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"I had saw Cory box in a tournament when he was thirteen, and I knew he had a lot of ability," Cunningham remembers. "He had speed, quickness, reflexes, and he knew his way around the ring. For a kid to have all that natural ability and not use it I think would be a terrible waste."
Cunningham opened his own gym that same year, right around the time the Bombers building was condemned and Hamm shut it down.
It took a group effort to bring Spinks into the fold.
"I talked to Cory's mom, she would try to talk to him, and Charles Hamm would try to convince him," says Cunningham. "When I saw him, I was like, 'You need to get back in the gym and start taking boxing seriously.'"
In those days Cunningham's gym was located in the basement of an old Hyde Park police station on Penrose Street. The idea was to take advantage of the local talent who couldn't afford to go to New York or Las Vegas for coaching. Cunningham funded the facility out of his cop's salary, augmented by a few hundred dollars from a philanthropic group run by longtime St. Louis political operative Freeman Bosley Sr.
"Kevin had such a promising group of youngsters who were interested in boxing, and they had no equipment or anything else," Bosley says. "And my sister-in-law practically raised him. So we gave him some money. These kids would have been a crime statistic in our neighborhood, had it not been for Kevin."
"He came onto the scene like gangbusters," recalls St. Louis Recreation Commissioner Evelyn Rice-Peebles, whose agency chipped in with equipment and manpower. "All of a sudden there's Kevin Cunningham, with all of this energy and excitement and passion -- we looked up and there's this guy with all these kids. Very impressive.
"Kevin was not popular with everyone," Rice-Peebles adds. "Other boxing organizers were struggling with three or four kids, and he was in your face with his success. It was like: 'You've got five boxers in your gym, and I've got fifty-two!'"
Cunningham's prize catch finally came to the gym in September 1996. "One day Cory just showed up," Cunningham recounts. "And then he never left."
By the end of that year, Spinks had a local Golden Gloves crown. By April of the following year he was a national champ and inspiring dreams in his coach. "I knew if he stuck with me and my stringent training program, my ability to bring every ounce of talent out of him, I knew he could go all the way," Cunningham says.
The years 1999, 2000 and 2001 saw Spinks pull off an uninterrupted string of victories. After finally losing a bout for the International Boxing Federation welterweight title in April of 2002 (to Michele Piccirillo, in Piccirillo's native Italy), Spinks won the rematch eleven months later. The fighter then signed a deal with the flamboyant promoter Don King, earning a then-career-high $750,000 for a fight with Ricardo Mayorga in December of '03. That victory, a majority decision, brought with it the titles of the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association -- the undisputed welterweight championship. Two successful defenses -- including Spinks' first fight against Zab Judah -- brought him to the Judah rematch and his biggest check to date.
Local boxing insider Tim Lueckenhoff says the key to Cunningham's success with Spinks has been the trainer's ability to overcome his fighter's weaknesses.
"One thing you'll notice about Cory's record is that he doesn't have a lot of knockouts," says Lueckenhoff, president of the national Association of Boxing Commissions and administrator for the Missouri Office of Athletics. "The way he's beaten fighters in world title fights is he's simply outpunched them. His punch count is higher. He doesn't have the knockout power that some fighters do, so Kevin has really worked on his speed. And up until the last Zab Judah fight, any of those other fights that you watched, he was so much quicker than anybody else."
Another of Cunningham's strengths, says Lueckenhoff, is bringing the best in the business into his corner.
"Kevin's reached out to people who work with major fighters -- there's a cut man in Cory's corner called Jim Strickland. If you watch TV, he's [also] in [heavyweight great Evander] Holyfield's corner. That's what you have to do. You have to reach out and learn from others."
Cunningham isn't afraid to brag, adds Lueckenhoff. "He's very [sought after], and he's gonna say that. It's Kevin's job to build hype."
And hype he does. "There's not a trainer in the world that can do what I do," Cunningham boasts. "I've worked alongside the best, and they can't compete with me. 'Cause I'm up till four or five in the morning studying tape. With me, when you enter the gym, this is what you have to do."
Besides the Hummer, Cunningham owns a Corvette convertible, but today it's car number three, a pewter Chrysler 300 with an oversize custom grille and ridiculously shiny rims, that wheels him into the parking lot of the Marquette Recreation Center. He brought his operation here, to the city's southern tip, about four years ago, after the city reclaimed the Hyde Park facility. The center is the sort of place that requires a metal detector at the front door but doesn't have the staff to monitor it all the time. This is to be Spinks' and Cunningham's first day back in the gym since the loss to Judah.