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Philly's Steve Cunningham: A compelling case for cruisers

By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing Boxing Editor

(Sports Network) - Someday, it'll happen.

There'll be a fighter. He'll have an adversary. And together they'll engage in a fight -- or a series of fights -- that'll galvanize the boxing public and draw in the casual sports fan.

It might even be lead-story material on SportsCenter.

And the kicker... both the principals will weigh no more than 200 pounds.

See, I had you there until that last part, right?

While the idea of a sport-altering rivalry is hardly transcendent, somehow the idea of it happening in the division between heavyweight and 175 seems as far- fetched as, well, a similar scenario unfolding at 147 between a certain needle-averse Filipino and a certain jail-bound American.

That notwithstanding, German-based Cuban export Yoan Pablo Hernandez and underappreciated U.S. Navy veteran Steve Cunningham are going to give it another try this weekend in Frankfurt for the IBF's share of the forgotten division's top honors.

And no... no one in the American mainstream will see it.

But that won't be because it's not worth seeing.

When they got together some 420 miles north in Neubrandenburg, Cunningham was making the second defense of his second title reign and taking on a once- beaten ex-Olympian on a 10-fight win streak.

And while tipping in at 199 pounds with requisite bulging arms, trim waist and rippled abs that could double as a relief map of the Rockies, he looked every bit a deserving incumbent champion.

But he was nearly an ex-champion by the end of the first round, when a sweeping left hand from Hernandez dropped him directly to the seat of his pants -- and subsequently caused a jelly-legged stumble reminiscent of a Tyson-mauled Trevor Berbick 25 years earlier.

Cunningham was essentially saved from an onrushing foe by the bell and showed remarkable resilience after just 60 or so seconds of respite, actually carrying the fight back to Hernandez in the second before opening a nasty cut on the challenger's scalp with an accidental butt in the third.

The two continued an entertaining scrap through three more competitive rounds, with Hernandez scoring well with straight lefts while Cunningham continued to press forward with determined work to his towering 6-foot-4 opponent's lean midsection.

Another butt in the sixth opened another cut on Hernandez's eye, prompting referee Mickey Vann to stop the fight on the dubious -- and ultimately overruled -- advice of ringside doc Walter Wegner, who halted the action before blood from the gashes could impact Hernandez's vision, not because it had.

The quick end resulted in a split technical decision and a new belt for Hernandez -- incidentally, my card had Cunningham up, 57-56 -- but the East Orange-based sanctioning body rightly stepped in and ordered an immediate rematch, providing Cunningham a chance at a third time championship charm.

It's another good fight for fans. It's another chance at legitimacy for the division.

And it's another chance to right the record for Cunningham, who greeted the original decision with a sneering thumbs-down and expects to leave no doubt in the second encounter.

"I don't want to just take the title," he said. "I want to rip it back. I want to run into his house, snatch the belt off his waist and walk out with him on the floor."

Tough talk aside, it also equals another long stretch away from home and out of the U.S. spotlight for the Philadelphia native, who's not fought in his backyard in nearly nine years -- since an eight-rounder against Demetrius Jenkins on the Hopkins-Hakkar middleweight title show at the Spectrum.

"I have to go where I can to make a living and get the exposure, and Europe provides that," Cunningham said. "When I was a kid and I watched boxing I always used to think that being world champion meant you fought around the world."

His post-Philly travel log includes Connecticut, New York (twice), Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey and Florida, with international flights to South Africa, Poland (twice) and Germany (four times) -- yielding seven title fights, two one-defense reigns and barely a blip of notice from the non- hardcore fan.

That in spite of wins over the most recent consensus No. 1 (WBO champion Marco Huck, TKO 12), as well as the reigning WBC (Krzysztof Wlodarcyzk, MD 12) and WBA (Guillermo Jones, SD 10) claimants.

In fact, if he beats Hernandez in the rematch, he'll have beaten every current incumbent aside from 43-year-old Antonio Tarver, whose world-class cruiser pedigree consists of exactly one fight.

Win, lose or draw, it's hard to argue he doesn't deserve better.

"Hernandez is one of the top cruiserweights and a very strong opponent," Cunningham said. "But I have defeated all reigning cruiserweights champions and I will clinch another victory on Saturday night. The weapons are oiled and I am ready to go to war."

This week's title-fight schedule:

SATURDAY

IBF cruiserweight title -- Frankfurt, Germany

Yoan Pablo Hernandez (champion) vs. Steve Cunningham (No. 4 contender)

Hernandez (25-1, 13 KO): First title defense; Won title from Cunningham in October (TD 6)

Cunningham (24-3, 12 KO): Eighth title fight (4-3, 2 KO); Two IBF title reigns (two defenses)

Fitzbitz says: "Third time's the charm for 200-pound frequent flier." Cunningham by decision

WBC middleweight title -- San Antonio, TX

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (champion) vs. Marco Antonio Rubio (No. 1 contender)

Chavez (44-0-1, 31 KO): Second title defense; Eleventh fight in Texas (10-0, 7 KO)

Rubio (53-5-1, 46 KO): Second title fight (0-1, 0 KO); Unbeaten since 2009 (10-0, 9 KO)

Fitzbitz says: "Could be both the fight and upset of the year." Rubio in 9

Vacant WBO junior featherweight title -- San Antonio, TX

Nonito Donaire (No. 1 contender) vs. Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (No. 3 contender)

Donaire (27-1, 18 KO): Seventh title fight (6-0, 5 KO); Held titles at 112, 118 pounds

Vazquez (21-1-1, 18 KO): Fifth title fight (3-1, 3 KO); Held WBO title in 2010-11 (two defenses)

Fitzbitz says: "Vazquez is no gimme but Donaire has too much, even at 122." Donaire by decision

NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder -- no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.

Last week's picks: None

Overall picks record: 372-125 (74.8 percent)

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who's written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at fitzbitz@msn.com or follow him on Twitter.

01/31 09:54:26 ET


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