Saturday Night Boxing recently talked to Steve Cunningham, the former two-time cruiserweight champion, in a wide-ranging interview that touched on many aspects of his boxing career and his life outside of the ring. On February 4th, in Frankfurt, Germany, Cunningham faces Yoan Pablo Hernandez in an IBF-mandated rematch of their first fight, which took place in October, 2011.
In Part II of the interview, Cunningham discusses his time in the U.S. navy and how he learned boxing in the service. He also talks about his early professional career and how former heavyweight champion Chris Byrd provided a crucial turning point in his development. Here is Part I of the Interview.
Interview by Adam Abramowitz
SNB: I want to get back to your amateur days. You started boxing in the navy. What drew you to the sport?
SC: Growing up in Philly, I always fought. It was like a prestigious thing in Philly, being able to fight when I grew up in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s – 91, 92. That was right before everybody was carrying guns. We would fight, square off. That’s how you got your respect. That’s how you got your name. That’s how people knew not to mess with you. Philly is a dog-eat-dog world. If they picked on you at school, you needed to fight back, or everybody picked on you. So, I remember, at a young age, I was fighting back. You know, I didn’t win them all but I didn’t get bothered that much.
I actually went to a gym a couple of times in Philly. Even in the streets growing up, I got into a few fights where I won and, you know, I had a little name in the neighborhood – nothing big – but just, “Steve could fight.” When I joined the navy, I wanted to box. I always wanted to box, even in Philly, but the gym that I lived close to was in a neighborhood where it was really rough…and those guys, I had a beef with them. I just couldn’t go into that neighborhood.
Once I joined the navy and got stationed...there are two bases in Virginia: there’s Norfolk Naval Base; then you’ve got Little Creek Amphibious Base, which is about 10 minutes away. I would drive after work, when I was in port, to the Little Creek fitness gym and just train by myself, just box.
It was just something inside of me burning. I’m a follower of Christ and I read the Bible. I know that everything that happens to you, God’s got a hand in it, especially in my life. It was something that burned in me. I wanted to fight. I wanted to box. I wanted to learn. I wanted to do this. I started getting amateur fights in the navy. My first amateur fight was against the light heavyweight champ of the navy, and I beat him. That was basically God showing me that you could do this. I felt that it was like, “this is what I want you to do.”
It just went on from there. I became a national champ, and state, regional champ...Mayor’s Cup champ. [The Mayor's cup is an annual amateur boxing tournament held in Washington, D.C.] It was something I wanted to do. It was like that job you always want that you love. You want to be good at it. You want to do the extra stuff to be better at it. That’s what boxing was to me.
SNB: I’m interested in your career in navy. You were stationed in Virginia for most of your active duty but you were out on an aircraft carrier for six months. From my research, this was the late '90s. It was during peacetime. What were your days like at sea and what were some of your memorable experiences?
SC: I was stationed on an aircraft carrier. When you get stationed, you either get stationed to a base or a ship. I was stationed to originally the USS America, CV-66. That was decommissioned in 1996. Before that decommission, we went over to Europe for six months on that bad boy. Then I got stationed on the USS Enterprise, CVA-65.
The experience on the ship is unlike anything. You have to live there and it’s unlike any living anywhere. First, it’s small, tight quarters, yet it’s the size of a city – all on an aircraft carrier. It took me about a week to find my way from the chow hall to work, back to where we slept. You had to have someone walk with you. There were so many rooms and corridors. It’s just unbelievable. But it’s a system, a great system that the military has – the navy has – and it works. It’s very uplifting knowing all the stuff you do during the days, the weeks...it’s being part of a big picture.
We’re going overseas. We’re loading up bombs on these jets. I was an aircraft refueller, so we were refueling jets as they came, helicopters. It was a very, very exciting job. We just got to travel the seas – we traveled the seven seas. It was a very good experience.
SNB: You first promoter was a guy named Andy Zulewski. He was from Poland but he lived in Chicago. He put you in a lot of fights in the southeastern part of the United States. How did you get hooked up with him and what was that period of your life like?
SC: I fought my first fight as a pro in Savannah, Georgia, but I lived in Atlanta after I left the navy. I got moved to Atlanta. That’s where I started training as a pro and I also finished my amateur career in Atlanta. My first fight was against, I think, Norman Jones and they called me that day. Actually, Ebo Elder – I don’t know if you remember Ebo Elder [Elder was a former fighter in the lightweight division] – actually, Ebo’s dad called me on a Saturday morning. Me and my wife were in bed. (We weren’t married then, but we were asleep.) He woke me up and he said, “Hey Cunningham, listen, I know you just said you were going on the pro market. There’s a fight for you tonight.”
Of course, coming out of the amateurs, I wanted a promoter. You know, I wanted the sweet setup. I wanted like everybody else had, but I wasn’t an Olympian or nothing. I was just a national champ.
But I was broke. I wasn’t working. I lost a job. I just needed money and I still wanted to go pro. He said, “Next four rounds for $1,000,” and I was like, “What!” [laughs]
He said, “You beat this kid. It’s his pro debut too.” So, we went down there. I beat the kid, smoked him, and made a quick $1,000.
Then, after that fight, I switched trainers, because Anthony Chase, who trained me at the time, had moved to Florida. So, I was training with these other guys. They knew Andy Zulewski. They took me to Andy, got me on one of his cards, which was a great experience, actually. Andy Zulewski had shows running about once or twice a month, down in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia – all types of places in southeastern America. He put me on his shows. I fought once a month for like 11 months almost – 10 months, 11 months. Actually, one time I fought twice in one month. You know, it was a $100 dollars a round and I thought I was making money.
They took me to Andy Zulewski. It was a good setup. He was just running shows. We were building a little fan base down South. It was great. It was a great experience.
SNB: What was the turning point for you as a professional when you knew that you could compete with the best in the world?
SC: To be truthful, we always felt...we always had in our mind, and I mean "we" as in me and my wife – she has been there from the beginning...we always had in our mind that we would be world champion. It wasn’t really too much thought to that. We knew that with hard work...or at least that's how we felt at the time [laughs]. “Oh, you can do this with hard work,” not thinking how political everything is. That’s how naïve we were at the time. We always felt that we were going to be a world champion.
A real turning point for me wasn’t really in the ring, per se, [in] a professional fight. It was who I was working with. I got a chance to go spar with Chris Byrd right before he beat Vitali [Klitschko], and I went for a week, two weeks. You know, sparring with him changed my fights, literally changed the way I fought. Not that I fought like him, but it changed my outlook on who I was and how good I could be. He was one of the slickest dudes in boxing.
SNB: Yeah, he was a very smart fighter.
SC: Smart, good and he was always in shape. We were going at it in sparring, not that I was getting over on him. He could have took me out any time, I guess. It was just uplifting to be in there with him, and that elevated my mindset to where I could go and what I could do. That really was the turning point for me.
After I fought with Chris and I came back to my gym where I was training at, I sparred with this other guy who used to get with me all the time. Man, I ate this dude up. He didn’t touch me. I was like, “Wow!” [laughs] I attributed that to training with Chris. Every chance I got to go into camp with Chris, I went. I was in about three or four of Chris’ camps.
SNB: You’ve had some pretty long layoffs in your career. How do you deal with the downtime and what keeps you sharp?
SC: Well, physically, dealing with the downtime is basically taking boxing as a job. I signed with Don [King]. I was with Don for eight years and I was fighting twice a year – a couple times once, which was ridiculous. There was no way I wanted that. If I thought it was going to be like that, I probably wouldn’t have signed with him. But, one thing with Don is that he’ll put you in a fight, the hard fight. The fight that he put me in, I won, which placed me in the world [rankings].
In between fights, I was always training. I was going to training camps with different people. I’ve been in camp with Keith Holmes. I’ve been in camp with Oliver McCall, Larry Donald, Chris Byrd. I’ve been in camps, man – just going to training camps and training camps. At home, I’m working, but my job was boxing. So I would get up and run every day, just like I was training. And then I get the call, “Hey, you’ve got a fight in six weeks.” Cool. Let’s go.
| Part III