With disparate personal lives and similar professional aspirations, heavyweights Amir “Hardcore” Mansour and Steve “USS” Cunningham at least can agree on one thing.
You don’t necessarily have to have a big heart to have a big heart.
An abundance of heart, in a boxing sense, might be Mansour’s foremost attribute, according to his manager, Joe Hand Sr., who should know all about fighting spirit and a refusal to give in to adversity, having been a member of Cloverlay, which backed the early part of the late, great Joe Frazier’s professional career.
“Mansour is a little bit bigger than Joe Frazier, a little bit taller than Joe Frazier, has a little bit longer reach than Joe Frazier,” Hand said of his fighter, a 41-year-old southpaw and ex-con who brings a 20-0 record, with 15 knockouts, into the April 4 defense of his USBA title against two-time former IBF cruiserweight champ Cunningham (26-6, 12 KOs) at the Liacouras Center on the Temple University campus in Philadelphia. “But Joe had a ton of heart, and so does Mansour. He’s comparable to Joe in that respect.
“Like Joe, Mansour is the type of fighter that, if he did lose, he’d have to be carried out on his shield because he’ll never quit.”
The scheduled 10-round bout of the Philadelphia-area big men – Cunningham is from West Philly, Mansour from Wilmington, Del., about 25 miles down the road from the Philly city limits -- is the main event of a “Fight Night” card to be televised by NBC SportsNet. The co-feature pits middleweight contender Curtis Stevens (26-4, 19 KOs) against Tureano Johnson (14-0, 10 KOs) in another 10-rounder.
Mansour, who despite being 6’1” is generally shorter and stockier than his opponents – hence the inevitable comparisons to Frazier, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Mike Tyson – rejects links to those Hall of Famers based solely on body type. But he said he’s OK with any suggestion that he’s like Smokin’ Joe when it comes to the big-heart thing.
“No, not at all,” he said when asked about any possible stylistic similarities to Frazier, Qawi and Tyson. “I don’t fight like any of those guys. I have Joe Frazier’s kind of heart and intensity, but I think I can box a little better. I’m not so one-dimensional. You knew what Frazier was going to do. But Cunningham and his people have no idea what I’m going to do. If they’re going by what I did in my last two fights, they’re going to be shocked.
“I would say my style is more like that of a Marvin Hagler, a Ken Norton. Norton was awkward and not the best boxer, but he had the heart and the power and the athleticism. He was in with the best in the world during his era and he put on good fights.
“I know some people look at me as this bald-headed, full-speed-ahead guy, always going for the early knockout. But, man, I can box. I have a jab. I have skills other than going straight ahead and just loading up on every punch.”
Cunningham and Mansour have a bit of a history together. Mansour, who has zero amateur experience and learned to box in prison, got his first taste of the pros when in 2010 he signed on, soon after his incarceration ended, as a sparring partner for Cunningham, who was preparing to take on another lefty, Troy Ross, for the vacant IBF 175-pound title in Germany. Cunningham went on to win the IBF strap for a second time on a fifth-round stoppage.
“Our thought when we brought him in was, this is a guy coming out of jail, he’s a southpaw, he’s strong, he’s short, like Ross,” Cunningham recalled. “And we did get in some good work, for me and for him.”
That’s pretty much how Mansour remembers those spirited sparring sessions. “I gave him better work in sparring than he was going to get from the guy he was fighting,” Mansour said. “He was happy with the work that I gave him, and I was happy to have had the opportunity to spar with somebody of that caliber.”
“My favorite fights of all time were Larry Holmes-Ken Norton and Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield I,” said, Mansour who is rated No. 13 by the IBF. “If you look at the intensity of those fights, and the type of heart, or lack of it, you see in today’s heavyweights, there’s nobody out there that can endure that kind of punishment. I haven’t been tested like that yet, but I believe I have it in me, physically and mentally, to endure those kinds of battles. I don’t think Steve Cunningham can go to that depth with me, where he can possibly be staring death in the face and keep going.”
It’s ironic, Mansour’s choice of words in questioning the Navy veteran’s commitment to “stare death in the face.” Because that’s exactly what the 37-year-old Cunningham and his manager-wife, Livvy, are doing now. And it’s a fight they’ve been advised they are destined to lose, barring a medical miracle or, perhaps, divine intervention.
Eight-year-old Kennedy Cunningham, the second of Steve and Livvy’s three children, was born with literally half a heart. A happy and outgoing child, she has already beaten the odds to some extent; doctors told her parents after her birth that she was unlikely to make it to her first birthday. She has already undergone two open-heart surgeries and suffered a stroke, proving if anything that she inherited the kind of never-give-up genes her father has so frequently exhibited in the ring.
But her fight for life keeps getting tougher and tougher. Steve and Livvy only recently were told that Kennedy is not a viable candidate for the heart transplant she so desperately needs, and that their best course of action now is to make their daughter as comfortable as possible as they wait out an inevitable tragedy.
That is the kind of emotional burden few people would be able to carry, let alone an aging boxer preparing for a fight that could make or break his chances at remaining at least a nominal factor in the heavyweight division. But Steve Cunningham understands that some fights are won or lost through forces they can’t always see or control, and he is daring to believe that this still another seemingly hopeless situation that can be salvaged through the power of faith.
“Basically, yeah,” he said when asked if doctors had told him that Kennedy could not survive this latest ordeal. “We were devastated when we heard that. But our faith in Jesus Christ, and seeing what He’s done in her life already … she wasn’t even supposed to live past her first year.
“The list of things this little girl has been through is incredible. Blood poisoning, blood clots. All kinds of stuff. But she’s gotten through it all, and we believe she’ll get through this, too. Livvy and I are going to go to some other doctors to seek different opinions. Even if they say the same thing the other doctors did, though, we’ll keep our faith in God.”
Whatever the obstacles placed in his path, the most immediate of which is Mansour’s formidable punching power, Cunningham said he must persevere because, well, he has to.
“I could use (Kennedy’s medical crisis) as an excuse, but I won’t,” he insisted. “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it. I’ve got a family to provide for so I have to continue on. Winning this fight will put me in a better position to help my daughter, financially. It gives me that much more motivation to succeed.”
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?