Doncaster underdog Jason Cunningham produced the performance of his career to thrice drop and dethrone European super-bantamweight champion Gamal Yafai in a captivating 12-rounder at the AO Arena in Manchester on Saturday night. Scores were 115-110 and 114-111 (twice).
A punch-perfect Cunningham dropped Yafai three times, but the Birmingham man showed magnificent heart to drag the challenger into a late dogfight. Cunningham was badly hurt to the body in the 10th, but found a second wind to put an exclamation point on a fine display.
The Yorkshireman was richly rewarded for a hard knock career in the away corner that has now seen him, against the odds, win major titles in the 118lbs (Commonwealth), 122lbs (European) and 126lbs (Commonwealth) divisions.
“I’ve done it the hard way, old school titles, not Mickey Mouse titles,” Cunningham told Sky Sports afterwards. “Now I have finally proved myself.”
Southpaw Cunningham was ‘razors’ from the opening bell, employing smooth movement and unloading stiff shots from range. In the second, a smart left hand dropped Yafai with the champion returning to his corner out of sorts and cut over the left eye.
Yafai showed greater urgency in a brisk third with Cunningham feeling the effects of a right hand. But the surging champion was suddenly decked again by a left hand in the fourth – that shot was pure kryptonite for Yafai.
In the sixth, the unerring accuracy of Cunningham paid dividends again with a left hand sending Yafai down heavily for a third count. He rose once more, but Cunningham was systematically breaking him down.
To his credit, Yafai hung in there and began to creep back into the fight. His fire and fortitude posed Cunningham problems in the eighth and ninth, but the challenger’s lead still appeared healthy enough.
Yet the champion badly hurt the lanky Cunningham downstairs in the 10th and miraculously seemed on the verge of an astonishing ‘back from the dead’ win. Cunningham tasted the canvas but referee Victor Loughlin ruled it was due to a tangle of feet. Yafai pressed, Cunningham faltered, but the challenger held on.
Yafai’s excellent fitness and commitment almost gave him a shot at redemption, but Cunningham regrouped to earn a warranted decision.
“We’re buzzing,” added Cunningham. “We’re from a little town called Doncaster. We’ve got a British, European and world champion – that’s some doing that. In at three weeks’ notice – I won my second Commonwealth title at three weeks’ notice. They tried catching me out tonight, I don’t care what anyone says – that’s what they’ve done.
“I’ve stayed prepared, stayed disciplined and dedicated. This is what happens when you stick to it. I was in this venue last time I had a big fight against Michael Conlan. I pushed Michael Conlan hard. I had to grit in late on tonight – he hurt me a few times to the body. I’ll never quit. It’s my boxing ability that sets me above the rest. I’m an awkward, tall southpaw.
“I said I knew I had the tools to do it. I said I’d have done a better job if I had more notice but to be fair, I dropped him three times and it was quite comfortable really. I knew to keep calm and carry on what I was doing. I stuck to it and this is my reward. I made a lot of people in Doncaster a lot of money tonight.
“I showed my class, I was levels above him in terms of boxing ability. Usually you get a good 10 weeks’ notice for a European title fight – it was the biggest fight of my life. I’ve been out of the ring since February last year. Tonight was just my night, I knew I was all wrong for him.”
Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy retained his European cruiserweight crown with a comfortable six round win over Romania’s negative Alexandru Jur.
McCarthy was in full control throughout. A left hand to the body sent Jur down in the fourth and the visitor looked done. But he rose for more without ever threatening anything. Two rounds later, Jur opted to stay down through Ian John Lewis’s count after another left hand downstairs.
Afterwards, promoter Eddie Hearn announced McCarthy will meet Commonwealth champion Chris Billiam-Smith in a Matchroom Fight Camp clash in July.
“I’m delighted,” McCarthy told Matchroom afterwards. “I got a few rounds in and a stoppage. I got everything that I wanted. We prepared for Jur to give me a good test. I don’t think he expected me to come out the way that I did. It threw him off a bit. I can’t complain.
“I thought it was all over after the first knockdown. Feinted to the head, left hook to the body and he went over. He went into survival mode after that. It was the same again with the next one. I’ve been working hard with my team all through camp. We’ve been doing all sorts of drills. We’ve been working on being explosive. The S&C training was all focused on me being explosive. I’m a hard puncher.
“Everything was perfect this camp – no injuries. I was driving them shots through him, it was great. The pandemic has been great for me, I’ve kept my head down, stayed in the gym and worked on my whole game. I hope everybody is buzzing back home in Belfast.
“I’ve got no problem fighting Chris Billam-Smith, it’s easy work. If this is the hurdle that I have to jump over for a world title fight, then so be it. Chris Billam-Smith, stop tweeting about me, stop talking about me – we’ll see you at Fight Camp.”
Sheffield talent Dalton Smith continued his impressive rise with a six-round dissection of fellow Yorkshireman Lee Appleyard to win the vacant English 140lbs title.
Smith picked the battle-tested Appleyard apart with his fluid skill and incisive combinations, rarely missing a beat in another cultured performance. In the sixth, referee Mark Lyson stepped in with Rotherham’s tough Appleyard taking a sustained beating and his swollen features telling the story of his night.
“I’ve got my first professional title,” said Smith. “I’ve dreamt about this since I was a little boy. I’m English champion! It’s the starting block for me. When the fight first got announced, I thought, ‘it’s just an English Title’, but now I’ve got it it’s like, ‘wow, I’m a professional champion now’. It feels good.
“All credit to Lee – he’s one tough kid. I was prepared for a fast-paced 10 rounds tonight, but he was just taking a few too many shots in there. I’m good friends with Lee out of the ring. When you go in there it’s just business. I could see his face was getting bust up pretty bad. I kind of felt sorry for him in a way. I’ve got respect for him. I knew eventually the shots would come and I knew he wasn’t going to last long.
“I’m happy with my performance. You want to win in style. The knockouts are good. We want to win but we don’t want anyone to come out of there hurt. People forget that was my eighth pro fight there. Lee is an experienced guy and he’s been in with some top kids. He’s been those championship rounds.
“I’m taking my time, I’m 24. I’ve got one shot at boxing; I want to make sure that I do it right. I’m not in there with no mugs – they’re real contenders. That was a good step up and I proved what I’m about. I’m not a championship round fighter yet. Kay Prosper just boxed for the European title – they’re the type of fights that I want. I want to get those championship rounds in, I’m in a tough division. Maybe I’ll get over to the States in my next fight, get a bit of experience over there. I’d love to do that.”
Earlier, Warley heavy and former Team GB representative Solomon Dacres won a one-sided debut verdict over brave but hopelessly outgunned Bulgarian Mladen Manev. Referee John Latham scored 60-54.
Leicestershire 154-pounder Ellis Hopkins also enjoyed a successful pro debut with a 40-36 points win over Bulgarian Borislava Goranova in the women’s bout that opened the show.
Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.