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Cunningham was post champion twice and fought in the all-army championships. He also met his mentor, Kenny Adams, who twice coached in the Olympics.
"I admired him. He was serious, no-nonsense, disciplined, and that's who I modeled my coaching style after," Cunningham says. "He's a hell of a technician: He finds out what a guy's strengths are and tries to make him better at those. I do the same thing."
His hitch completed, Cunningham came back to St. Louis and enrolled in the city's police academy. After graduating he married Sheila, who now works as a school nurse. A daughter, Kellia, was born in 1996. Cunningham joined the force, where he rose to the rank of narcotics detective and eventually earned a coveted detail in the office of then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.
Roger Engelhardt, a SLPD sergeant who graduated from the academy with Cunningham, boxed alongside his classmate in numerous stagings of the St. Louis Metro Boxing Showdown (now known as Guns 'N Hoses). "We never lost," brags Engelhardt. The sergeant, who now coaches the police team, was especially impressed with Cunningham's emerging skill as a trainer. "He would always be real respectful of the coaches, but he would offer advice to the other fighters, and his opinion was really respected. He was a nice guy, but kind of flashy at first: outspoken. He was one of those loud guys -- you know, just one of those guys who like to talk a lot. At first it kind of turned me off to him. But it works well for him now."
In 1998 Cunningham quit the force to start a fight-promotions company and coach boxing full time.
"I was surprised and kinda concerned for him," says Engelhardt. "Like: Hey, what if this doesn't work out? I mean, a police job ain't the best job in the world, you're not gonna be a millionaire, but you know that check's gonna be there every other Friday, and you know you're gonna get a pension if you do it long enough."
But it has worked out, to the tune of an estimated $4 million to $5 million in career earnings netted by Cory Spinks -- 25 percent of which goes to Cunningham as his manager and trainer. (Cunningham says Spinks took away $1.4 million from the Zab Judah rematch, contrary to media accounts that peg the figure at $1.2 million. Neither Spinks nor Don King would comment on the purse.)
It's a far cry from the boy who used to tell his mother not to buy him clothes because they cost too much.
"He's confident about money now," says Cunningham's wife, Sheila. "He really surprises me now with his nice cars, nice jewelry. I'm the one that's more conservative about spending money now."
Kevin Cunningham takes the podium at a mid-April press conference at the Family Arena in St. Charles, flanked by models in skimpy dresses and Vegas-style feathered headgear. He's promoting "Rumble by the River," scheduled for June 2. But the twenty or so assembled journalists are a tired-looking bunch. Perhaps it was the lunch of pasta and egg rolls. Or maybe, like Cunningham's publicist Jane Higgins, they were expecting to see Cory Spinks.
"C'mon, let's go!" Cunningham berates them from behind his tinted sunglasses. "Let's talk some boxing!"
He's eager to get Round One, his recently renamed promotions company (formerly Pound for Pound), off the ground. Though this event will be tainted by tragedy two weeks before the fight when one of the featured fighters, a lightweight named Neil Wright, takes his own life, today Cunningham couldn't be readier to rock.
Whereas his early days saw him hosting fights at city venues in front of mostly black audiences, he's looking to get some white suburban folks in his seats. "I want to get a more diverse crowd," he says. "I'm tired of doing fights at the Admiral."
"I think people have a thirst for this type of activity," seconds Higgins. "Fights that are not just for African Americans but for all of us. He doesn't just want to put it in a sleazy arena, but in a decent family place where we can all go see it and not feel afraid to park our cars."
Paramount too is Cunningham's desire to head his own big-time venture, now that he and Spinks are no longer contractually obligated to Don King. Concerning King, Cunningham has mostly positive things to say, and King about him, especially after the financial success of the February fight at Savvis. But in a roundabout way, Cunningham blames King for Spinks' defeat.
"We tried with Don to get a big fight with [Felix] Trinidad and move up in weight," Cunningham says of the negotiations with King. "We tried to get fights with De La Hoya and Sugar Shane Mosley at 154 [pounds]. Don King said, 'Oh, no.' He wanted to do the rematch with Zab. The only fight they were willing to pay us some money for was the Zab Judah rematch."
"You know what it is," responds King, "the part that Kevin don't understand is that it takes two to fight. What I want is immaterial and irrelevant to a guy like Oscar De La Hoya or Trinidad. You can talk about it, but there's gotta be a demand for the fight, and you also have to have the other guy's promoter that's willing to gamble like I am."