1/31/2012 6:50:47 AM
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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:
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
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
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,
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
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
[email protected] or follow him on Twitter.