Steve Cunningham has negotiated his boxing career as he has his entire life—with a no-nonsense, hard-nosed approach that has made him a winner in all aspects.
Twice a 200-pound world champion, the 41-year-old “USS” Cunningham has shown plenty of toughness in the ring. Although he has hit the canvas more than a dozen times in 38 fights, the only man to stop the 6-foot-3 Philadelphia native is onetime heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury, who outweighed Cunningham by 44 pounds but was dropped in Round 2 before gaining a seventh-round knockout.
Steve Cunningham (29-8-1, 13 KOs) joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 18 and served on the aircraft carriers USS America and USS Enterprise from 1994-98. He also began boxing during that time and had a quick rise through the amateur ranks, winning the 1998 National Golden Gloves at 178 pounds before making his professional debut in October 2000.
Cunningham lost a split decision to Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in Warsaw for a vacant 200-pound world title in November 2006 in his first shot at a championship, but he earned the crown with a majority decision in their rematch in Katowice, Poland, in May 2007.
After a successful defense against Marco Huck in Germany, where he would contest five of his championship bouts, Cunningham lost his title to Tomasz Adamek by split decision in December 2008. He regained the vacated championship in June 2010, though, with a fifth-round TKO of Troy Ross in Germany.
In October 2011, Cunningham was unseated as champion after one title defense by Yoan Pablo Hernandez, who also won their rematch four months later. The Navy veteran then moved up to heavyweight over his next eight fights with mixed results, going 4-3-1 despite weighing no more than 210 pounds in any bout.
Cunningham returned to the 200-pound division in April 2016 to challenge then-unbeaten world champion Krzysztof Glowacki, who put the Philly native down four times and retained his title by unanimous decision.
A married father of four, Cunningham draws much of his strength from his 11-year-old daughter, Kennedy, who required surgery to survive the life-threatening hypoplastic left heart syndrome birth ailment that rendered a portion of her heart unable to function.
While most boxers have hung up their gloves by his age, Cunningham still has the hunger of a young prospect. He won his last fight in March, a six-round shutout of Felipe Romero in which he competed at 205 pounds, and looks to return to action soon.
The former world champion shared his thoughts recently on how much longer he plans to keep fighting, his continued passion as a comic book artist and how lessons learned in the Navy still stick with him.
While you remain in outstanding shape at 41 years old, the clock stops for no one. How much longer do you plan on boxing?
I’m in West Philly training with Brother Naazim Richardson at the James Shuler Memorial [Boxing] Gym. We may be back in the ring soon.
Being with the PBC, the exposure, challenging fights and pay have been really good. I just turned 41 and feel great. The only difference from being 30 is I’m wiser and more comfortable.
If I look good in this next fight, even losing close, I’ll stick around for another title shot. I’m looking to be out of here by 43 or 44.
Does your remaining career lie at cruiserweight or heavyweight?
I’m going at cruiserweight right now, which doesn’t mean I couldn’t fight the guys at heavyweight. My last two fights have been at cruiserweight after being a heavyweight eight times in a row.
But we feel, right now, this is a better opportunity to make better fights. If the fans want to see me at heavyweight and I can make money doing it, I’ll be ready.
Even though you were stopped by Tyson Fury in April 2013, you managed to knock him down in Round 2 despite him outweighing you by more than 40 pounds and also having a six-inch height advantage. After watching him beat Wladimir Klitschko in their November 2015 world title fight, how did that make you feel?
That feels awesome. Even though I lost, I landed a shot that knocked him down and a few other shots that wobbled him. For him to beat Wladimir, and for Wladimir to not do half of what I did to him, that’s awesome.
Every time they show Fury fighting, they always highlight my knockdown. I should have continued to box and move, but you can’t do anything about the past. Still, every time you see Fury fight, that knockdown from my overhand right will get mentioned. I’m solidified in history for doing what I did.
Which fights would you like to have over again if you could?
The Fury fight would be one I would like to be able to re-do or have a rematch. I’d change the two fights with Tomasz Adamek, especially the second one right before Fury. I did everything just about perfectly and still lost a split decision.
I could have maybe pressed the gas a little more, but I did enough to win a unanimous decision. My reward for losing to Adamek the second time was a fight with Fury, the biggest, tallest heavyweight in the world at that time. I’m a fighter, I’m game, but that’s a side of the business I hate.
“ One of the major things I’ve learned from the United States Navy is that nothing is too big that you can’t accomplish or get done. Those habits become a foundation for your everyday life. ” Former two-time 200-pound world champion Steve Cunningham
You’ve told us before about your USS Comics in which you’re featured as a superhero and some of your opponents are his adversaries. Have you continued development on that, and what are your ambitions for it?
I’m preparing a trailer on my comic depicting USS Cunningham and Amir Mansour. I beat him by unanimous decision (in April 2014), and I’m finishing my story about how my character got his abilities.
We had an action-packed fight where he dropped me twice and I dropped him once. Amir is still in the public eye after beating Travis Kauffman (in March), and he’s on board with it.
I’m completing that comic and we’re going to put a slide show together to get people involved. I have T-shirts depicting characters. I have a massive fan base in Germany and Poland.
Who is your favorite superhero of all time, not counting any of your own creations, and why?
My favorite super hero is Magneto. It’s crazy that they label him the bad guy only to find out that Stan Lee, the creator of Marvel Comics, molded Professor X and Magneto to parallel Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Lee created them during the turmoil of the 1960s, and you see that Magneto is like, “If they’re going to bring it, we’re going to bring it,” while Professor X is the more peaceful of the two. Magneto has always been my favorite because he’s possibly the most powerful mutant being able to control magnetism.
What lessons learned in the Navy have stuck with you throughout your boxing career and your other life endeavors?
One of the major things I’ve learned from the United States Navy is that nothing is too big that you can’t accomplish or get done. Those habits become a foundation for your everyday life. From 6 a.m. to whenever, especially if you’re out on operation, it’s not a 9-to-5, it’s 6 a.m. until the mission is complete.
The Navy work ethic is the reason I’m dedicated to working as hard as a 20-something-year-old. I have my sons training with the same work ethic, like a military boot camp. My sons say, “Dad, you yell too much.” My 6-year-old, Cruz, is getting ready to fight and Steve Jr. is 14 and he’s had 16 fights.
How is your daughter, Kennedy, doing?
She’ll be 12 years old on September 6, and is doing so well we have to sit down and think about the pain. My wife and I did that recently, remembering how difficult it was. There were days when she had tubes in her lungs and was hooked up to machines.
It remains an inspiration to us and to millions of people. But what’s on the forefront of our minds is that we’re staying on track, she’s been for checkups every month and she’s got no major issues.
To look at her now, running and jumping around and screaming at the top of her lungs, it makes us fall on our knees in prayer. I’m going to make a character for her in the comics.
If boxing hadn’t presented itself as a viable option for you, would you have made a career of the Navy?
Initially, my idea was to do 12 to 16 years and possibly retire out of the Navy. I was formulating a plan to keep my nose clean and trying to make Navy’s boxing team just to fulfill an urge.
If boxing didn’t work, I still had options as an aircraft refueler. I had expertise in that that would have allowed me to go to Delta or another airline to get paid for that.
If you are remembered for one fight in your career, which fight would you choose it to be?
My favorite victory was over Marco Huck (in December 2007). I ended up stopping him in the 12th round and became infamous in Germany. America didn’t really get to see it—only the hardcore fans. If they had FS1 then and it was on that channel, I’d have been a megastar.
What’s your biggest regret in your boxing career?
My biggest regret is not realizing that boxing is about entertainment. Coming from the inner city of North Philly, fighting is life or death. If you get jumped, you beat up the guy for reputation and respect. I took that same attitude into the ring.
Using Floyd Mayweather for example, he’s the bad guy in boxing. That’s the goofy stuff, and personally not really me, but that’s entertainment to make people look at you and say either, “I like this guy” or “I want to see him get his ass kicked because he’s too cocky.”
Either way, they’re going to watch him fight. I didn’t have that. Coming from the streets, I thought that was corny—being chumps, punks and you’d get beat up. My mindset was strictly hardcore: Do my work, don’t talk trash and just whip your ass.
I’m a Navy vet, but didn’t market myself that way. Fresh after 9/11, everybody was patriotic about the military and going to get the terrorist, but I was with a promoter who didn’t take advantage of it or push it. That’s something I regret.
How do you rank the top fighters in the cruiserweight division?
You’ve got to have Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev, but I think I rate as good or better. Krzysztof Glowacki said he watched me beat his boxing hero, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk. They all grew up watching me.
What fighter in history would you most like to have fought, and what would be the result?
Evander Holyfield. Evander didn’t see a guy as tall as I am who boxed with speed and movement. He might have beaten me, but that would be an awesome fight.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
… in law enforcement, like the CIA, Secret Service or the FBI.
“12 Rounds With …” is published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: Welsh 126-pound world champion Lee Selby.