STEVE CUNNINGHAM realizes he and Tomasz Adamek made magic once, or whatever it is that passes for magic in the boxing ring.
What remains to be seen is whether the would-be magicians can conjure more of the same stuff that made their first meeting, on Dec. 11, 2008, so special. That particular task is especially daunting to Cunningham, who came out on the wrong end of a split decision, the victim of three knockdowns and bereft of his IBF cruiserweight championship.
A magical fight is always savored so much more when it's you who gets to smile and raise your gloved hands in exultation while the other guy grimaces in the frustration of defeat.
On Saturday afternoon, at the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Cunningham (25-4, 12 KOs) and Adamek (47-2, 29 KOs) - now heavyweights - will attempt to generate enough thrills and chills to satisfy fans nearly as much as did their previous clash, which was held in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
This scheduled 12-rounder for Adamek's IBF North American title, however, will not be televised by the ratings-poor Versus Network, as was the last meeting, but on NBC10, the first time a boxing match has been carried on free, over-the-air NBC since 2004. A victory by Cunningham, a two-time former IBF cruiser champ and Navy veteran from Southwest Philadelphia, could have the effect of legitimizing his neophyte heavyweight dreams (this will be only his second bout in the higher weight class). A loss - and he is a 4-1 underdog to the bigger, stronger and more experienced Adamek - might put them far out of reach.
"I was sounded out about moving up to heavyweight when Adamek did it," Cunningham said after a recent training session at Rock Ministries in Kensington. "In hindsight, that might have been the smart thing to do. But I felt I still had things to prove at cruiserweight. I wanted to be the unified champ, so I stayed. I wanted to get that belt a second time, and I did.
"But moneywise . . . being the best cruiserweight in the world didn't pay nearly as well as it should have. My hat goes off to Chris Byrd [a former WBO heavyweight titlist], a good friend of mine who is more or less my size. He was really a light-heavyweight fighting as a heavyweight, but he has a win over Vitali Klitschko. He beat Jameel McCline and Andrew Golota [he actually fought Golota to a draw], two other really big guys. So I have to think, if he could do it, so can I."
Left unsaid is the fact that any number of other cruiserweight champions, such as Al "Ice" Cole, Antonio Tarver and Jean-Marc Mormeck, failed to replicate the same success that Byrd, Evander Holyfield and David Haye enjoyed as smallish heavyweights. Natural 200-pounders attempting to bulk up for confrontations with the 6-5 to 6-8 hulks that now dominate the heavyweight rankings is like something out of a children's fairy tale, without so many happy endings.
"There should be a super-heavyweight division for these guys that are so freakishly big," said Cunningham's trainer, Brother Naazim Richardson, who is best known for his work with longtime middleweight and light-heavyweight titlist Bernard Hopkins. "Steve never had a problem making cruiserweight [where the limit is 200 pounds]. One time he came to camp weighing 189. I remember thinking we were going to give him double portions of carbs to help him put some weight on. This guy is always shrinking on me, and we haven't even started working yet.
"At 203, 204, he still isn't very big. When the possibility was raised of him moving up to heavyweight, I was, like, 'Whoa.' It's like 'Jack and the Beanstalk.' Fee, fi, fo, fum. There's literally giants up there at the top of the division. It's not that they all fight that well, but they're so big, it's tough to match up with them physically. If I put boxing gloves on Shaquille O'Neal, he could probably go 15-0 without too much trouble."
When Cunningham and Adamek last swapped punches, Cunningham weighed in at 197 pounds, Adamek at 198. But Adamek is a naturally larger man, at least in some respects. Although he is 6-1 1/2 and has a 75-inch reach compared to Cunningham's 6-3 and 82-inch reach, he has a much thicker frame that has enabled him to comfortably carry far in excess of the 177 pounds at which he turned pro in 1999. The native of Zywiec, Poland, has come in as high at 225 pounds, going 9-1 as a heavyweight, his only loss coming on a 10th-round stoppage by WBC champion Vitali Klitschko on Sept. 10, 2011. Among the big men he has defeated are the significantly bigger Golota, Michael Grant, Kevin McBride and Chris Arreola.
In other words, Adamek should hold an even greater edge in power than he did in his 2008 clash with Cunningham, whose best hope for an upset again rests on his ability to capitalize on his advantages in speed and mobility.
"The last time I made the mistake of wanting to be a star," Cunningham said. "I wanted to make a big splash. I wanted to put a big hurt on the dude. But when Adamek knocked me down the first time, everything went out the window. What choice did I have but to fight back harder?"
Richardson, who replaced Anthony Chase as Cunningham's trainer after the Adamek bout, said his guy will fight smarter this time because, well, he has to.
"At Steve's size you have little margin of error at heavyweight," Richardson said. "You can't make any mistakes. That's a tough road to walk. But I don't want Steve to get too big. He can't bulk up at the expense of sacrificing speed. [Paul] Briggs and [Chad] Dawson aren't big guys, but they gave Adamek fits with their movement.
"The only big monster to beat Adamek is the biggest, baddest monster out there. Let's see how he does with a lighter, quicker monster. There's more than one way to win a fight."