By Thomas Gerbasi
It should be a time for celebration. But Kevin Cunningham always catches himself. The fighter he has trained for the last 16 years, WBC and IBF junior welterweight champion Devon Alexander, is about to engage in the Halley’s Comet of the boxing world on January 29th – a Super Fight – against fellow unbeaten Timothy Bradley, but despite all the success, there’s still a daily reminder of the ones that got away.
He recites a few names: Terrance Barker, Willie Ross, LaDell Evans, Johnny Hubbard, “and so many more that are no longer here with us.” There’s also Alexander’s brother Vaughn, serving an 18-year sentence for armed robbery, and more lives lost to the streets of St. Louis, named by the FBI as America’s most dangerous city.
“We end up talking about a lot of those kids that got lost along the way, and we talk about them every day because it bothers me,” said Cunningham. “It really bothers me. I’m happy for what Cory was able to accomplish and what Devon is doing right now, but I always find myself thinking about the others, and they were just as talented as Devon. It’s a sad situation, but all you can do is put forth the effort and try to do what you can do. After that, there’s nothing else you can do. I know I put forth the effort. I didn’t stand on the sidelines and watch a bunch of young people fall by the wayside. I jumped in and tried to help them out and they chose the negative vices in life over this positive option.”
The voice of Cunningham, who is never at a loss for words, trails off.
Back in 1995, the former detective and then-patrolman opened a boxing gym in the basement of an old police station in the Hyde Park section. The goals were simple – give the children of the community a place to go, something to do, and a positive outlet that they weren’t going to find on the streets. That looks good on a press release. Cunningham’s reason for doing it came from a more personal place.
“When you get in that squad car and you go to work every day, and you get calls for shootings and you get to the scene and it’s a 15, 16 year old with his brains splattered all over the curb where he’s been shot in the head, or some young people stabbing and robbing and dealing, you look around and the question for me was this: what can I do?” he said. “I can’t save the world, but if each individual that’s in a position to help somebody reaches back and helps somebody, I think it could change a lot, especially in the inner city. And I said I’m gonna stop talking about it and do what I can do.”
Boxing was the natural choice for him, as a lifelong fan and amateur boxer during his days in the US Army.
“With boxing being my favorite sport and what I was involved in, I said let me open up a gym where there’s nothing positive going on, there’s no recreation centers in this particular area, and let me see if I can help some people. And that’s basically how I got started.”
The gym was an immediate hit with the local kids, and to the outside world, that may seem a little surprising, considering that to many young people involved in doing the wrong thing, a cop isn’t necessarily the good guy in the neighborhood. But Cunningham, a native of North St. Louis, wasn’t surprised at all.
“When you come from the same place they come from, which I did, you speak the same language, and young people from the streets, they recognize real,” he said. “They recognize the difference between the real and the fake real quick. So regardless of my occupation, once I come in contact with a group of young people from that environment, they recognize that this guy says what he means and does what he says and I don’t give a damn what his occupation is. He’s got my best interests at heart, and we’re with the program. That’s basically how that went. I was there to try and save them from the violence in the streets and the everyday nonsense that was going on in their environment.”
Plus, the no-nonsense Cunningham came from the old-school when it came to his policing methods, so he didn’t create an adversarial relationship with the people on his beat. He followed the “protect and serve” motto, with the emphasis on keeping the neighborhood youth from going down the wrong path.
“When I grew up, cops would get out of the car and talk to you in the neighborhood and interact with the community,” he explains. “Now, the only interaction the cops have with the young people is when they’re arresting them for some crime, and it’s a negative interaction. I would go on my beat, park the car, get out, walk up to the drug dealers and gang bangers and talk to them and try to say ‘hey, you guys need to do something with your life because you’re only going to get two things out of this deal here. Somebody’s either gonna do a drive by on you and shoot you and kill you, or you’re gonna get locked up for selling drugs or gangbanging or what not. You’re young, you can do something positive.’ And they appreciated that. It’s all about how you deal with people.”
Cunningham had an immediate rapport with the aspiring fighters in his gym, but he wasn’t a pushover. The emphasis was on discipline, taking care of your responsibilities, and staying on the positive track. Soon, top-notch talent started emerging – a teenager named Cory Spinks, a seven-year old Devon Alexander, and the gifted but ultimately doomed, like Barker, Ross, Evans, and Hubbard. Not bad for a soon to be ex-cop who didn’t begin training fighters in the traditional sense. Instead, Cunningham learned on the job.
“I’ve been around a lot of great trainers in St. Louis,” he said. “St. Louis has produced more world champions than any metropolitan area in the world, so there’s been a lot of great fighters to come out of St. Louis. You had a lot of the old school trainers back in the day and I was just a gym rat. I’d sit around and watch all the old trainers and listen to all the old stories and then I went in the Army and was around a lot of great trainers in the Army. I give Kenny Adams a lot of credit; he helped me out tremendously and I learned a lot from him.”
And as word got around about the gym and the talent being produced in it, a crime-ridden community began to rally around their own.
“My gym was right in the middle of drugs, murders, gang violence, and after a while I did so much with those kids in the community that was outside of boxing that the drug dealers, gang bangers around that gym started to protect that gym,” he said. “They made sure that nobody would bother our cars while we were in the gym while we were in there training, when the kids were out running around the park in the neighborhood, they were like ‘hey, nobody bothers the boxing team.’ They really saw something positive in a neighborhood that was embodied in negativity. Everybody took to the program and supported it.”
Spinks would eventually go on to win a world title, becoming Cunningham’s first pro champion. But it was Alexander who the rest of the boxing world kept an eye on from the time he started piling up the amateur wins. Cunningham knew Alexander had that spark, but it came not just from his work in the ring, but his attitude outside of it.
“He’s just a positive person,” said Cunningham. “Anything negative he just wants to get away from it immediately, and when I came into his life with this positive option, he took it and ran with it. He never had a street fight. Here’s a kid that has dodged bullets just on the way to school, and to be in an environment like that and never have a street fight, that tells you something about his character.”
That character has kept him with Cunningham for 16 years. These days, boxing trainers are dispensable, easily tossed aside on a whim at the first sign of trouble. One bad fight, one wrong Twitter message, one comment from a girlfriend or hanger-on, and someone who has worked with a fighter since his fistic birth can find himself on the outside looking in. Yet the bond between Alexander and Cunningham remains rock-solid.
“We’ve been on a journey for the last 16 years together,” said Cunningham. “This kid came to me as a little seven-year old that had never seen a boxing glove before. So everything he knows about boxing, he’s learned it from me and he trusts my advice because he’s gone into battle and it’s worked for him. He’s won multiple amateur championships, multiple professional fights, he’s a two-time world champion and he’s only had one guy to show him everything he knows about boxing, and he’s achieved all of that. So he trusts my advice and my opinion, not only in boxing, but in everyday life. I’ve always given him good advice, I put together a great program, and it’s not just a boxing program – it’s a life program. It’s brought him success, and everything I’ve told him, he’s seen it come to pass. And I’m a firm believer that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Don’t mess with success.”
The Alexander-Cunningham union seems to be continuing on its storybook journey, with the fight against Bradley being a springboard to even bigger and better things in the future. But it’s never all sunshine and rainbows in the fight game, and one of the sport’s more disappointing stories in recent years was when Cunningham split with his first champion, Spinks. There were no incendiary comments from Cunningham, no sharp words about the split. If he was feeling angry or hurt, he kept it out of the media.
Spinks went on to join up with Buddy McGirt, and in his most recent bout, he was on the same card as Alexander’s tough 12 round decision win over Andriy Kotelnik last August. The 32-year old, sluggish and far from his best form, got stopped in the fifth round by Cornelius Bundrage. Spinks had lost before, on Cunningham’s watch, but this one hurt the trainer more than any other, and you can hear it in his voice.
“We kinda watched it on the monitor while we were getting ready in the dressing room,” he said. “After watching the Bundrage fight, it just put a downer on us. Even though I’m no longer with Cory, I still care about him and I want him to do well. To see that fight go down the way it went down, it was just a downer.”
And when you hear him speak about Spinks, you start to realize why he doesn’t have a cast of high-profile fighters in his gym, why he doesn’t become a hired gun for world champions throughout the sport. It may just be because he cares too much. He won’t say that though. He has a different answer when you ask him about that topic.
“Kevin Cunningham likes to take a fighter from scratch and make a champion, not just train a champion who’s already made,” he said. “True trainers, real trainers, can take a kid off the street that has never seen a boxing glove before and take him through the amateur ranks and through the professional ranks and on to winning multiple world titles. I’m not interested in grabbing every fighter that’s making money and already champion just to be in the corner and say that I’m one of the best trainers and all of that stuff. I don’t get caught up in the hype, I’m not looking for any Trainer of the Year awards, I’m not concerned with that. If I take a fighter on, I have to be really into the person and that’s the way I do business. If that person and that personality doesn’t fit my style, I don’t deal with it. That’s probably why I’m not snatching up every top fighter that gets pissed off at his trainer and is looking for a trainer with a name. I don’t go that route. And there’s no way that these guys who are training 10, 11, 12 world champions are giving these guys their just due time and there’s no way the fighter is getting the proper attention or anything. When I see that, I see that as a business proposition and somebody’s not getting the proper attention and time that they deserve. Eventually, that’s gonna catch up with the fighter and the fighter’s career is gonna pay a price for that. I like dealing with the few guys that I deal with and giving them 110 percent, and the results show.”
That’s the Kevin Cunningham boxing fans know – full of confidence, bluster, and the sense that it’s him and his fighter against the world. Just ask him about Alexander-Bradley and its aftermath and you’ll get a mouthful like this:
“Both of these guys should be commended because they’re giving the sport of boxing and the fans what they desire – two young undefeated champions in their prime, risking it all. And they didn’t have to do this. With that being said, I think the winner of this fight should be rewarded with a mega fight. The winner of this fight fighting Amir Khan is no reward to the winner of this fight. The winner of this fight should be matched up with a (Floyd) Mayweather, (Manny) Pacquiao, or (Juan Manuel) Marquez. That’s bigger than Amir Khan all day and night.”
But there’s more to him than that. He’s not an empty vessel just making noise. He’s someone who cares – about his fighters, about his sport, and about his community. You don’t get people who care about anything as much as Cunningham does. And while he couldn’t save everybody, that only pushes him to keep fighting for the ones he did as well as the ones out there who are still lost.