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Jason Cunningham: I have done it the hard way, Yafai better be ready

It’s safe to say Jason Cunningham has flown under the radar throughout his boxing career. There have been some big nights, but he’s always been in the away corner, not that it bothers him. And the Doncaster man will be back in familiar territory on Saturday night in Manchester.

It’s almost like we’ve been here before. Yafai vs Cunningham in title action. But this time ‘The Iceman’ will be standing across the ring from the younger Yafai brother, Gamal, and potentially he’ll be able to call himself the European super-bantamweight champion if his game plan pays off.

Cunningham (28-6, 6 KOs) previously came up short in a challenge for the British super-flyweight crown against older brother Kal Yafai back in 2015 and the 31-year-old is eager to get himself in the win column against the Birmingham fight family.

He told Boxing Social: “This has been probably the quickest camp I’ve had. I’ve had three weeks’ notice, like I did when I fought Ben Jones, but this time I’ve had to renew my medicals, sort out kit and everything else, so I’ve been flat out for this. I’m also looking forward to being in one of these bubbles and ticking that off as a new experience.

“Super-bantamweight is the right weight for me. When I fought Kal it was at super-fly and it was a risk. It was a chance for me to change my life and I went for it, but it was a step too far and he’s gone on to do big things. It wasn’t my best [showing] admittedly but I can rectify that and pull it back. At the moment, it’s 1-0 to the Yafais, but I won’t let them go 2-0 up!”

If you look at Cunningham’s record it is littered with title fights. It’s a career to be proud of and he rightly is. Being a two-weight Commonwealth champion, amongst other belts, is his major accomplishment and he is well aware of the prestige that adding a European belt would bring.

The fight has come together at short notice, not that it bothers Cunningham, who has done it all before. He remains confident that he can upset Yafai, using all the experience he has picked up on those away days, where he has acquitted himself admirably against some highly-touted prospects.

“It’s nothing new to me fighting at short notice in these title fights. I’ve done it many times. As I said, when I beat Jones to win my second Commonwealth title, I had the same amount of notice,” said Cunningham. “It doesn’t faze me in the slightest. The chance to win a major title in a third weight was too good to turn down, as not many fighters in Britain have done that.

“I’ve gone under the radar in my career, but that doesn’t mean you should look past me. I’m very confident and, with respect to all his family, I’ve already fought the best brother. I’ve fought better fighters too in Michael Conlan and Jordan Gill, where I gave them problems. He won’t have anything I won’t have seen before.”

Cunningham won’t have to go far for advice when it comes to squaring off against Yafai. His training partner, Gavin McDonnell, himself a former European champion at this weight, got the better of Yafai back in 2018 in an excellent boxing performance, which stripped the Birmingham man of his unbeaten record.

It would be the crowning achievement of Cunningham’s career so far if he were to emulate McDonnell. A tribute to doing things the old fashioned way away from the spotlight and a route that has been forgotten, due to the increase in international titles. A win for Cunningham would be a major coup.

“Gav has already provided the blueprint. We’re both big at the weight, but I’ve got the added value of being an awkward southpaw. I have every attribute in my arsenal to beat him,” said Cunningham. “Perhaps I’m reading into it too much but the notice they’ve given me may actually be a clue as to how they couldn’t get who they wanted and they’ve been forced into it. I might be just taking some wild guesses.

“The European title would be everything to me. It would make all the struggles of the last year worth it. Win this and I’m practically one fight away from a potential world title shot. I’m old school and started at the bottom. I won a Masters [title], when they were still around, a Central Area [title] and I’ve gone right through doing it the hard way.

“Eddie [Hearn] has said before that it is winner stays on. Well, then I’ve got it all to gain by beating Gamal. He’s got all the advantages in his favour. He’s had the notice and the time, but I’m coming to upset the applecart. He better be ready.”

Stefy Bull, Cunningham’s manager, has been the man plotting the moves throughout the Yorkshireman’s career. He is in no doubt that his man can spring the upset in Manchester. He points to another of his fighters in Maxi Hughes, who trained with Cunningham in the amateurs, as proof of what can be achieved in the new era of behind-closed-doors battles.

Bull adds that the time is right for Cunningham. He’s made errors in big fights before, but believes that Cunningham now has what it takes to be the man with his hand raised on Saturday.

“We sort of had an idea that the fight with Yafai may be coming our way, but we couldn’t take it for granted,” said Bull. “I first got some whispers around six weeks ago that Jason was in the running, as one of four possible opponents and then we got the call three weeks before. The notice doesn’t bother us, as he’s always ready, it’s just what it is for the away fighter in boxing at this level.

“But you have to take these opportunities when they come your way. Look at Maxi Hughes, who I manage and has been one of the best fighters during the pandemic. He’s the yardstick and Jason is close friends with Maxi from the amateurs and will be looking to emulate him.

“Gamal won’t have anything we haven’t seen already. [Cunningham has] been in tough fights and given a great account every time. I remember the fight with Reece Bellotti [LTKO6], where he probably should have won, but he pushed forward and got caught with one of Reece’s noted hooks which turned the fight on its head. He’s learned from his experience and grown as a fighter. Now is Jason Cunningham’s chance.”

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.