One thing I can say about the Klitschko brothers --and I’ve been in camp with Wladimir – they’re big, but they work hard, they’re talented, they’re skillful. If they were normal-sized, they’d still be champions.
“This dude right here is winning fights ’cause he’s big. He’s real big. He leans on guys and gets them tired. I don’t get tired; I get better. You understand?”
Not unexpectedly, Fury reacted as if Cunningham had just stomped on the Union Jack while calling Fury’s momma nasty names.
“This guy has no chance at all,” Fury said, glaring at Cunningham. “Let’s talk about talent, size, whatever you want, I’m the best fighter on the planet, in all weights. Nobody can beat Tyson Fury. I don’t care if he’s 7-foot or 3-foot tall.
“Listen, Steve Cunningham’s in big trouble. Come April 20, this guy’s getting knocked spark-out, guaranteed, a hundred percent. I hope he and his trainer believe in magic because he’s going to need a lot of magic to beat Tyson Fury.
“Steve Cunningham and the whole of Philadelphia together couldn’t beat me. There’s not a man 200 pounds and up on the planet can beat me. I ain’t coming here to play games. I’m here to fight. You (Cunningham) talk a good game – I’m a tough guy, a gangster – but let’s be real. I’m a fighting man. Fighting is in my veins. You’re not even a heavyweight.”
Fury is right about one thing. Cunningham isn’t a legitimate heavyweight, at least by current standards. He’s a natural cruiserweight who’s just eaten a hearty lunch. Then again, maybe Cunningham is right, too. Fury could have risen so high in the rankings simply because he rises so high on the scales and has an exceptionally active pituitary gland.
Fee, fi, fo, fum, indeed. But whose soon-to-be-spilled blood is it we’re smelling here? That of the hulking Englishman, or of the comparatively compact Philadelphian?
Either way, it should provide a bit more information in the search for answers to the eternal questions that have been asked since cavemen began bashing one another. Does size really matter? And if so, how much?