One of the oldest stories in boxing is that of the faded ex-champion who doesn’t know when to hang up the gloves, and ends up fighting past the point where he can maintain his dignity or his health. Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and many others suffered this fate, some for financial reasons, others perhaps because they couldn’t imagine a meaningful life outside the ring. For their fans or anybody with a heart, it can be hard to watch, but often we find it difficult to look away, at least until about the third or fourth round when our capacity for self-deception is exhausted and the only person on Earth who still thinks the aged pugilist has a chance is the man in the ring himself.
Friday night on Spike TV boxing fans will see the aged shadow of former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver climb through the ropes for a heavyweight bout against Steve Cunningham. Author of the single greatest instance of sh*t-talking in all of sports history, the once rangy and powerful 175 lb southpaw has been plying his trade at cruiserweight and heavyweight the last five years, and is undefeated above the light heavyweight limit. Tarver claims he wants a heavyweight title fight, but at 46 years old it’s hard to imagine him doing anything but disgracing himself if he were to fight Wladimir Klitschko or Deontay Wilder, the two reigning heavyweight titlists.
The first obstacle between Tarver and his dream-that-would-surely-be-a-nightmare is Steve “USS” Cunningham (28-7, 13 KO). At 39 years old, Cunningham is no fresh-faced phenom, but he still fights near his best fighting weight, a few pounds above 200, and has looked decent for a smaller heavyweight since moving up in 2012. Why Cunningham continues to fight is no secret, as the Philadelphia native has a 9 year old daughter who recently received a heart transplant and who spent the first year of her life in a hospital. It’s tough to make serious money as a cruiserweight, particularly in the U.S., so Cunningham spent the prime years of his career fighting in Germany and Poland, where a cruiserweight can make a decent living and fight for world titles. While Cunningham also claims to a want a heavyweight title shot, his relatively diminutive size and 3-3 record at that weight indicates his chances wouldn’t be much better than Tarver’s of winning a belt. But Cunningham knows this, and is looking to squirrel away a few good paydays before hanging up the gloves and beginning his second career in the sport as a trainer.
Cunningham’s lack of power makes it hard to believe this fight won’t go the distance, but I suspect he’ll be so dominant after the first three rounds that fans will wish he could just end it with one punch. Tarver will stalk and stumble and grab as Cunningham uses lateral movement and superior hand speed to pepper the older man with jabs, double jabs, and overhand rights. If he works the body with any consistency, Tarver won’t have the energy to do anything but hang around and take Cunningham’s relatively light but quick punches. Tarver may go for the early KO, which is really his only chance, but Cunningham knows this and won’t be caught. I’ll be very surprised if Tarver wins a single round.