Monday, April 7, 2014

Cunningham Vs. Mansour: Let’s See It Again!

A common storyline that will surface from time to time in the sport of Boxing is a scenario of a veteran fighter or a former world champion, who might appear to be on the downside of their career being pitted against a contender who is on the way up the ranks. Such a scenario was presented as former two-time IBF Cruiserweight world champion Steve Cunningham entered the ring to face undefeated Heavyweight contender Amir Mansour on April 4th in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

For the thirty-seven year old Cunningham, this fight may have been viewed by some as a make it or break it situation for him. Although Cunningham is a former world champion an argument some might make is that he is more known for getting tough breaks in losing a couple of very close decisions throughout his career. Most notably, versus Tomasz Adamek who defeated Cunningham for the IBF World Cruiserweight Championship in 2008 and again in their rematch four years later in 2012 as Heavyweights.

Despite suffering some setbacks during his career, Cunningham has also earned a reputation as a well-traveled road warrior who has been willing to fight all over the world. In April of last year, Cunningham met undefeated Heavyweight contender Tyson Fury in what was one of the most exciting and competitive fights in the division in recent years. Cunningham knocked the 6’9 Fury down for the first time in his career in the second round and gave an extremely “Game” effort before being knocked out in the seventh round. It was the first knockout loss for Cunningham in his career.

Although Cunningham has always given his best every time he enters the ring, some might have questioned what was left for Cunningham after losing four of his last five fights. Cunningham however, would rebound by scoring an eight round unanimous decision over journeyman contender Manuel Quezada in December of last year. This would set the stage for Cunningham to face rising undefeated forty-one-year-old contender Amir Mansour.

Mansour, whose career began in 1997, had his career derailed by legal troubles serving nine years in prison for drug possession. It is highly unusual when discussing a forty-one-year-old fighter that you can say that the fighter is a rising contender. Mansour however, is indeed a rising contender who since returning to the ring in 2010 has garnered significant attention.

In his career, Mansour has scored victories over notable opponents including Dominick Guinn, Jason Gavern, and Maurice Harris to win the United States Boxing Association (USBA) title in August of last year. Mansour, who last fought in December of last year scoring a seventh round stoppage of Kelvin Price has registered a career knockout percentage of over 70%.

When the Mansour-Cunningham fight was announced this observer thought it had an element of intrigue. Could Mansour, who entered into the fight with a record of 20-0, with 15 knockouts continue his march up the Heavyweight ranks by defeating a former world champion? Could Cunningham reestablish himself in the Heavyweight division by defeating an undefeated fighter who appeared to be perhaps on the verge of facing a top ten contender in a division that is wide-open?

These questions would be answered as the two entered the ring to do battle at the Liacouras Center. The action began at a tactical pace where both fighters seemed to have periods of effectiveness. Mansour the aggressor, Cunningham seemingly content in the role of counter puncher.

Although the fight was fought early on at a tactical pace, both fighters established a quick pace and were not reluctant to engage. The primary difference in this fight was Cunningham’s ability to make Mansour miss due to his solid lateral movement, despite fighting in close.

Even though Mansour clearly was the harder puncher, I did wonder as this fight progressed whether or not fatigue would become a factor. Mansour was putting a lot behind his punches and over a period of time when a fighter misses with heavily thrown punches, it can have an effect as a fight progresses. Mansour however, does have the power to turn a fight in his favor with one punch. Cunningham was able to win most of the early rounds in large part due to his defense and making when he did land count. Sometimes it is not necessarily who is the more active fighter in terms of punches landed or thrown that determines who wins a fight. The ability to be solid defensively can be and often is crucial when it comes to winning rounds.

I did wonder however, whether or not Cunningham would be able to continue to nullify Mansour’s offense for the full ten round bout. This question that I had in my mind was valid as Mansour would turn the momentum in his favor in round five, knocking down Cunningham with a right hand and dropping him again seconds later. Cunningham was able to survive the round, but suffering two knockdowns in the round likely helped Mansour gain ground on most unofficial scorecards up to that point.

Although the momentum clearly shifted to Mansour in the fifth round, Cunningham as has been the case throughout his career showed his mettle. Cunningham’s ability to be elusive allowed him to clear his head and get back into the fight as he continued to make Mansour miss frequently and looked to counter Mansour’s offense. One thing that stood out to me as I watched this fight was although Mansour clearly brought the fight to Cunningham throughout, an argument could be made that by Mansour putting a lot behind the punches he threw in actuality worked against him due to Cunningham’s ability to make him miss and thus possibly cost him some rounds that most would consider close.

The fight however, was grueling and both fighters gradually wore the effects of a hard-fought battle. Both men would suffer cuts during the course of this fight and I wondered if the fight would go the distance. As the rounds went on Cunningham not only dictated the fight in my mind based on his ability to be elusive, but he was also very effective in mixing his offense to the body and head of Mansour. Even though Mansour clearly had Cunningham in trouble in the fifth round, I wondered whether Mansour’s punching power would be enough for him to win him this fight down the stretch.

Because of the two knockdowns against Cunningham in the fifth round, there may have been some difference of opinion as to who was ahead on the scorecards as the fight went into the late rounds. One of the primary things that I believe worked against Mansour in this fight was not only that he was seemingly putting everything he had into every punch he threw, but he also frequently lunged in with his punches and neglected his jab as a way to set up his offense. This allowed Cunningham to time Mansour as he came forward and allowed him to evade the majority of his offense.

Cunningham regained control the fight down the stretch has Mansour appeared to be exhausted and the more fatigued of the two fighters. Cunningham scored a knockdown of Mansour in the final minute of the tenth and final round and would go on to win a ten round unanimous decision, winning the USBA title and reestablishing himself in the division.

For a fighter like Steve Cunningham who has had some tough breaks and has had to deal with adversity throughout his career, this win was in some ways career defining. Both Cunningham and Mansour proved that they belong in the discussion of Heavyweight contenders and potential future world title challengers.

Some might argue that Cunningham at thirty-seven years old and Mansour at forty-one years old might not have time on their side in terms of positioning themselves for a potential challenge of a world title. Current unified IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO champion Wladimir Klitschko is scheduled to face Alex Leapai in a title defense later this month.  Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne will face-off in a rematch to determine a new WBC world champion in May. The fact that both Cunningham and Mansour fought like warriors in this fight and are consistently involved in entertaining fights could benefit both in the long-term.

As the Heavyweight division appears to be reemerging as a major focal point in the sport, each fight between prospects, contenders, and former world champions will continue to garner attention. In terms of the near future with several fights already scheduled to take place between top contenders and fights involving portions of the World Heavyweight Championship, the best option for both Cunningham and Mansour in my eyes would be a rematch.

Both fighters gave it everything they had and produced what has to be considered one of the best Heavyweight fights of the year thus far. Why not an encore?

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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