Steve Cunningham: Can "USS" Become a Legitimate Heavyweight?

Zachary AlapiCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2012

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Despite a dearth of depth and overall talent, the heavyweight division still maintains an allure grounded in both financial rewards and historical mystique. Case in point: According to RingTV and our very own Joe Santoliquito, former two-time IBF cruiserweight champion Steve “USS” Cunningham (24-4, 12 KO) is set to make the oft-attempted leap to heavyweight.

The cruiserweight division has always been somewhat of an underdog weight class. Sandwiched between the hallowed light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, the cruiserweights have largely been viewed as an awkward stopgap and logistical measure to deal with the increasingly massive and seemingly bionic heavyweights who currently plod through boxing’s glamour division.

While some fighters—Michael Spinks and Evander Holyfield, for instance—have made successful leaps to the heavyweight division, the move is often seen as detrimental to a naturally smaller fighter, regardless of the boxer-in-question’s skills or championship pedigree at a smaller weight.

One of the most high profile leaps to the heavyweight division in recent years was former lineal cruiserweight champion David Haye’s jump in class. Haye is worth mentioning because—just as Cunningham is about to do—he made the same move, though the circumstances were different and the results were certainly mixed.

Before getting into the Haye-Cunningham comparison more specifically, it is worth mentioning that Santoliquito’s piece cites sources that dissuade several of the logical arguments to be made against Cunningham moving up in weight, including a statement from Kathy Duva, the CEO of Main Events (Cunningham’s current promoter):

Steve is a lot bigger, taller and has a bigger frame than a lot of guys who made the successful transition from cruiserweight to heavyweight. His exciting style and speed make him better than a lot of heavyweights he’ll go up against. I think his transition might be easier than a lot of other fighters who have tried the same thing.

The heavyweight champion of the world is over 40 [Vitali Klitschko is 41], so Steve’s age isn’t an issue. Steve hasn’t abused his body throughout his life with drugs and alcohol and guys like Steve can extend their athletic careers because of the way he’s lived. He’s a family man who works out every day of his life. That lifestyle will certainly extend his career a few more years. The plan is to move Steve as quickly as possible. There are a lot of interesting fights for Steve at heavyweight and we’ll figure out who they are and what we can do to make them happen.

Naturally, Duva is saying all the right things, and regardless of how much Cunningham weighs as a heavyweight, it is an absolute guarantee that he will be in the almost comically fantastic shape fans and writers have come to expect from him.

Duva downplays Cunningham’s advanced age of 36, and it is encouraging that he has only logged 28 professional fights and never been knocked out. That said, a 40-plus champion like Vitali Klitschko possesses the physical stature and power that Cunningham lacks.

Though he is 6’3 with broad shoulders, Cunningham has regularly scaled well under the cruiserweight limit of 200 pounds. While someone like David Haye sapped his body of minerals and fluids to toe the cruiserweight line, Cunningham’s body does not seem like it naturally suits the heavyweight ranks.

This is not to say that Cunningham is incapable of effectively adding weight. Rather, the natural ease with which he made 200 pounds suggests that moving up and fighting more imposing men will lessen the effectiveness of an already middling 42.86 career knockout percentage. If heavyweights know Cunningham can’t hurt them, it could allow lesser fighters to walk him down and inflict damage.

Of course, Duva counters such an assertion by citing Cunningham’s speed and skill advantages over larger heavyweights. While this is certainly valid and indeed true, it can only take Cunningham so far. Speed and skill advantages will mean little if Cunningham ascends to the level of facing, say, either Klitschko brother, and the fact that Cunningham has shown a penchant for suffering flash knockdowns suggests skilled heavy-hitters might be able to inflict more significant damage.

For the sake of comparison, Haye—who of course has only been able to win a paper title at heavyweight after holding the lineal cruiserweight title—moved up with genuine, concussive power alongside the aforementioned speed and skill advantages that smaller men point to as a justification for travelling to the greener pastures of boxing’s glamour division.

If Haye seemed frightened and befuddled against Wladimir Klitschko, how would Cunningham fare? Cunningham has an abundance of courage and heart, and it might ultimately result in him going out on his shield if he reaches the championship level.

That said, Cunningham brings a recognizable American name to the heavyweight division, and he will undoubtedly provide an infusion of excitement. Cunningham begins his heavyweight journey on September 8 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey against journeyman Jason Gavern on the Tomasz Adamek-Travis Walker undercard.

Interestingly, Cunningham lost a thrilling split decision to Adamek in 2008. Should both men win, a rematch at heavyweight is certainly in order, and it could provide a litmus test for how effective Cunningham can be at his new weight.

The odds might be stacked against Steve Cunningham, but if he stays busy—and on his feet—he could quickly become a viable contender in a weak heavyweight division.