Kevin Cunningham is a former St. Louis Police officer turned World Champion Boxing Trainer and now Talk Show Host.
BY TOM TIMMERMANN • firstname.lastname@example.org > 314-340-8190
It was the early 1990s, and after his time working as a policeman in the city's Eighth District, and then as a narcotics detective, he had seen the worst the city had to offer: shootings, stabbings, gang violence. Kids without guidance getting into trouble because there was nothing else to do. And Cunningham's involvement in all that was after the fact, cleaning up messes rather than stopping them from happening.
"I can't save the world," he said, "but everybody can help out and do what they can. We can prevent some of this stuff."
So he made a plan. Cunningham looked at his own childhood and saw what kept him out of trouble: sports. He had played basketball and football growing up and boxed a little, and figured that might help. He submitted a proposal to start a Police Athletic League program. His initial proposal was denied, but the second was accepted.
Awhile later, he was driving through the Fifth District in Hyde Park and saw an old police station that was being used as a storage place for parking meters. He checked out the building and determined the basement would be an ideal place for a boxing gym.
From such humble beginnings sprang two world champions — Cory Spinks, the undisputed world welterweight champion in 2003 and 2004, and Devon Alexander, the current WBC and IBF light welterweight champ. It also established Cunningham as one of the top trainers in the sport. While other trainers may have worked with more champions, few have developed world champions from the ground up the way Cunningham has.
"He's a good, solid trainer, a good, solid boxing guy," veteran trainer Emanuel Steward said. "He's my kind of guy. I was able to be with Tommy Hearns from 55 pounds till he was fighting for the cruiserweight title at 205. That's very unusual today. Kevin to me is the epitome of a good coach, starting with the kids, then as a professional trainer and manager and a man who has integrity. ... A lot of top trainers, they get guys who go from one trainer to another. He's made his own fighters successful."
Right now, Cunningham is getting Alexander ready for the biggest fight of his career and, even though it's only January, what will likely be one of the biggest fights this year. In a seldom-seen battle of two established fighters who are undefeated, Alexander (21-0) faces Timothy Bradley (26-0) in Pontiac, Mich., next Saturday in a bout that will be televised on HBO. The winner could be in line — it's boxing, so nothing is guaranteed — with pound-for-pound world champ Manny Pacquiao for what would be an even bigger fight.
Despite his success, Cunningham doesn't have the high profile of many other trainers, in part because so much of his work has been with two fighters, Spinks and Alexander. He has occasionally been called in to work with other fighters — he trained David Diaz before he won the WBC lightweight title against Erik Morales in 2007 — but for the most part he has worked with his St. Louis guys. He has worked with Alexander since he was 7, and the two know each other very well.
"He knows what I need to be doing," Alexander said. "He knows when I'm on and when I'm off. He knows how much I weigh before I get on the scale. We connect on all cylinders."
"(Cunningham) doesn't get the credit he deserves," said veteran trainer Kenny Adams, who coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 and has worked with Cunningham in preparation for some fights. "There's no doubt. ... I'm good at teaching someone, at bringing them from A to B. Kevin fits the same mold. His sternness and discipline plays a big role, too. Guys know it's our way or the highway."
Cunningham never set out to be a boxing trainer and has been doing it full time for only a few years. He had a few amateur fights when he was young, but then mostly focused on basketball. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the Army and, while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, tried out for the camp's boxing team. He made the team, which got him transferred from field artillery to boxing. He had a good but not great career in the service — he says he got as far as the All-Army quarterfinals — before he had to give it up when he was sent to South Korea. When he came back, he restarted his career at Fort Knox in Kentucky before his Army stint was up and he came back to St. Louis. By then, he had decided to do what he had wanted to do as a child and become a police officer. He worked as a patrolman, then a narcotics detective, and then got what he admits was a "cushy job," serving as driver to Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. He did that for two years before giving it up to go back to the streets after his boxing program proposal was accepted. To do that, he was transferred to the community schools program and worked at Clay Elementary School during the day and at the gym Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. "It wasn't about making them into good boxers," Cunningham said. "It was about trying to instill discipline."
The kids came to his gym, and Cunningham studied up on being a boxing trainer. As a boxer, Cunningham had "fast hands," recalls Jerry Leyshock, a St. Louis Police Department captain who is active in local amateur boxing and trained with Cunningham when Cunningham took part in the annual Guns 'N Hoses competition. As a trainer, Cunningham had a fast mind and didn't hesitate to put in the work necessary to learn his new job. He swears by the book "The Art of War" ("there are a million lessons in that book," he said) and plumbed the knowledge of other trainers. Along with getting his fighters into prime physical shape, Cunningham is considered an excellent tactician who tailors a fight plan to take advantage of his fighter's strengths and his opponent's weaknesses.
"I have to give him that credit," said local amateur boxing trainer Buddy Shaw, one of the people Cunningham reached out to for guidance. "Kevin has been an excellent learner. He researched it out. We spent a lot of time on the phone, with him asking questions from every angle."
Cunningham's career, at first, was tied with Spinks. When Spinks turned pro, Cunningham's time commitment for a title pursuit increased. After Spinks won his first world title, the nature of his preparation changed. Cunningham was going off for weeks or months at a time to Las Vegas or Colorado for Spinks' training camps. He decided to quit the police force and become a full-time boxing trainer.
"Anything you want to be successful at you can't do halfway," said Cunningham, who credits his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Kellia, for supporting his move and his work. "I decided to jump in with both feet."
Cunningham also started his own promotion company so his fighters who weren't good enough to sign with a big-name promoter or wanted to stay in St. Louis could box. He began putting on fight cards every other month at the Ambassador. He guided Spinks through some heady days — it's unlikely St. Louis will see a boxing event like the Spinks-Zab Judah fight in 2005, which packed the Scottrade Center — before finally breaking with him in 2008.
Many saw the two as a boxing odd couple, with Cunningham's no-nonsense style and commitment to training going up against Spinks' carefree approach to life. "A lot of people said that," Cunningham said. "Cory was a good kid. You had to keep him away from certain temptations, and certain environments. If he got around certain environments, he got led astray."
Alexander, a boxing gym rat, isn't like that. From the start, Alexander was the first to hit the gym and among the last to go. And the climb to the world titles with Spinks taught Cunningham a lot about getting there again. "Me and Cory went up the rough side of the mountain," Cunningham said. "It was a hell of a journey and we accomplished a lot. It made the road a little smoother for Devon."
Cunningham's original goal was to keep kids out of trouble by keeping them busy, which he said has worked. "We lost a lot of kids," he said, "but others have gone on to college and got their degree or are in the military. Devon's not the only good story to come out of the program. ... Any time you can get 35 to 50 kids in a boxing program Monday through Friday, participating in a structured, disciplined program in a positive environment, it means you've got 35 to 50 kids not in the street getting involved in something negative."
And there lies the reward for Cunningham.
"For me to be able to take someone from nowhere to the top of the world is the most gratifying thing for me," he said. "To take a kid and basically to beat all the odds, especially for a kid who comes from a place where a lot of the odds are stacked against them, that motivates me.
"Devon comes out of a situation where everybody says 'You can't.' He had the discipline, the fortitude, the mentality to say 'Yes I can' and stick with it. He goes back and inspires others. That's what I get out of all this, being able to inspire people, to show you can be whatever you want to be. If you believe it, you can achieve it. That means more to me than anything."
Kevin's new Show Cunningham's Corner will give viewers an inside look into boxing today. As legendary trainer from St. Louis Kevin will take your calls live on his show and answer your questions. He talks about today's fights and todays fighters. He keeps the chat rooms open for all questions and he will have special guests live.
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