Andrew Tabiti takes no pity
The most promising American cruiserweight is fighting the last American cruiserweight of consequence in the opening bout of the highly-hyped Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor pay-per-view spectacle (Showtime Pay-Per-View, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT). In all likelihood, this important bout will be overlooked. As the first televised fight, fans will likely be distracted by the party atmosphere, settling in with food, beer and conversation as Andrew “The Beast” Tabiti, 14-0 (12), and Steve “USS” Cunningham, 29-8-1 (13), begin throwing punches. This is disheartening, given there has not been a viable American cruiserweight since Cunningham was at his best in the mid-2000s. Still, Tabiti has high exceptions of himself and has set his sights on stealing the show, as well as opening it with a bang. “I can’t wait to open the show. There’s a little added pressure being at the beginning of the pay-per-view but I’m going to embrace it and put on a great performance.”
Fortunately, hardcore boxing aficionados will be paying attention to the undercard and hopefully witness the emergence of a viable American-bred force at cruiserweight after a decades-long absence. Given the size and punching power of both men, your average Joe Six Pack sports fan, as well as mixed martial arts devotees, should be entertained, since both fighters think offense-first. This means the winner fits in really well with his contemporaries at the weight class, as the cruiserweight division has been one of the most exciting and competitive for the last decade. It is stocked with ethnic and international diversity like few others, so, even if Tabiti emerges victorious, this will only be the first of increasingly higher hurdles to clear.
Tabiti will most likely have to journey overseas for opportunities (in 2018, after the “World Boxing Super Series” tourney is completed and crowns a unified champion), unless Oleksandr Usyk or the winner of the WBSS tourney is looking for an American date and challenger. The cruiserweight division has been dominated by Europeans for the past two decades, giving Tabiti a good angle from which to be marketed by networks on either side of the Atlantic. It has been 11 years since an American not named Steve Cunningham held the title (Virgil Hill for the WBA “regular” title), which is an inexplicable timespan, given the athletic abundance America has in this weight region.
Born and raised in Chicago, Tabiti took his burgeoning career seriously in his amateur days, moving to Las Vegas for better sparring. He was spotted there by Mayweather Promotions (Tabiti had a good reputation as a sparring partner) who signed him upon turning pro. Needed that sparring abundance, as Tabiti has a reputation for giving 100% in training camp and on fight night. Tabiti has begun a title sprint in his last three fights, before that, fighting journeymen and trial horses at best, registering victories over previously undefeated foes Keith Tapia and Quantis Graves. Both of the wins were televised on “ShoBox,” a great barometer of talent, as the series has produced dozens of world champions.
Fits in with the elite on a mental level, said to be a voracious consumer of boxing videos and is always talking with trainers or gym mates about technique. Tabiti relies on quickness more than speed; his punches and movement to and from opponents come in rapid bursts. Tries to incorporate things he picks up in classic boxing videos but says James Toney, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are his main boxing idols. Tabiti has gone a full 10 rounds once but not of the hard variety (had his way with Keith Tapia with mediocre resistance), so there is a good chance we will see how Tabiti deals with difficult situations against a former world champion.
The perfectly proportioned 199-pounder does not have a vast amateur background – record of 32-6 and semi-finalist at the National Golden Gloves – unlike the majority of the vaunted Europeans who often turn pro late with over 200 bouts to their credit. Tabiti did not face elite Europeans on the amateur circuit either, which could be a hindrance, as it has been for other American-bred cruisers. At age 27, still has time to learn and is in his athletic prime to compensate for some of his rougher edges. Started his pro career in fine fashion as well, registering 10 consecutive knockouts, but, again, that was against very limited opposition.
In Tabiti’s best performance, also against his best opponent, he dropped and dominated fellow undefeated prospect Keith Tapia in a foul-plagued fight. Multiple head clashes disrupted the action, leaving Tapia bleeding under both eyes. Tabiti showed some late power and intensity, sending Tapia to the canvas in the eighth round, and overall was the aggressor, pushing Tapia backward at will. Still, it was not always effective aggression and Tabiti’s accuracy or punch selection will have to improve to gain a similar victory over Cunningham.
On this occasion, Tabiti is facing a veteran war horse who knows all the tricks and has faced the elite of the world. There is no chance Steve Cunningham will be intimidated or not seen anything Tabiti has to offer. Tabiti is well aware of this, “This fight is a test for me. I know I am fighting a veteran who has a lot of experience, so I can’t slack on my conditioning and training. He’s tough and he’s only been stopped once and that was when he moved up in weight to heavyweight, so it would be a big statement for me to stop him.” Luckily, Tabiti is able to time his stoppage better with the $150,000 Rolex Floyd Mayweather Jr. bought him as a motivational present on Tuesday.
Those close to Tabiti say he leads a clean-cut life outside of boxing, preferring to spend time with his family or when he listens to music, it is through his iPod and not at a club. Disciplined in nearly everything, Tabiti does not curse and, during the buildup for a fight, you will rarely hear him hurl insults or denigrate an opponent’s skillset. Has been improving in every aspect, since coming under the tutoring of Floyd Mayweather Sr. They will need to fine-tune some aspects of Tabiti’s all-out attacks before they meet elite European opposition, which is known to exploit aggression with their boxing acumen.
A native Philadelphian, Steve “USS” Cunningham has already been to the top, winning and defending a world title in hostile territory but, at age 41, is hitting the outer limits of boxing feasibility. The old hand has faced notable heavyweights as well, knocking down lineal world champion Tyson Fury in their action-packed meeting. Cunningham appreciates being back in the spotlight, “This is one of the biggest cards of the decade and it’s mind-blowing to be a part of it. I have to top it off with a victory. Taking on a good, undefeated young prospect is a challenge in itself but a victory will prove age is just a number. Hard work is a part of my everyday life.”
Cunningham summed many of the concerns boxing insiders have of Tabiti, when he gave an interview to Thomas Gerbasi of BoxingScene.com. “He’s good. He’s skillful. You can’t look past his team. He’s got a legendary trainer in his corner and he’s been around those guys, so he’s gonna be in shape and he’s gonna be ready. But then you have the mental aspect and the knowledge I’ve gained from all these fights. After fighting who I fought, that will come into play. So, I’m gonna just have to force my will on him in different ways than just running at him. I’ll have to outsmart him, outwork him at times, out-jab him and we’re gonna have to work with that knowledge. All that experience is gonna play its part.”
Tabiti is aware of the cruiserweight division’s history and what part Cunningham has played in that dynamic for the last decade. Tabiti shared his views with the assembled press: “This fight means a lot to me. This is a chance for me to become the American face of cruiserweights, just like Steve Cunningham was. I’m taking this very seriously and I have great respect for Steve Cunningham but this is my time to take it. I’m ready to be a fresh face in the cruiserweight division. I’m going to give it everything I have. I’m humbled by this experience and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
The opportunity to show his skills before a massive audience, of more than just boxing fans, is something Tabiti values and has thanked his team publicly. In the run-up to fight night, he has shown no signs of tightening up or buckling under the pressure of the mega-event. “This is a huge deal to me. Floyd Mayweather is the biggest star in boxing and to be a part of everything that’s going on is a dream come true. I was really happy when I found out that I’d be fighting on this card. There aren’t really words for how blessed I am to be in this position.”