The Corner Man

Your boy wonder lost his title and won't take your calls. What's a trainer to do? Find another prodigy.

Standing beside his basement pool table, Kevin Cunningham is surrounded by the trappings of the good life: Out back, his swimming pool. In the driveway, his custom Hummer H2. A few feet away, his bar, stocked with Moët and Cristal, Martell XO and Belvedere. On the wall, a framed photograph of Cunningham and his fighter, Cory Spinks, mugging with hip-hop potentate Suge Knight.

But there's something odd about Cunningham's demeanor. Rich and mopey just don't seem to go together. When he's adrenalized -- as he was on February 5, the night Spinks lost his welterweight crown in a rematch with Zab Judah -- the gap-toothed former St. Louis cop's lean, five-foot-ten frame seems taller. But when he's dispirited, he appears to shrink. Three weeks after the biggest payday of his life, he's so preoccupied with what went wrong at the Savvis Center that he can't concentrate.

"Me and Cory both felt like we let St. Louis down," Cunningham confides. "Any time you get that kind of support and you don't deliver a victory, you let your fans down." Though it's visibly heartfelt, one wonders if the mea culpa needed to be delivered on Spinks' behalf. At this moment, after all, the fighter is in the Virgin Islands, taking in the sand and sun.

Devon "Alexander the Great," Kevin Cunningham's 
new golden boy, graduates from Vashon next week.
Jennifer Silverberg
Devon "Alexander the Great," Kevin Cunningham's new golden boy, graduates from Vashon next week.
Despite the partisan crowd, Cory Spinks (right) fell to 
Zab Judah on February 5.
Scott Rovak/US Presswire
Despite the partisan crowd, Cory Spinks (right) fell to Zab Judah on February 5.

Having succeeded financially beyond his wildest expectations -- 25 percent of Spinks' $1.4 million take for the Judah fight ain't chump change -- Cunningham had plans to take the month off too. Live a little. Relax. But it didn't work out that way. None of his fancy stuff is getting much use. It's too cold to swim; the booze bottles are coated with dust; the Hummer's only got a few thousand miles on it. Meanwhile the 40-year-old trainer pads aimlessly around the suburban St. Charles digs he shares with his wife and daughter, images of the Spinks debacle spooling out in his mind's eye like an endless lowlight loop.

The whole day was a mess. While Spinks holed up in his dressing room with a boom box and a T.I. CD, Cunningham was pissing and moaning to anyone who'd listen. About the judges. (Why were two of the three from the East Coast, Judah's stomping ground?) About the gloves. (What was this talk about using Judah's preferred brand? Isn't it supposed to be champ's choice?) Even as he huddled with the entourage in a prayer session led by rabble-rouser Anthony Shahid, Cunningham was fretting over his fighter's readiness. By the time Nelly ushered Spinks into the ring to the strains of the rapper's new single, Cunningham was convinced they were in big trouble.

For nearly three days leading up to the weigh-in, Cory Spinks had not eaten a thing. No food. Not even any fruit juice. A man who walks the streets at about 175, whose father Leon and uncle Michael fought as heavyweights and whose mother, God rest her soul, tipped the scales at more than 180, was in a desperate panic to get down to his fighting weight of 147 pounds.

"That's the first fight that we've ever had to take off 28 pounds," Cunningham says in retrospect. "We've had problems making the weight for the last three fights, but he's never struggled like that. Two weeks before, he was at 153 and his body wouldn't lose another ounce. He was stuck. No matter how hard we trained, we couldn't get any more weight off. That's when he started fasting. He had to wear a sauna suit in training every day for six weeks.

"I even saw it in his movement when he went to the ring with Nelly," Cunningham goes on. "He usually dances with a lot more energy, but this time it just wasn't right. He looked like he was just dried out, and so frail. By the end of the first round, I knew he was gonna lose."

Now it falls to Cunningham to find the next opponent for his fighter, the next payday for them both. At the moment he's looking at top 154-pound fighters -- World Boxing Organization champion Daniel Santos, former champs Ricardo Mayorga and Fernando Vargas. He'd love to give Spinks the chance to clear his name on his home turf, though he calls St. Louis' 5 percent tax on such events "rough" and says the fight might end up in Las Vegas or New York City.

"That's why I can't rest or take time off. Because we gotta get that back," he insists. "We gotta get those fans back in that arena and win a world title before I can even halfway get over losing in front of that crowd on that night."

In 1995 Cory Spinks was at Beaumont High, spending more time playing basketball than boxing. He had the family lineage (born Cory Calvin, he officially changed his name last year) and he'd been in the ring at a young age, but the sport had fallen off his priority list.

Still, young Spinks trained occasionally at Charles Hamm's Bombers Gym on West Florissant on the city's north side. A patrolman in the district at the time, Kevin Cunningham would drop in every now and then to visit Hamm, an old friend. Out of the corner of his eye, he'd watch Spinks.

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