Antonio Tarver is a very good salesman. “The Magic Man” has always gotten by on a mix of guile, oral dexterity in and out of the ring, intelligence and a bombastic, larger-than-life personality.
Tarver meets Steve Cunningham this Friday in a 12-round WBC heavyweight title eliminator set to air live on PBC on Spike from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Before he does, however, he will try convincing anyone willing to listen that he’s still the same Antonio Tarver he was 11 years ago, when he knocked out Roy Jones Jr.
Tarver (31-6, 22 KOs) wants people to look past the fact that he’s now a 46-year-old grandfather. He wants people to forget that he hasn’t beaten anyone in their prime since he annexed the IBF light heavyweight belt from Clinton Woods in 2008. Antonio Tarver wants people to believe he beat Cunningham (28-7, 13 KOs) and set up a title shot against WBC heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder.
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One thing is certain: Tarver and Cunningham both realize that this very well could be it. The loser could be banished to the opponent mill, while the winner will get more lucrative bouts.
“It is a loser-goes-home fight that both fighters must win,” said Lou DiBella, the fight’s promoter. “This is a must-win fight if they’re going to continue at the highest levels of the heavyweight division. Antonio and Steve don’t have a margin for error here.
“The winner will move on to a huge opportunity, and the loser of this bout takes a huge step back and maybe has to think that it’s really the end of the line. So, this is the kind of fight that figures to be a terrific match up and a must-win fight for both. That’s why it’s a recipe for a great fight.”
Then mix in Tarver, who isn’t selling Cunningham short, but rather selling the urgency he carries himself. The looming question is, at 46, how much does Tarver have left? The last time Tarver went 12 rounds was in 2012, against cruiserweight contender Lateef Kayode. The fight resulted in a draw, then was overturned by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) to a “no-decision,” after Tarver tested positive for the anabolic steroid drostanolone, which resulted in a fine and a one-year suspension.
Tarver claimed it was false positive and appealed, but the CSAC shot down the appeal, upholding its original decision in October 2012. Soon after, Tarver lost his commentator job with Showtime.
“I haven’t underestimated Steve Cunningham at all. I have a great deal of respect for the man,” Tarver said. “His story with his daughter [who underwent a heart transplant within the last year] is really outstanding. But unfortunately we’re in the hurt business and this is boxing at the highest level and it’s all about opportunities.
“There’s no fighter out there that has struggled and overcame like I have and it’s those struggles that are going to carry me through this fight and beyond. I hear his story and it’s heartfelt, but the last three years of my life nobody can even comprehend. That’s what champions are made of. I truly believe God gives his toughest test to his strongest warriors and I've been tested and I’ve proven that I can go through and I can endure.”
Tarver claims he’s a realist. He admits he’s not looking past Cunningham, who is seven years younger, an inch taller and holds a seven-inch reach advantage. A former two-time cruiserweight titlist, Cunningham has also been in with far better fighters over the last three years than Tarver. Although his record is 4-4 in that span, many believed Cunningham outboxed undefeated Vyacheslav Glazkov in March and deserved the victory.
“I’m not looking past [Cunningham], but I’m a realist,” Tarver said. “I can see the future, too. I know what this fight means. I’m not looking past him, but I am looking through him -- straight through him. He’s transparent. I’m looking straight through Steve Cunningham.”
Tarver is also quite possibly selling him short.
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