Intensity, high punch volume and brutal in-fighting aren’t typical of the average heavyweight bout. But that’s exactly what Tyson Fury and Steve Cunningham provided in the main event at Madison Square Garden’s Theatre over seven heated rounds.
While Fury (21-0, 15 KO) emerged victorious, brutally stopping Cunningham with a punishing right hook in his American debut, Cunningham (25-6, 12 KO) also deserves recognition for his bravery and boxing acumen.
This is not intended as an attempt to slight Fury, who recovered well from an early knockdown to effectively impose his massive size advantage on Cunningham; rather, it is more of a respectful nod to Cunningham, a skilled former champion who has been on the wrong end of bad decisions and suffered from promotional stagnation.
If there’s any truth to the old adage that size matters, the discrepancy in girth is the only thing Cunningham should lament after succumbing to Fury.
To Fury’s credit, his recuperative powers were admirable, and he didn’t let a point deduction or Cunningham’s early success ultimately bother him. In fact, Fury showed good sense by roughing up Cunningham, leaning on him and using leverage to create optimal punching range by moving forward while blocking Cunningham’s weaker shots.
That said, what occurred over the first four rounds cannot be ignored.
Cunningham moved well, finding angles with fleet footwork that allowed him to throw to both the head and body. It was Cunningham’s skilful variety that created the opening for an almost comically looping parabola right hand that flattened Fury in the centre of the ring.
One can’t help but wonder what kind of effect such a punch would have had if Wladimir Klitschko landed it. On the other hand, a case could be made that Fury wouldn’t have been as reckless in front of a natural heavyweight with established power.
The fact that Cunningham again caught and hurt Fury with an overhand right counter in Round 4 perhaps suggests that Fury is susceptible to this punch. Fury does, after all, keep his lead hand low, and it will be curious to see how far his athleticism can take him when he fights skilled heavyweights with comparable size.
But back to Cunningham, who implemented Nazim Richardson’s game plan effectively until Fury’s superior strength wore him down.
It would have been easy for Cunningham to simply run, survive and throw pot shots from distance. What was intriguing about Cunningham’s performance is that he combined movement with aggression, understanding the reality that he had to match the charging Fury in spots in order to win.
In this regard, Cunningham stepped up.
And there is no intention here to belittle his performance by suggesting that he was simply “game” or “courageous.” Rather, Cunningham emphatically won rounds, slugged when cornered and displayed the technical skills that would still make him an elite cruiserweight and, remarkably, a heavyweight contender.
Should Steve Cunningham move back down to cruiserweight?
It is fair to wonder where Cunningham will go from here. It would be easy to suggest a return to cruiserweight where he would likely capture another world title belt. His obvious height and weight disadvantages at heavyweight were evident Saturday night; despite having better speed and more refined skills than Fury, Cunningham still, in many respects, faced an insurmountable challenge.
Fury, naturally, will continue his ascent as one the sport’s most charismatic and intriguing fighters.
Debates will rage about his worth as an elite heavyweight, but the fact remains that few can sell a fight with such polarizing bravado. Furthermore, even Fury’s most ardent detractors have to admit that he’s got some talent.
It’s difficult to think of another fighter who will achieve a measure of glory or fizzle out as prominently as Fury is likely to do over the next couple of years. For a highly skilled but more unassuming boxer like Steve Cunningham, this loss to Fury doesn’t have to signal the end of his career as an elite fighter.
How Cunningham rebuilds, however, will likely have to take the physical realities of the heavyweight division into strong consideration.
Fury-Cunningham was a compelling fight throughout. Some will say Fury was exposed, while others will rashly suggest that Cunningham is done. However, the only swan song that should come out New York’s Madison Square Garden is the end of Fury’s singing career.
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