Seven months after losing it, Steve "U.S.S." Cunningham set sail on a tour to regain the IBF title. His first assignment: successfully withstand the barrage of the hard-hitting Wayne "Big Truck" Braithwaite in Sunrise, Fla., on July 11.
Throughout the course of the 12-round title eliminator, the 6-foot-3 Cunningham was content on trading with the diminutive Braithwaite on the inside, most times landing cleaner punches at a higher frequency. All three judges had Cunningham winning by a wide margin: 119-109, 117-111 and 118-110.
"I wanted to rough him up a bit, just give him different looks," Cunningham said of his willingness to mix it up with a dangerous opponent.
One win closer? Check.
It was Cunningham's first bout with Naazim Richardson as his trainer. Richardson -- who also trains Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley, among others -- gained recognition in January for discovering a foreign substance in Antonio Margarito's hand wraps minutes prior to entering the ring against Mosley. His keen eye led to a one-year ban for Margarito.
New trainer? Check.
Next on the U.S.S. log is reclaiming what Cunningham (22-2, 11 KOs) feels is rightfully his: the IBF belt, along with the then-vacant RING cruiserweight championship Adamek won in their epic December slugfest.
"I feel like a champion," Cunningham, 33, said. "A champion without a belt right now. I'm looking for my belt, and I found it. I know where it's at, so I'm going to go get it."
Following his win, he might not have to look far. Barring interference from fellow-Philadelphia fighter Hopkins, Cunningham and Adamek are on another collision course.
Also on July 11 but in Newark, N.J., Adamek packed too much ammunition for Bobby Gunn. Referee Earl Brown and a ringside doctor called a halt to the bout after the fourth round. It was Adamek's second win in as many fights since defeating Cunningham.
Though separated by more than 1,200 miles, Adamek and Cunningham were linked by I-95 and a memory of their first meeting.
Adamek (38-1, 26 KOs) floored Cunningham three times in December. Still, Cunningham's resolve and relentless will were enough to impress judge Clark Sammartino to score it for him 114-112. At 115-112 and 116-110, respectively, Shafeeq Rashada and John Stewart favored Adamek, a testament to how closely the two competed considering up to three extra points could have been deducted from Cunningham's scorecards due to the knockdowns.
It's no wonder why Cunningham is vocal about a rematch and deserving of such.
"I'm the No. 1 mandatory and hope to get (a rematch) sometime in '09," he said.
Not only is Cunningham not looking past Adamek, he also isn't seeing anything else in his scope. Adamek is the only blip on his radar.
A move to heavyweight doesn't entice Cunningham, either. In a fairly deep weight class with a lack of household names, he wants to be the face of the cruiserweight division. Evening the score with Adamek on a stage set by HBO or Showtime is the first step, as well as one toward closure.
"After Adamek, I'm going to get them belts," Cunningham said. "Then it's the whole cruiserweight division. (In beating Braithwaite) I wanted to send a message, let them know that I'm still the man in the cruiserweight division. Man up."
And the U.S.S. Cunningham won't dock until the mission is accomplished.
Top 10 at 200:
1. Tomasz Adamek (38-1, 26 KOs): The RING champion is a beast. He's deceiving to both opponents and fans. He has pure skill, a good chin and throws smart combinations. He rarely throws one punch at a time.
2. Steve Cunningham (22-2, 11 KOs): A rematch with Adamek makes so much sense that fans are worried it won't happen. When you throw the IBF in the mix, you never know what to expect.
3. Guillermo Jones (36-3-2, 28 KOs): El Felino has a solid resume to match his record. One of his three losses was by split decision to Cunningham in April 2005. He stopped Braithwaite in four and Arslan in 10.
4. Marco Huck (25-1, 20 KOs): Another victim of the sea-faring Cunningham, Kapt'n takes on Victor Ramirez on August 29. Huck fights almost exclusively in Germany, which makes fans weary of record.
5. Giacobbe Fragomeni (26-1-1, 10 KOs): Fragomeni has plenty going against him: He's 39, 5 feet 9 inches and has little power. Nobody told that to Wlodarczyk, who the fiesty Italian fought to a draw in May.
6. Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (41-2-1, 31 KOs): Diablo had Frago down in the ninth but couldn't put him away. He also owns an erroneous split decision win over Cunningham, which was later avenged.
7. Firat Arslan (29-4-1, 18 KOs): The southpaw has wins over Darnell "Ding-a-Ling Man" Wilson and Wilson-stopper Grigory Drozd. Alas, he's another German-based fighter who has rarely fought outside of his homeland.
8. Matt Godfrey (19-1, 10 KOs): Too Smooth put on a clinic against Shawn Hawk on July 10, fighting in the southpaw stance the entire bout. He owns quality wins over Emmanuel Nwodo, Felix Cora Jr. and Danny Batchelder.
9. Ola Afolabi (14-1-3, 6 KOs): Kryptonite's knockout of Enzo Maccarinelli proved this Brit can bang a bit. He's recently been winning with ease, but needs better opposition to show fans how skillful he is.
10. Troy Ross (22-1, 15): In his first fight since winning The Contender, The Boss took an easy but terribly boring decision from Michael Simms. The Canadian is definitely talented. He just needs to be entertaining.
Notably absent: Hino Ehikhamenor (KO loss to Ross), Darnell Wilson (KO loss to Drozd), Jean-Marc Mormeck (KO loss to David Haye) and O'Neil Bell (what else is new?)
The Sweet Science lab is now closed.