Steve Cunningham has endured much during half a lifetime spent in boxing. He’s been overlooked and underpaid, on the wrong end of bad decisions and ignored when he should have been celebrated.
But he always persevered and soldiered on because, well, that’s what he was taught to do while he was in the Navy.
When things get tough, Cunningham’s instinct is to fight. And when things get tougher, he fights harder.
But as Cunningham and his wife, Livvy, were speaking to their daughter’s doctor in Philadelphia last summer, he felt overwhelmed, as if he’d been hit by the greatest body shot ever thrown.
Kennedy Cunningham was born in 2005 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. It is an often fatal birth defect in which the left side of the heart can’t pump enough blood.
She had surgery when she was a day old, and doctors warned Steve and Livvy that she would likely never leave the hospital.
Heroic measures had been performed throughout Kennedy’s life to save her. But as Steve and Livvy spoke to her doctor last year in Philadelphia, the words shook them to their very core.
“No parent is ever ready to bury their child,” Steve Cunningham says in a clear, strong voice. “I was listening and all I heard was, ‘Make her as comfortable as possible,’ and I was like, ‘No. No.’ Basically, the message was that everything that could be done, was done. Just wait for her to go, essentially.”
The fighter in Cunningham could never accept that. So, he took his family and traveled to the other side of the state in search of a miracle. He had no plans to wait for Kennedy to die.
And at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, doctors were willing to give it another shot. This, clearly, was a life worth saving.
The risks were enormous. The doctors planned to put Kennedy on the list for a heart transplant. They were clear with Steve and Livvy that even if a donor heart were found, Kennedy wasn’t out of the woods. She could die during surgery.
But there was really no other alternative.
“We had to take that chance and put our faith in the Lord,” Cunningham said.
On Dec. 5, Kennedy Cunningham received a new heart. And on Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., she’ll be around to see her father as he meets Antonio Tarver in a heavyweight bout that will be televised live on Spike.
The good thing, from Steve Cunningham’s perspective, is that Kennedy is so, well, normal these days.
“She’s just another 9-year-old little girl,” he says.
And that, after all they have been through, is all that Steve and Livvy ever wanted, to see their daughter have the same chance at life as all of the other children, for their daughter to live long enough to fulfill her dreams and aspirations.
Cunningham is 39, old for a fighter and particularly for one who hopes to get a shot at the title.
But he’s the younger fighter by a long shot in this fight. He was a 19-year-old in the Navy in 1996 when he made an effort to see who was the light heavyweight representing the U.S. in boxing at the Atlanta Olympics. Cunningham was a light heavyweight at the time and had just taken up boxing, and was interested to see what the top U.S. amateur was like.
It was Antonio Tarver.
Cunningham let out a belly laugh when asked if he ever thought he’d be fighting someone who was born, as Tarver, 46, was, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was still the president of the United States.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be fighting Antonio Tarver at any point in my career,” he said.
Cunningham has twice held the IBF cruiserweight title and would like to add a heavyweight strap before he’s through. That’s a tall order, considering the champions, Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder, are far bigger than he is.
Cunningham is also just 3-3 in his last six fights and has been down four times in those bouts.
The odds against him, to be honest, are long.
But they’re not as long as they were against Kennedy ever leaving a hospital. Or ever seeing her ninth birthday.
She’s done both. And her father believes that he, too, can shock the world.
“It doesn’t matter what other people think,” he said. “I’m the one in there fighting. It matters what I think, and I think I can do it, so I’m not going to give up just because I might be a long shot. I’m not a quitter.”
Fortunately, no one in the Cunningham family is. And that’s why this story will have a happy ending no matter how Cunningham fares in the ring on Friday against Tarver.
He’s already a winner many times over.