BETHLEHEM, Pa. - 'Twas the night before the night before the night before Christmas, and all through the house, everyone was stirring. There were hopping-mad Steve Cunningham supporters, who felt that their guy had just had a lump of coal dropped into his stocking by two pencil-wielding Grinches. The Cunningham contingent was, of course, outnumbered by relieved and presumably grateful fans of Tomasz Adamek, most of whom had reason to feel that Santa, the jolly fat man in the red-and-white suit (the colors of the Polish flag) celebrated in the iconic 1822 poem by Clement Clarke Moore, had just delivered a gift-wrapped goodie to the North Jersey Pole.

Even Ziggy Rozalski, Adamek's Polish co-promoter, admitted as much in a rare moment of candor an hour-and-a-half or so after Adamek had been awarded a highly suspect split decision on Saturday in the nationally televised 12-rounder at the Sands Casino Resort.

"[Adamek] got an early Christmas present," a shrugging Rozalski told two reporters whose personal scorecards had Cunningham (25-5, 12 KOs), the U.S. Navy veteran from Southwest Philadelphia, winning handily. That seemed to be the sentiment of a substantial majority of the credentialed media members, whose collective opinion was that the last big boxing show of 2012 had ended in that most traditional manner, a controversial decision.

Cruiserweight contender B.J. Flores, who worked the bout as a color analyst for the NBC broadcast team, was similarly perplexed by the scorecards submitted by judges Dave Greer and Debra Barnes, who saw Adamek as the victor by respective margins of 116-112 and 115-112. The third judge, Thomas Miller, favored Cunningham by 115-113.

"I can't see how any qualified judge could give that fight to Adamek. Even giving Adamek the benefit of every doubt, I think the best anyone could come up with is Cunningham winning seven rounds to five," Flores, off-air, told the press corps after Adamek had notched his second split nod over Cunningham in as many tries, the first coming on Dec. 11, 2008, when the Jersey City-based Polish national captured the IBF cruiserweight title in Newark, N.J.

The Daily News put even more space between Cunningham and Adamek, with the American coming out on top, 117-112.

Cunningham, in fact, might have been hosed twice. As originally announced to the sellout and predominately pro-Adamek crowd of 1,950 by Michael Buffer, Barnes' scorecard was 115-115, thus making the outcome a draw. Cunningham and his trainer, Brother Naazim Richardson, appeared to be stunned and outraged. Moments later, Buffer said there had been a "correction" to one of the cards, which gave Team Cunningham a fresh window of hope. That window was quickly slammed shut when Buffer said Barnes' tally actually had favored Adamek by three points.

With a favorable decision in his pocket, Adamek, who is the IBF's No. 3 contender, retained the IBF North American championship and now moves on to an IBF elimination bout with that sanctioning body's top-rated heavyweight, Bulgaria's Kubrat Pulev (17-0, 9 KOs). The winner is assured a seven-figure payday and likely beatdown by IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO champion Wladimir Klitschko (59-3, 50 KOs).

"I am very happy," Adamek said in thickly accented English. "I want to make more war, but Steve's tactics was more run. I hit him stronger. I hit him strong with right hands. I did not feel his punches. Steve was never a [big] puncher. When I hit him, I hit him strong."

Well, that's one way to look at it. The punch statistics compiled by CompuBox suggested otherwise. Cunningham - who was knocked down three times in his previous showdown with Adamek - performed more under control this time, boxing beautifully and refusing to be lured into another toe-to-toe slugfest. "USS" - so nicknamed for his military service aboard aircraft carriers - connected on 209 of 515 punches, 41 percent, to 189 of 513 (33 percent) for Adamek. The gap in jabs was even more pronounced, with Cunningham on-target with 129 of 349 (37 percent) to 49 of 246 (20 percent) for his opponent.

Adamek did have the edge in power shots, landing 120 of 267 (45 percent) to 80 of 167 (48 percent) for Cunningham, who at 203 1/2 was giving away 19 1/2 pounds. But Cunningham, regardless of any perceived disparity in punching power, seemed to land the cleaner and more effective blows. At no time did he appear to have been shaken by anything thrown and landed by Adamek.

"We'll see what opportunities present themselves, but we didn't have a mind-set of [what might happen] with a loss," said Cunningham, who, as is the case with Adamek, is 36 and has a career with more past than future. "We had a mind-set of winning and moving ahead. And we performed. We did our job, and we did it beautifully.

"Yes, I'm Steve Cunningham, two-time former world champ. But I'm not a superstar. I'm not Bernard Hopkins, who can lose to a Jermain Taylor for millions of dollars and go into a fight with [Antonio] Tarver for more millions of dollars. I didn't make a lot for this fight, and I got a family to support.

"You get scores like this and you're, like, 'Huh? What's up? What's the deal? What else do I have to do?' Let me tell you, real men cry. Real men shed tears. We did our thing in the ring. This saddens me, man."

Main Events president Kathy Duva, who holds promotional paper on both fighters, tried her best to sidestep the furor. "Boxing is subjectively judged," she noted. "We could sit here and argue all day."

What remains to be seen is how NBC's return to free, over-the-air boxing - this was its first such telecast since 2004 - will be received. The first of the two televised bouts ended when heavyweight Tor Hamer (19-2, 12 KOs), of New York City, quit on his stool after four rounds against Ukraine's Vyacheslav Glazkov (14-0, 9 KOs), telling referee Steve Smoger that, hey, he was tired. So much for the concept of going out on your shield. Then came the main event and its raft of complaints and recriminations.

"If the judges can't judge better than that," Cunningham fumed, "they shouldn't even be allowed to judge two roaches running up a wall."