Steve Cunningham’s words are testing his gag reflex, like verbal ipecac. As he speaks about the man he faced in the ring Friday night, he sounds as if he’d just swallowed a bug—a bug with pinchers the size of pruning shears.
“I’m just going to keep it real—Antonio Tarver’s a skillful, crafty, knows-how-to-survive journeyman right now,” Cunningham says. “He throws about 10, 12 punches a round. He’s not boxing, he’s moving, trying to stay away. He’s been around so long, he knows how to fight just enough to put a little doubt in peoples’ minds.
“He’s a bamboozler,” he continues. “He bamboozled the judges this fight. And he made the fight ugly and boring.”
Although it’s early Monday afternoon and Cunningham’s kicking back with some friends, it’s as if he still hears the smattering of boos from the Prudential Center crowd in Newark, New Jersey, nearly three days earlier, when disappointed fans vented their frustration at the slow-starting fight.
The split-decision draw provided only sporadic bursts of action, stopping and starting fitfully, like a sports car piloted by someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift.
Steve Cunningham (28-7-1, 13 KOs) threw over 200 more punches than Antonio Tarver (31-6-1, 22 KOs) and was the far busier fighter, while Tarver picked his spots selectively and found home with some hard left hands.
Neither was particularly explosive, despite their championships pedigrees, resulting in a fight akin to a stick of dynamite with a soggy fuse.
It didn’t help matters any that they were following a fight of the year candidate in Krzysztof Glowacki’s dramatic, come-from-behind knockout of Marco Huck.
“Coming off of that fight, it was like, ‘Dude, we cannot go out here and stink the place up. We have to fight. We have to live up to that, to an extent,’” Cunningham says, his voice as thick with agitation as a glacier is with ice. “‘Stay within your game plan, but fight. We’re getting paid a lot of money. You already look bad. Nobody wants to see a 46-year-old man with a tire around his stomach, running, being scared to engage.’”
Barbed as that sentiment may be, Cunningham acknowledges that Tarver tagged him with some powerful shots.
“He landed four good left hands throughout 12 rounds. His left hand was the only thing he had,” he says. “We nullified his left after the third round—he landed that last big shot.
“Then we started working our left hand, going to his body more and running combinations here and there,” Cunningham continues. “That shut him down. And I’m like, ‘Now, I’ve got to really risk getting caught with his powerful left hand in order to just make the fight.’ I’m not really willing to risk losing a fight just to make a fight.”
Nor is he willing to absolve himself of all blame for the unsatisfactory outcome.
“I am down a little bit on myself because no matter how you put it, I was in the ring with the man,” Cunningham says. “I tried, and as always, I could have tried more to get him out of there.”
But, hey, there is a silver lining to being involved in a fight with limited fireworks: Cunningham has little to recover from.
“I don’t feel like I fought 12 rounds three days ago,” he says. “I don’t even feel like I had a 12-round fight.”
As such, Cunningham’s wife, who doubles as his manager, is already lining up his next scrap.
“Guaranteed you see Steve Cunningham before the end of the year,” he promises.
In the meantime, Cunningham and his family are moving this week to a new home in Pittsburgh, where both his son and his nephew will be fighting in separate bouts Saturday.
“I gotta get my boys ready for this fight,” he says, before firing off one final jab at Tarver. “Hopefully, they don’t get a guy who doesn’t want to fight.”
Still, for a Philly man, isn’t Pittsburgh enemy territory?
“Yeah, man, I might mess around and put on some of that black and gold,” he says with a laugh, referencing the team colors of the city’s beloved Pirates and Steelers.
Forget all that stuff he said about Tarver. Those are the real fighting words.
For complete coverage of Tarver vs Cunningham, visit our fight page.