The third time Steve Cunningham hit the canvas, only to bounce right back up with the sudden recoil of a sprung mousetrap, you began to wonder if the man’s legs were corked with bedsprings.
It was two weeks before Christmas 2008, when Cunningham and Polish powder keg Tomas Adamek stuffed fight fans’ stockings with grit, heart, swollen faces and a fight-of-the-year candidate when they clashed like colliding locomotives at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
In front of a heavily pro-Adamek crowd—“I feel like I’m Warsaw, honestly,” one of the TV commentators marveled at the beginning of the fight—Cunningham powered through gut check after gut check, displaying an intestinal fortitude suggestive of a dude with a steel-belted stomach.
Cunningham was floored in the first, fourth and eighth rounds, and yet still kept coming—hard—outpunching and outlanding Adamek, whose face was Michelin Man-puffy afterward.
Adamek eeked out a split-decision victory, taking Cunningham’s 200-pound title in the process, but just think about that for a second: Cunningham was dropped on three separate occasions and still only narrowly lost, still had a chance to win in the end.
The fight was emblematic of the kind of boxer that Cunningham is: A case could be made that he’s the most resilient fighter in the sport.
Consider the evidence: Cunningham’s been dropped time and time again, hitting the deck three times in his two fights against Yoan Pablo Hernandez and twice against Amir Mansour.
Troy Ross, Tyson Fury and Natu Visinia have all knocked him down. And yet, only Fury has ever been able to stop him.
Steve Cunningham (28-7, 13 KOs) just won't quit. And he'll carry that mindset into the ring with him August 14, when he takes on former 175-pound world champion Antonio Tarver (31-6, 22 KOs) in Newark, New Jersey (Spike TV, 9 p.m. ET/PT).
“It’s determination, it’s drive and it’s a ‘I-got-to-win-this-fight-in-order-for-my-next-paycheck’ type of thing,” Cunningham says of his ability to pick himself up off the canvas.
“I have to take care of my family doing this, and when you lose in boxing, your money goes down significantly,” he continues, reflecting on the true cost of defeat. “So you have to get up. ‘Let’s fight on,’ let these guys know, ‘You got me down, but you didn’t get me out. And that’s a problem.’”
Weathering setbacks, getting through hard times, has been a constant for Cunningham—both inside in the ring and in life general, especially when he was first trying to break into the sport and had to do whatever was necessary to make ends meet.
“I worked crappy jobs at UPS, FedEx, at a grocery supply shop,” he recalls. “I worked security for Delta Airlines. I was even one of those guys who put food on the airplanes.”
Even as a 200-pound champion, the money never came rolling in, and so Cunningham invested his earnings in a pizza shop in his native Philadelphia and bought rental properties with his wife to supplement their income.
He’s done well for himself over the years, but it hasn’t been easy—especially come fight night.
Cunningham’s high on the list of active fighters with the most debatable decision losses.
Hard to see how a somnambulant Vyacheslav Glazkov got the nod over Cunningham in March, though that’s hardly his most egregious loss: He was straight-up jobbed by the judges who gave Adamek an early Christmas gift in their December 2012 rematch, this time contested at heavyweight. And in Cunningham’s very first title fight against Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in November 2006, he traveled to Poland where the scorecards reeked of home cooking.
In the face of such setbacks, Cunningham says he’s had but one choice: become even tougher than his luck.
“Those robberies fueled me to keep going,” he says. “If I would not have gotten robbed, then I probably would have been out of boxing by now. I would have gotten to those platforms where there’s nowhere else to go.
“But I still feel that there’s more for me to do,” he adds. “When things come at you, that means there’s something good for you at the end. So we’re sticking around, you know?”
For complete coverage of Tarver vs Cunningham, visit our fight page.