A division cruising past punch-line status

When Steve Cunningham and Tomasz Adamek step into the ring on Dec. 11 to decide who is the cruiserweight champion of the world, they'll share an interesting distinction: They're both older than the division in which they're competing.

Not even the ancient Bernard Hopkins has ever been able to make that claim.

It goes without saying that the cruiserweight division is not known for its long and glorious history. The weight class was born in 1980, four years after both Cunningham and Adamek, and aside from the two years when Evander Holyfield reigned supreme, it's generally been used as a punch line.

While the utterly forgettable likes of Adolpho Washington, Uriah Grant and Imamu Mayfield were passing title belts around in the mid-90s, many in the fight fraternity were calling for the division to be expunged, and with good reason. The idea of a weight class between light heavyweight and heavyweight seemed superfluous, not only to fans and journalists, but to the fighters who preferred to shrink down to 175 pounds or bulk up to 220 rather than campaign in the 190-pound no-man's land.

But just as the Tampa Bay Rays have gone from a long-running joke to a sudden sensation, so too has the cruiserweight division.

The division limit was changed to 200 pounds, attracting a slightly wider range of fighters. Unified champions O'Neil Bell, Jean-Marc Mormeck and David Haye emerged. And importantly, the heavyweight division became boxing's ultimate joke.

If you want to see big men -- roughly the size of legendary heavyweight champions like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano -- who can punch hard but also move around the ring gracefully and make entertaining fights, cruiserweight has become the place to look.

And it's about to give us again what the heavyweights aren't likely to give us anytime soon: a singular champion.

Haye was the lineal cruiser champ, but like so many of the best cruiserweights of the past 28 years, he sought the greener (as in more money) pasture offered by the heavyweight division. Thankfully, after just a few months, the vacancy is about to be filled.

Cunningham is ranked No. 1 by The Ring magazine, Adamek No. 2 (ESPN.com also has them as the top two following Haye's departure), and The Ring championship policy is very straight-forward: When there is no champion and No. 1 meets No. 2, then there will be a champion at fight's end.

And unlike in the case of Haye, ruling this division is something that matters deeply to Cunningham.

"The cruiserweight division doesn't get a lot of light, which is a problem. It's a beautiful division, we need a lot of eyes on the division," he said. "I want to get to the top at cruiserweight and stay at the top. We got guys that would just jump over the division, go to heavyweight -- why? Because of the money. I could do that, I could put on 20 pounds, 30 pounds. But this is my niche. I walk around at my weight, I'm strong, I feel good, I'm not going to fix it if it's not broken."

To this point, the muscular Philadelphian has advanced in relative obscurity. None of his important fights have aired on American television. His last three have all taken place in Europe, on enemy turf. He lost a disputed decision to Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in Poland (Cunningham's only defeat in 22 bouts), then beat Wlodarczyk in the rematch in Poland, then knocked out unbeaten Marco Huck in the 12th round in Germany.

Meanwhile, Adamek, another Polish fighter, is actually better known to American audiences than Cunningham is. As a light heavyweight, he defeated Paul Briggs on HBO and suffered his lone career defeat against Chad Dawson on Showtime. ESPN Classic carried his biggest cruiserweight fight, a stoppage of former lineal champ Bell.

Cunningham vs. Adamek, which takes place at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., will be televised by Versus. It's not HBO or Showtime in terms of prestige, but at the same time, you don't need to pay extra for Versus, so it might give these talented, fan-friendly fighters just the exposure they need in the most important fight of their careers.

And when it comes to Versus giving exposure to cruiserweights, this is just the beginning. The fourth season of the reality show "The Contender" will begin airing on the same network in December, with 16 cruiserweights of varying skill and promise battling for the fame that inevitably comes to a handful of fighters in each season of the show.

"The depth of talent that we have this season is more than we've had in other seasons," said "The Contender" executive producer Jeff Wald. "Every season, we've had about three or four guys who come out of the show as stars and get big fights afterward. This season, we've got a lot more than that with star potential."

So how did Wald and company arrive at the decision to feature cruiserweights?

"In the ideal world, we wanted to do heavyweights," he said. "But as you well know, the depth of heavyweights is not real good. Watching Samuel Peter and Vitali Klitschko is not real fun. Or Nicolai Valuev and Evander Holyfield. So that eliminated the heavyweight division for us.

"So what I saw with the cruiserweights is a division with a lot of depth and very little attention, and that's good for us. This is a division where most of the people don't know who these fighters are -- including Cunningham and Adamek."

Maybe that's about to change. Between "The Contender" and an outstanding matchup on Dec. 11 for true supremacy, the division is heating up.

Cruiserweight will never have the cache of its neighbors to the immediate north or south. But Cunningham and Adamek are about to get some of the exposure they deserve.

And maybe they can convince older viewers that the heavyweight division they used to love is still around. It just isn't called heavyweight anymore.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor and former managing editor for The Ring magazine.