Wlodarczyk v. Cunningham II: One more reason for Yanks and Euros to trade accusations of biased judging, and sour-grapes

06.04.07 - By Gabriel DeCrease: As fight-fans eagerly and cantankerously await and debate the upcoming rematch of the highly controversial cruiserweight boxing title-fight between Pole, Krysztof Wlodarczyk, and American, Steve “USS” Cunningham, I wonder, is all this attention grown out of genuine interest in the fight? I doubt it. The buzz is born of pure, unadulterated spite that flows both ways across the continental divide..

Cunningham did not enter the sport to the tune of blaring trumpets, and has not, until now, really been at the center of much hype or consideration. He has been little more than a steady, but undistinguished, contender. Wlodarczyk has hometown hero status in Poland. In fact, he may be the country’s most popular boxing fighter next to the now-depreciated Tomaz Adamek. However, Wlodarczyk’s renown fades fast when you look outside his native borders—or, at least, that was the case until this latest controversy began picking up steam.

Unlike Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton, Wlodarczyk has not managed to pick up legions of fans across Europe. Why? His record is thin, to say the least, and contains some surprisingly unspectacular performances against surprisingly unspectacular opposition. The same can be said, to a lesser degree, for Cunningham. Both guys have been good, but never great, especially not against each other. So why, again, all the talk about the rematch?

Why so much demand for a rematch that will probably be as much of a bore as the original—and no less controversial or disputed at that?

Oh yes, I know! It’s because American and European fight fans, fighters, journalists, promoters, and matchmakers love to hate and slander one another—and they will seize any opportunity to say they cannot get a fair decision on the other’s turf, that they get rook’d on the payday, that the other side makes outrageous demands, and engages in all sorts of hometown hanky-panky to try to offset the odds or create an advantage.

In this case Cunningham was quoted as saying, “I thought Poland and most of the people I met in Warsaw were great…but I don’t think they’re capable of staging a fair fight especially when one of their own is in the ring.”

Wlodarczyk’s people have continuously upheld the scoring, and their decisions regarding the many controversies leading up to the fight. It has been widely reported that Wlodarczyk’s manager, Andrew Wasilewski, has maintained publicly that Cunningham was not subjected to any cruel and unusual mistreatment, that he was not denied his right to a fair fight, and that the Americans were unreasonable in their expectation that they could dictate the terms and conditions of the fight down to the detail simply because they were traveling to fight Wlodarczyk for the vacant IBF boxing strap in his home country.

Richie Giachetti, Cunningham’s manager and trainer, said “The Polish commission told us four days before the fight that they were replacing an Italian judge with a Polish judge regardless of the fact he had never scored a world championship fight…they told me there would be no fight if the Polish judge wasn’t allowed to score. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Everybody, naturally, thinks their version of the truth is the only version of the truth. However, that is a risky tenet to embrace in a cruiserweight-world where—in 2005—O’Neil Bell won a decision over Dale Brown on all three cards after Brown dominated and tamed an unusually befuddled-seeming and ungraceful Bell for the duration.

Moreover, the cruiserweight division has not garnered sustained-interest since the fearsome, awesome days of a young, fresh, 190-pound Evander Holyfield punching his heart out in a division that was deep with the likes of Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Matthew Saad Muhammad. To even drop those names in print brings back a kind of terrific tremor of nostalgia that tells the tale of why the public has lost interest in the cruiserweight boxing crown—and don’t tell me it’s the lack of a unified champion. It is a lot more than a waist-full of belts that separates Wlodarczyk and Cunningham (and even their betters, O’Neil Bell and Jean-Marc Mormeck) from “The Real Deal” and “The Camden Buzzsaw.”

The division is fallen from its peak. That is obvious. The issue at hand is that of a rematch that is being glorified so it can serve as a rationalization for geographically-opposed fight fans to get at one another like wild dogs.

Allow me to color in the background before lamenting the current foolishness. I will, for the sake of brevity, present a massively-truncated history of the recently-reinvigorated rivalry. Decades ago, “Two Ton” Tony Galento, plodding, rugged, brawl-happy, Depression-era slugger-contender was once asked how he felt about William Shakespeare. Galento snapped back, "Shakespeare? I ain't never heard of him. I suppose he's one of them foreign heavyweights. They're all lousy. Sure as hell, I'll murder the bum." Therein rests a candid expression of the animosity that existed long before Galento ever entered a ring, and has since endured with no less fervor in any decade since. Not to be too reductive, or to oversimplify the problem, but—if I am to call it as I have seen it—the American boxing establishment views Europe as a breeding ground for soft, boringly-technical, porcelain-jawed amateurs that hide behind nervous footwork and long jabs that paw away from a fight. Americans (fans, fighters, writers, and just about everybody else) often make off-the-cuff claims that Euro-pugs have no heart, no fire, no stones, and these accusations are frequently supported with accusations that European champions will not put their titles on the line outside the support system of hometown fans and judges in their native countries.

There are plenty of fighters—Sven Ottke being the best example—whose careers seem to validate these accusations. On the other end of the adversarial relationship, Europeans often look at American boxing fighters as one-dimensional bangers who lack the technical acumen to do anything but wing haymakers one-at-a-time—and fight dirty when they find themselves out-boxed and outclassed—think Sam Peter v. Vladimir Klitschko.

Euros are also often wary of dealing with what they consider to be a corrupt and biased crop of unscrupulous promoters with pockets stuffed with ill-gotten riches, steroid-pumped fighters, and crooked judges. And, to be fair, there is as much proof to confirm these accusations as there is to confirm the accusations from across the sea.

This hostility is not unique. With regard to the fight game, there is considerable enmity between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, between various nations in the Pacific Rim, in the States there is a long-standing heated rivalry between the West Coast and the East Coast, between Los Anglesites and New Yorkers…the list of rivalries in boxing—as in all things—is nearly endless. And, to some degree they sell tickets, put butts in seats, and move pay-per-view units. But sometimes the rivalries get in the way of fair play and begin to stall the machinery. Healthy competition and a justifiable, or natural, pride in your tribe can become obtrusive and generate an icy and wholly unproductive stalemate. There is a reason, I suppose, that The Second World War is viewed as the grandest clash of military giants the planet has ever known, and the Cold War ignominiously collapsed and holds no special place in the collective consciousness. Nothing gets resolved in this case and partisan-pugilism is reduced to international prejudice. The latest run of The Contender pitted a team of American fighters against a team of British fighters. The point was to foster contempt. It worked, but it was mostly ugly, and excuses and insults are raining down in the wake. I refuse to even publicize the debacle by referring specifically to the fights. The Americans won, not that such a competition says anything about the quality of the boxing culture of a country, or a continent, though, clearly, it was meant to.

My goal here is not to take a side. Or evaluate the examples that might be cited to support either side of the feud. The only way to evaluate fighters is on a case-by-case basis. There are rugged, hard, unbreakable fighters from every corner of the globe. There are cotton-jawed, feather fisted wimps lacing up gloves with under the banners of every country with a prize ring. One man, in one career experienced the pinnacle of brass-balls determination and the depth of quitter’s hell—I am speaking, of course, of Roberto Duran. So, does that make all Panamanian boxers simultaneously indestructible heroes and half-hearted milquetoasts? No. Every fighter can only be measured by his actions in each fight. The career of one fighter can be so variable and contradictory. How could one fight, between two guys, possibly have far-reaching implications about the greater—or lesser—character of two nations, or two continents? In a perfect world, the fans of both fighters would laude and honor any two combatants who put on a good show, make a good fight, or bleed gloriously to thrill the masses. In most fights, the fighters, no matter how bitterly divided beforehand, touch gloves to begin to the twelfth, or after a bloody-good round, as if to acknowledge the grander universality of fistic combat.

Back to the predicament in which the fight game currently finds itself. Unclench your fists, stop rattling off those nasty ethno-racial epithets and watch the damn Wlodarczyk v. Cunningham fight again. Both guys came up short, and looked a few rungs below a place at the top of the divisional boxing ladder—which is what they have both since claimed. Steve Cunningham—the taller, rangier of the two—used his jab somewhat effectively, but too sparingly from the outside and sometimes set up one-twos and combos that seemed tentative and never landed very cleanly. Wlodarczyk had little answer for Cunningham’s work from a distance. But Wlodarczyk was just as dominant with his work in close-quarters. He pressed the fight’s most spirited action on the inside, and landed fewer, but harder punches that found their mark more fully.

Whether you are a die-hard Polish nationalist or a fifth-generation red-white-and-blue-blooded Yankee Doodle, you must admit, there was little sustained action. A tentative fight is hard to score. And whoever loses should go home blaming himself for underperforming, not blaming the judges or referee for not siding with them on a toss-up in which neither man stated his case.

If I were ringside and manning a scorecard I would have called it a draw. I was not impressed with what I saw. I was especially disappointed that neither of the two young, fresh, well-conditioned fighters was willing to do much more than sleepwalk through a sparring session. You could have predicted that Cunningham would do better work at range and give way to Wlodarczyk when pinned-down on the inside. Both fighters should have felt the urgent need to press the action in the fight—and for the sake of their futures turn in a spirited, determined, dominant performance. All they gave was schlock from bell-to-bell and a lot of excuses afterward when the only thing worse than their fighting was the judging.

Not that he will get much credit in light of the controversy, but Tony Weeks did a fine job refereeing. And, incidentally, I have yet to see an interview in which Wlodarczyk or anyone from his camp complained or protested in advance of the fight that an American would be the third man in the ring.

In an unsigned article by an online boxing columnist, “A Polish and a German judge ruled in favor of Wlodarczyk by the respective scores of 115-113 and 116-112, while the third judge, an American, saw the contest a near-shutout for the Philadelphia-born Cunningham at 119-109. When rules disputes arose in the week leading up to the fight…disagreements ensued on many issues including ring size, gloves to be used, and a last-minute judge change, issues which were never satisfactorily addressed by any of the usual and customary procedures normally adhered to in a world championship bout.” Clearly, the American and European boxing worlds have reached an impasse.

The Poles pulled last minute maneuvers to tinker with the lineup at the judges’ table, monkey’d and with the regulations. The Americans went in with a bad attitude and started making sweeping indictments. Nothing that happened here contributed to a good, clean, fair, or entertaining fight. If I wanted this kind of drama I would watch daytime soaps. If I wanted legalese I would watch Judge Judy reruns—though Mills Lane did, after all, preside over a televised, trumped-up courtroom.

And now, there will, no doubt be an instant replay of the fiasco. The rematch has already been scheduled, cancelled, scheduled, and called-off again. Last I heard the thing was 100% on for late May 2007, and scheduled, inexplicably enough, to be held in Poland. And now, as I am prepared to go to press with this lament the fight has been yanked from the calendar. Ridiculous.

I suspect that, humorously enough, as long as all the players are eager to slit each other’s throats, the fight will be made, eventually. But, honestly, I would rather see Mormeck and Bell, the better-but-not-great tops in the division, in my opinion, draw straws and dispatch these guys on a co-feature on the same card. They could hold the event in Antarctica—to be ultimately guiltless in terms of geographical favoritism. That, sadly, is only a silly, but ideal, pipe-dream.

You know the rap. You know what will go down. It’s the same-old-same-old: Blame-shifting, allegations after-the-fact, threats of litigation, and, of course, ironclad promises that neither side will ever trust the other again, promises that next time everyone will be more rigid, unreasonable. My crystal ball predicts the second fight will be a carbon-copy of the first and the controversy will rage, the allegations will stray from the actual context of the fight until cross-continental resentment finds another fight to manipulate into a figurehead for the cause of conflict.

My advice, let’s all remember that as fans, fighters, writers, those in the business, and those in the know, we are all part of a fringe business that is already sporting two black-eyes and is routinely faced with bans and allegations from outside the sport. The dire need for solidarity ought to outweigh the basic lust for exclusionary contempt. The peoples of boxing need to huddle together in these dark times in which our beloved sport has been somewhat demoted from the high-perch of its heyday. Bad blood spilling over bad judging stemming from bad fights, is that really a good reason to pick fights across national borders? We need to clean up our collective acts so fights can come to blows where they belong—in the ring, and famously at that.

Questions, comments, fan mail, hate mail—email me…

Article posted on 06.04.2007

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