When Steve Cunningham enters the ring Saturday, he’ll attempt to take down an undefeated champion who is 10 years his junior. If the 39-year-old former heavyweight pulls it off, he will have defied some long odds.
A two-time champion in the 200-pound division, Cunningham moved up to heavyweight in 2012 and remained there for four years. On Saturday night, Cunningham (28-7-1, 13 KOs) will return to the weight class where he enjoyed his greatest success when he challenges 200-pound champ Krzysztof Glowacki (25-0, 16 KOs) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT).
But here’s the rub for Steve Cunningham: When fighters drop down a weight class—especially heavyweights—success doesn’t often follow.
Take, for example, the legendary Roy Jones Jr.
After dethroning champ John Ruiz by unanimous decision as a 193-pound heavyweight in March 2003, Jones moved to 175 pounds and struggled to win a majority decision over Antonio Tarver, then lost his next three fights (including twice to Tarver) at the same weight. In two of those bouts, Jones was knocked out for the first time in his career.
Then there’s former heavyweight champ Chris Byrd, who was knocked out in the ninth by 175-pounder Shaun George in the penultimate fight of his career in May 2008. Also, Chad Dawson was a 175-pound champion when he dropped to 168 in September 2012 and was floored three times during a 10th-round stoppage loss to champion Andre Ward.
Of course, Jones, Dawson and—in particular—Byrd shed significant weight when they scaled down. The good news for Cunningham is he was never a “heavy” heavyweight, fluctuating between 203 and 210 pounds in his eight heavyweight clashes.
In his final heavyweight tussle—a 12-round split draw against Tarver in August—Cunningham weighed in at 204, only four pounds more than the limit for Saturday’s contest against Glowacki.
At Friday’s weigh-in, Cunningham tipped the scales at 199.2 pounds, while Glowacki checked in at 199.
“Steve hasn’t lost as much weight as did Jones, Dawson and Byrd, but he’s up there in age,” said former 200-pound title challenger B.J. Flores, who will serve as a ringside commentator for NBC on Saturday night. “Steve hasn’t really lost his speed, but can he keep Glowacki off of him for the entire night?”
The two fighters will square off at a venue that is within 30 minutes of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, where each made his last appearance as part of a doubleheader on August 14.
In the bout that preceded Cunningham’s draw with Tarver, the 29-year-old Glowacki rose from a sixth-round knockdown to dethrone Marco Huck by 11th-round stoppage, denying Huck a record 14th straight 200-pound title defense.
“The reason for Cunningham dropping [back to 200] is the other guys punch harder, and he wasn’t prepared for their power,” Glowacki says. “But Cunningham’s punching power is not going to change now that he is [at 200 pounds]. I don’t expect him to be a harder puncher than Huck.”
Standing three inches taller than the 6-foot Glowacki and possessing a seven-inch reach advantage, Cunningham might benefit from a distance strategy of fighting behind his jab and right hand, even as he may lack the firepower to keep Glowacki from stalking and walking him down.
“Steve has to maintain distance, but one thing that he does really well if he seems like he’s out of range, he can be right back into range and get you with some shots—not super powerful shots, but shots that can distract and frustrate you,” Flores says.
“Steve’s feet have definitely slowed down. He’s going to have to be careful of Glowacki’s left hand and his inside boxing ability. This guy [Glowacki] is a brawler who also knows how to box. Glowacki’s going to have to close distance on Steve and use his long right hook and left hand.”
Another thing working against Cunningham: He’s labored against southpaws, getting dropped six times while posting a 3-2-1 record, with the draw coming against Tarver.
One of Cunningham’s triumphs over a southpaw came against Wayne Braithwaite, a former 200-pound champion who lost a unanimous decision to Cunningham in July 2009. The 40-year-old Braithwaite, who retired after his last fight in October 2012, is among those helping Cunningham to prepare for Glowacki.
“I’m a warrior, and I’m going to figure out a way to beat him,” said Cunningham, who has also enlisted help from 200-pound leftie Venroy July. “The goal is to become a three-time champion.”
And the pride of Philadelphia is prepared to reach that goal by any means necessary—even if he has to engage in an old-fashioned backyard brawl.
“Sometimes in a boxing match a fight breaks out,” he says. “[Glowacki] can expect to get hit a lot, and I’m prepared to win by taking as little damage as possible. But I’ll mix it up if I have to.”
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