By Jason Pribila: After a tumultuous week that left a disheartened Kathy Duva frustrated with the current state of the boxing game, she lifted her Main Events banner above a ring in Philadelphia, PA where the cameras brought her popular Fight Night series to NBC Sports Network. After a pair of fights that were decided in the final round, it is safe to say that her faith in her sport has been renewed.
In the main event Steve “USS” Cunningham (27-6, 12KO) and Amir Mansour (20-1, 15KO) traded leather for ten rounds in a heavyweight battle that won’t soon be forgotten.
Cunningham, the former cruiserweight champion of the world put his career on the line fighting in his hometown for the first time in over a decade. Across the ring was a 41 year young Amir Mansour who was poised to use Cunningham’s name to vault him up the heavyweight rankings.
Early on Cunningham used his experience and boxing skills to keep Mansour at a distance and build an early lead on the scorecards. Mansour, a quick handed southpaw was closing the distance while putting his power on display. Although he was unable to put his punches together, when he did touch Cunningham he was able to move him.
Cunningham let his guard down in the fifth round and he got caught by a big right hand. Momentarily stunned, he backed straight up and he was caught by a second right hand that sent him to the canvas. Cunningham rose on unsteady legs, and he was promptly dropped by Mansour’s follow-up flurry.
At that point it looked as if Cunningham’s journey had come to an end. Fighting at 206 lbs., he simply did not have the size, chin, or legs to take a heavyweight punch. However, as Cunningham was on a knee taking an eight count we were all reminded of the size of his heart.
Cunningham got off his stool to begin round six. He had been bleeding from a cut over his left eye since round two, and his legs had just enough life left in them to allow him to use movement to avoid Mansour’s charge. Cunningham was soon able to land a few jabs and lead rights. He did the unthinkable and won a round three minutes after it looked as if he lost a fight.
From the seventh round on Mansour looked like a hockey team in overtime. He was dangerous for the first minute of a round, but after that his punches lost the steam to again put Cunningham in danger. He was also dealing with a swollen left eye that not only hindered his vision, but also served as a growing target for Cunningham to target.
The final round began with Cunningham up a point on two of the judges’ score cards. The fighters threw punches, got tangled, and Cunningham fell to the canvas. Referee Steve Smoger ruled it a slip, and Mansour’s hopes began to slip away. Exhausted and arm weary he tried to land another big shot, but he instead created the opportunity for Cunningham to land a series of right hands that forced Mansour’s glove to touch the canvas. In less than 15 minutes Mansour went from celebrating his biggest win to suffering his first defeat.
The final bell rang and it was up to the judges to make Cunningham’s epic comeback official. Official scores of 97-90, 95-92, and 95-92 were all read in favor of Cunningham.
The victory was extra special because Cunningham’s daughter, Kennedy, was sitting ringside. Those who followed the Cunningham story know that his daughter has been hoping to receive a heart transplant. A few weeks prior to the fight doctors felt that she would be too weak and a potential transplant could prove to be fatal.
After this performance, it would be foolish for anyone to question the heart of anyone in the Cunningham family.
In the co-main event undefeated middleweight Tureano Johnson (14-1, 10KO) out-worked, out-hustled, and out-punched Curtis “Showtime” Stevens (27-4, 20KO) over nine grueling rounds. Unfortunately for Johnson, no lead is safe in the sport of boxing.
Since joining Main Events, Stevens bought in to his promoter’s mission statement: stay in shape, stay busy, and big fights will come. Stevens has used the NBCSN Fight Night platform to showcase his power and he parlayed that into a title shot against Gennedy Golovkin. In January, he shook off a loss and knocked out Patrick Majewski in the opening round.
All I knew of his opponent was that he was a former Olympian and he worked with the Cuban National Team for six years. I assumed that we would see a defensive boxer who would use his length to remain out of harm’s way while frustrating Stevens. Perhaps Stevens made the same assumption.
From the opening bell Johnson pushed Stevens to the ropes and began touching Stevens to the body. Stevens seemed comfortable early, as he was looking opportunities to counter off the ropes. In the early rounds Johnson was busier, but his punch output was also presenting opportunities for Stevens to counter.
The fight took an interesting turn in the fourth round. It was the first time that Stevens was able to force Johnson to the ropes. He landed three flush fight hands and his money left hook, but Johnson did not crumble. Instead, he returned fire and sent Stevens back to his corner along with a considerable amount of doubt.
Johnson was back on the gas pedal in round five. He continued to attack Stevens’ body while mixing in looping right hands upstairs. Stevens fought in spurts and landed some nice uppercuts, but nothing that discouraged Johnson.
As the second half of the fight began, Stevens had the look of a fighter who had absorbed too many punches to the body. He was trying to shake his arms enough to loosen them to mount an attack. Johnson continued to apply pressure and smother many of Stevens punches.
Johnson extended his lead on the cards over the next three rounds. Upset was in the air, and tension was high in the Stevens corner. It was clear that a knockout was needed, but if a fresh Stevens could not knock Johnson off his feet early, it seemed like too much to ask in the final round.
Johnson seemed determined to finish the fight as it began. He was aggressive as the round started, and he was landing punches in the middle of the round. He threw two straight rights, the second of which Stevens was able to counter with a vicious left hook to the chin. Johnson was stunned, his arms fell, and Stevens attacked. Stevens threw a flurry of punches as Johnson fell back into the ropes. Stevens landed another left hook and referee Gary Rosato decided that he had seen enough. Suddenly the fight was halted, and Curtis Stevens pulled out an improbable knockout victory at 2:09 of the tenth and final round.
Anyone who has read my fight reports know that I am in favor of a fight being stopped one punch too early rather than one punch too late. I don’t think that this applied in this case. Johnson was in control of the fight, and he deserved the opportunity to fight on. He did take a big shot, but many of Stevens’ follow-up punches missed their mark. Johnson took big punches early in the fight, and had he been given the chance to tie Stevens up, there was a good chance that Stevens may not have had enough time or gas left to get off another flurry.
It is a tough way for a fighter to lose their first fight. On the flipside, Stevens deserves credit for never giving up, and his vulnerability may actually get him a bigger fight sooner rather than later.
Overall it was a great night of boxing. Main Events and Peltz Boxing continue to put on matchups of fighters whose styles mesh well. However, one has to wonder if the results would have been reversed if the referees had switched their assignments? Steve Smoger would have most likely allowed the Stevens – Johnson fight to continue, but would have Rosato given Cunningham the same opportunity?
Jason Pribila is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He could be reached for questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He could also be followed on Twitter.com @PribsBoxing.