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Adamek-Cunningham a late contender for FOY honors

Coming back from three knockdowns is no easy task. Just ask Steve Cunningham. Ed Mulholland/FightWireImages.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- On at least two occasions in recent years, Wladimir Klitschko (against Samuel Peter in '05) and Peter himself (versus Jameel McCline at the Garden in October '07) have demonstrated it is mathematically possible to get knocked down three times and still win a fight, but when a boxer goes down for the hat trick he's dug himself a pretty deep hole.

In Steve Cunningham's case it was one he could not, in the end, escape.

If Don King and Kathy Duva had had any idea what an aesthetic triumph the sinking of the USS Cunningham would turn out to be, it wouldn't have taken place on the wrong side of the Hudson River.

Just five nights after Oscar De La Hoya picked the collective pockets of the boxing public on his way out the door, Tomasz Adamek and Cunningham put on an unforgettable show in Newark. And nobody paid $59.95 to watch this one. All you needed was a television set and regular cable.

Boxing cards staged in comparative obscurity have not traditionally fared well in year-end fight of the year voting, and one that takes place in the middle of the week in December would seem especially handicapped, but you'd have trouble convincing eyewitnesses at the Prudential Center on Thursday it didn't at the very least belong on the short list of contenders.

Cunningham was floored by Adamek's punches on three separate occasions over the course of the 12-round bout, and each time he bounced up with renewed determination. On at least two occasions, Adamek looked to be on the verge of wilting under Cunningham's two-fisted attack, but he hung on and was rewarded with a split decision that allowed him to walk away with the cruiserweight championship.

At least for now. A rematch would seem inevitable.

Newark hadn't hosted a world title bout since the third Rocky Graziano-Tony Zale fight 60 years ago, or roughly 30 years before the term "cruiserweight" first entered the boxing lexicon. And while this one was held just 90 miles from the champion's Philadelphia hometown, it was clear from the abundance of red-and-white face-painted, flag-waving fans in attendance that Adamek's Polish countrymen had turned out in force.

The partisans of both sides found themselves holding their breath at the sensational bout's conclusion, and the unofficial scorecards of the ringside press were as divided as those of the judges themselves. As they awaited the verdict, Adamek didn't appear any more confident than Cunningham did.

One ringside judge, Dr. Clark Sammartino of Rhode Island, had Cunningham winning 114-112, but he was overruled by New Jersey officials John Steward (116-110) and Shafeeq Rashada (115-112), handing Adamek (now 36-1) the championship.

Cunningham both threw and landed more punches in this slam-bang affair, and for the most part controlled the action as well. When he wasn't going down, in fact, he was dominating enough that over the course of the evening each judge scored a 10-9 round despite an Adamek knockdown.

Cunningham had won the first round and was well on his way to winning the second when, at the bell, he threw a right hand in what he clearly assumed would be the last punch of the round. It wasn't; Adamek reached over the lazy right to land a left that put him on his backside. All three judges gave the round to Adamek after the knockdown, but only Sammartino and Rashada deemed it worthy of the 10-8 margin a knockdown would normally command.

In the fourth, Cunningham turned up the heat and was battering Adamek all over the ring for the first two minutes. Action cooled down a bit over the last minute, and then, with 20 seconds left in the round, Cunningham tossed a lazy jab, Adamek nailed him with a counter right, and the good ship Cunningham was down again.

This time Stewart was the only judge to score it 10-8.

"I felt like I had him in the fourth," Cunningham said.

Cunningham tasted the canvas again in the eighth. Just after he had connected with a hard left uppercut of his own, Adamek stunned him with a short right and then put him down with the tail end of a long left hook.

On each occasion the champion bounced back up immediately, but the damage had been done on the scorecards.

"They were all flash knockdowns," said Cunningham, now 21-2. "I never felt I was hurt, but I've got to give Adamek credit. He did knock me down three times."

Adamek seemed considerably more confident after the rendering of the verdict than he had been just before it.

"I knew after the first round he couldn't hurt me," said the Pole. "Even when his punches connected, I was OK."

Adamek, who at 198 weighed a pound more than Cunningham, mentioned how much stronger he felt at cruiserweight -- a point well taken. The night he lost his light heavyweight title to Chad Dawson in Florida last year, Adamek had seemed positively emaciated -- though come to think of it, he scored the only knockdown in that fight, too.

"I feel bad because I lost my belt, but I feel good for the cruiserweight division," said Cunningham. "Adamek and I showed how exciting this division can be."

A return bout would seem a foregone conclusion.

Cunningham admitted he'd love to do it again, and so, obviously, would King.

George Kimball, who writes for the Irish Times and Boxing Digest as well as ESPN.com, won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985. He is the author of the widely acclaimed new book "Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing."