By Thomas Gerbasi
The way Darryl Cunningham thought things were going to play out, last night was supposed to be when he fought the biggest fight of his life against Kelly Pavlik in Youngstown, Ohio.
That didn’t happen. And while the biggest story of the past week has been Pavlik’s sudden withdrawal from the Showtime-televised bout due to his unhappiness with his purse for this fight ($50,000) as well as for a future one with IBF super middleweight champion Lucian Bute ($1.35 million), the reality of the situation is that Pavlik, should he mend fences with promoter Top Rank, will likely get another big fight eventually and this little debacle will be forgotten.
But what about Cunningham? You don’t see too many big opportunities like this coming around for 36-year old prizefighters who have never been on the big stage before. So when the Detroit native got the bad news from his manager Carlos Llinas Tuesday morning, it was not only a shock, but a crushing blow to a good guy who was just waiting for his time to shine.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” Llinas said.
“He had a look on his face,” recalled Cunningham. “I said ‘What’s going on?’”
“Kelly Pavlik pulled out of the fight.”
An hour later, Cunningham was on the phone, recounting the worst moment of his professional life, but being more than gracious about it.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s really disappointing because I was ready. And Kelly knew he was gonna lose. Whatever Kelly Pavlik’s going through or whatever the reason he’s pulling out, it was unexcusable. People wanted to see a fight. They didn’t want to see handpicked this and that, they wanted to see a fight and that’s what they would have got. And I was gonna knock out Kelly Pavlik because that’s the only way I was gonna win. I wasn’t gonna win a decision, I knew that – that’s his hometown, that’s his backyard.”
It’s part of the game at this point in Cunningham’s career. If you don’t have the right hype, the right manager, the right promoter, or the right connections early on, odds are that your one shot will come in a big name fighter’s hometown, as the B-side, as the guy brought in to lose.
Cunningham doesn’t have a bad record. He’s 23-2 with 10 knockouts, and hasn’t lost since a 2007 decision defeat against Kevin Engel. His only other loss came in 2003, also by decision, and while his record is dotted with familiar names like Antwun Echols, Rubin Williams, and Pat Coleman, none of them were close to their prime when he beat them. In other words, he was an acceptable foe for Pavlik, who didn’t look great in his May bout again Alfonso Lopez, his first fight since losing his middleweight title to Sergio Martinez in 2010. But Cunningham didn’t get the memo that he was supposed to lose.
“At first Kelly’s team thought, ‘oh, we got us a piece of meat,’ but when they started reading the articles and interviews, it was like ‘this guy sounds like he’s coming to fight,’” said Cunningham, who had to watch as story after story attacked him as just the fall guy for a former champion’s continuing comeback.
“Never judge a book by its cover,” he said. “I’ve had 51 amateur fights, I won 50, lost one. And there’s one thing I can say is that I never abused my body – I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I just try to take care of my family. I may be 36 years old agewise, but when I take off my clothes I have the body of a 19-year old young man.”
And after an erratic start to a career that began in 2002, in recent years he met up with Llinas and began piling up the wins. He wasn’t fighting King Kong, but he was fighting, building momentum, and building confidence.
“If you don’t have a guy like Carlos who can keep you active, you’re basically what’s called a seasonal fighter,” said Cunningham. “(Early on) I was fighting like once every eight, nine months. You train, train, train, and then you may get another fight later on. I wasn’t plugged in or connected where I could stay busy and stay active. But he (Llinas) believed in me, he believes in me now, and he’s an A-1 guy. I really respect and appreciate him, and we’re gonna get our shot.”
That shot should have come last night. But over the course of nearly a decade in the fight game, he’s patiently waited for a time to shine. So if it takes another six months or a year to get another call, that’s not a problem. You do feel for him, even if he has taken a gracious and classy attitude towards his sudden turn of bad luck. He doesn’t see it as bad luck though.
“I don’t look at it like that because if God blessed me with an opportunity like this, God will bless me with a bigger one,” he said. “I don’t look at it as an opportunity slipping out of my hands; I just look at it as God’s saying trust in him and he’ll do it again, even bigger and better. I just stay focused and stay humble, and I’ll be ready.”
That faith is a major part of his life, as are his wife and children. Together, it’s allowed him to take this whole ordeal as just part of a bigger journey.
“My wife, my children, my mom, people who encourage me,” said Cunningham when asked what allows him to stay positive in a boxing world that can be negative at times. “My Bishop, Bishop Jackson, says when it’s your season, you’re gonna shine. I really feel that this was my season. Kelly Pavlik was middleweight champion of the world at one time, he was well-known, and I knew it was my time. And I was gonna knock him out. Nothing personal, he was going to sleep and I was ready to do what I needed to do. And this door closed and it’s testing my faith. What do I do now, where do I go from here. But I’m just gonna trust in God, continue to train, and wait for the next opportunity.”
He can even find time to joke about the situation.
“I was reading that he was upset to fight for 1.5 million dollars. I’d fight my grandma for 1.5 million dollars and still say ‘yes maam.’”
Was Darryl Cunningham going to beat Kelly Pavlik? Maybe not. But whether he won or lost really isn’t the point. What matters is that in this sport, more than any other, an underdog pulled from obscurity and into the spotlight can occasionally pull off what would normally seem impossible. It’s a great part of the game, and a key reason why fights are won in the ring and not on paper. Cunningham could have been the next great Cinderella story. Let’s hope he gets a chance to deliver that Hollywood ending. At least he’s confident that he will.
“It happened now, it will happen again, and I will be world champion soon, and I still believe I can pull it off this year,” he said. “I have to stay ready so when someone knocks on the door, I can walk through it. You haven’t heard the last of the people’s choice, the son of a preacher’s man, Darryl Cunningham.”
That’s good to hear.