The dog days of summer must truly be upon us if the highlight of a fight weekend pits an almost 40-year-old against an almost 50-year-old. Despite their advanced ages and the declining state of their careers, Steve Cunningham (28-7, 13 KO) and Antonio Tarver (31-6, 22 KO) have steadied themselves among the Heavyweight division and must now face off against each other in a match that will get them one step closer to the Heavyweight title shot they’ve been chasing since arriving in the division.
While both men are deserving of the chance to be a fight away for a Heavyweight title, their journeys have been dramatically different.
Tarver was a former Light Heavyweight champion who campaigned briefly at Cruiserweight before setting his sights on a Heavyweight title. The 46-year-old Tarver remains spry and tough, posting a 3-0 record since moving up to Heavyweight and still showing the same speed and punching power he had in the lower divisions.
In his last fight against Johnathon Banks, Tarver dropped Banks in the second and dominated the bout until it ended in the seventh. However, Banks was never really an elite Heavyweight, nor was Tarver’s other conquests in Nagy Aguilera and Mike Sheppard. Cunningham serves as Tarver’s first legitimate test at Heavyweight.
Since arriving at Heavyweight after a long stint at Cruiserweight, Cunningham hasn’t had all the luck in the world in his pursuit of Heavyweight gold. Though he is 3-3 in his six fights at the weight, two losses were glaring robberies (against Tomasz Adamek and Vyacheslav Glazkov) and the rest have come against similarly unproven opposition like Tarver.
Unlike Tarver, the usually conservative Cunningham has had to become more assertive against his bigger opponents, taking more risks to halt their advances. While Cunningham was able to drop Tyson Fury in their fight a few years ago, he was unable to capitalize on that opportunity and was beaten down by Fury just a few rounds later. He encountered a similar ordeal against the hard punching Amir Mansour, being dropped twice by him in that fight until dropping him in the tenth, but managed to survive that fight by exploiting Mansour’s limited skill set.
One thing that Cunningham has going for him in this fight is that he is taller and longer than Tarver and will not have to worry about him walking through his punches like Fury did late in their fight. The similarity in size between the two men will allow Cunningham to box without having to take too many unnecessary chances, pressing the action when he feels like he must.
That’s not to say he is all but accounted for and should have this fight in the bag. Cunningham may be younger and taller, but Tarver is not going to be outdone by a methodical approach, even at his advanced age. While he may suffer that fate against a fighter with faster hands and sharper reflexes, he won’t find such qualities in Cunningham.
Should the fight turn into an actual boxing match, Tarver’s faster hands and strength will allow him to dictate the action be it as an aggressor or defender. Cunningham may find himself falling behind after the first third of the fight and will have to start taking the fight to Tarver, which will still play in his hands as Tarver’s natural groove is to time his opponents for a big overhand left behind faster punches. If Tarver gets Cunningham’s respect after a few of those big punches, we may be in for a long night.
Ultimately, if there are any expectations of a fight to be had Firday night they will certainly be deflated not too soon after the opening bell. These are two old pros who have lasted as long as they have relying on their brains and skill, not brawn and pure physical talent, and will both be trying to figure each other out up until the final bell. Though it won’t make the watercooler discussion Monday morning, expect Antonio Tarver to edge out Steve Cunningham over the course of 12 rounds and bring him one step closer to a potential shot at Heavyweight gold in 2016.