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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.

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.

"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.

As Cunningham assesses the state of the upstairs boxing facility, he realizes that in his absence the fancy leather heavy bags -- bags he paid for out of his own pocket -- have been removed and replaced with inferior versions, one of which is currently being held together by duct tape. It's unclear who has done this, or why. "Dammit," the trainer says, lightly kicking a spit bucket, which ejects a stream of liquid that stains the boxing ring's canvas. Every once in a while Cunningham considers moving his operation to St. Charles, but he seems genuinely attached to this place. "It's my gym, and it's been there for me for the last four years," he'll say, attempting to explain the inexplicable. "I just -- I just like it."

The idea is for Spinks to get in his workout before the rest of Cunningham's brood arrives. But 45 minutes past the appointed time, Spinks hasn't shown. Cunningham tries the fighter's cell phone. No dice.

"He's not answering 'cause he knows I'm gonna chew his butt!" the trainer gripes. A moment later, though, he's more forgiving: "He's trying to enjoy his time off, is what he's trying to do. He knows when it's really time for business, I'll put my foot down."

School having let out for the day, the gym has begun filling with young fighters too hungry to miss a day. Many are neighborhood kids who can't afford the registration fee. "The rec center wants $35 each to pay for the insurance," Cunningham notes. "But I usually end up paying it."

His assistant, Joseph Dunlap, is a man of remarkably few words, most of them admonitions to turn down the crunk (which otherwise blares at ear-splitting levels). An old boxing hand, Dunlap tends to the kids fresh off the street while Cunningham focuses on the pros. Today he's working with local 38-year-old William Guthrie, a former IBF lightweight champion who's looking forward to a June bout. As he wraps his hands, he raps with Cunningham about Oscar De La Hoya's legendary discipline.

"He was already a multimillionaire," Guthrie marvels. "And he still got up at five in the morning to train!"

Cunningham can't help but wish a certain fighter were a little more like that. "Some [successful] fighters are just as focused as they were when they were struggling, but then some get a little relaxed and a little lazy with the money," he allows. "Cory was relaxed and laid-back with no money, so he ain't changed a bit!"

A similar scene will play out the following day: Spinks will make arrangements to show up at the gym, then flake out on his trainer. A day later Cunningham will find himself making excuses on behalf of his fighter on another front, when Spinks nearly has a warrant issued for his arrest on an old charge of driving with a suspended license, his automotive privileges having been nixed owing to a missed child-support payment.

"Cory doesn't have a history of having trouble with the law," Cunningham explains. "He had paid, but the child-support organization hadn't sent it through so the city didn't see it in the computer. It was a big misunderstanding." (Spinks will plead guilty and receive six months' probation plus court fees.)

A trainer is in an awkward position in dealing with a successful fighter, observes Tim Lueckenhoff. "Cunningham's gotta protect his financial interest, because someone else could come along and snatch Cory from him," Lueckenhoff says. "Just like other sports agents -- they have to protect their possessions because that's how they make their living."

To hear Spinks tell it, Cunningham won't be hard up anytime soon. "I think he's the best that's out there right now," the fighter says of his trainer. "He's an old man in a young body. He knows what it takes to get to the top. He's always talking about the army."

Cunningham brightens when he turns his attention to Devon Alexander, a local amateur champ who last year narrowly missed earning a coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Fighting as a welterweight on the February 5 Spinks-Judah undercard, the seventeen-year-old won a unanimous decision against Mexican Donovan Castaneda, to raise his pro record to 3-0. The bout netted him $4,000 and celebrity status at Vashon High School, where he's a senior.

Though he gushed on his golden boy then, today Cunningham wants to make sure success doesn't go to the kid's head.

"You ain't throwing nothin'!" he yells as Alexander spars with a partner. "Takes you forever to punch, and when you do it's one at a time, like you some knockout artist!" Tomorrow Cunningham will work with him on technique; today he seems entirely focused on Alexander's mind-set. Evidently the attitude-adjustment process requires a constant stream of verbal abuse. "You'd better get your head out your ass, 'cause your shit is not together," the trainer hollers, muting the stereo as if to remove any doubt that play time is over.

Backed into a corner, Alexander takes a few blows to the midsection before attempting to clinch his way out. When the bell announces the end of the session, Cunningham emits a sigh of disgust. Alexander hangs his head as he exits the ring, but minutes later his pearly smile is back and beaming beneath his wispy moustache.

"It's changed me since I won [at Savvis]," he imparts, slipping on a pair of Jordan sandals. "Everybody started to notice me. People ask me for autographs on the street. Girls -- I can't get rid of 'em!"

Alexander, who recently turned eighteen, is the proud owner of a green Ford Escort, which he steers to his mother's house in a neighborhood just south of Tower Grove Park, or, more often, to his uncle's place on the north side, where he can avoid the crush of siblings -- he's one of fifteen -- not to mention nieces and nephews, at his mom's. His father died of prostate cancer a few years back.

Sharon Alexander recalls sending Devon to box with Cunningham at age seven, but she was surprised to discover he had a knack for the sport. "It wasn't something we put him and his brothers into to get money later on or even to be a career," she says. "This was my thing to keep him out of trouble during the summer and keep him out of my hair."

Says Cunningham: "At that age you teach them the basic fundamentals and instill discipline and moral values. We'd go over the same type of spiel about values every day before they did their calisthenics. They'd have to bring me their report cards quarterly. If it was bad, I'd sit down with the teachers and principal and see what we had to do to get them back on the right track."

Cunningham seems never to tire of touting his young star's academic prowess, in particular the fact that Devon will graduate with his class next month. (Two of Devon's older brothers, Lamar and Vaughn, work at Cunningham's gym and boast pro records of 10-1 and 5-0, respectively. "Lamar and Vaughn are talented also. Devon's just a little more focused," Cunningham assesses.)

Alexander says he intends to study business administration at a community college at some point, but not right now. When he talks about his future, he sounds a lot like his trainer: "Boxing taught me that hard work comes back to you. I don't really trip off of not being able to go to all the parties, because I already know that in the long run it'll pay off."

"That kid grew up in the ghetto and has never had a fight in his life outside the boxing ring," Cunningham marvels. "Kids like Devon come along once in a lifetime."

Divorced when his son was five, Kenneth Cunningham bounced around places like California and Texas while Kevin's mother stayed in St. Louis, holding down the fort and making light bulbs at the General Electric plant on Etzel Avenue.

A longtime American Airlines employee, Kenneth eventually made it back, directing aircraft to the gates of Lambert Field. He retired on disability in the late 1990s and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2000. "My mom was our mother and our father," says Cunningham's sister, Nawon Thomas. "We just had each other."

"He used to get drunk and fight in the bars all the time," Cunningham says of his dad. "He was an alcoholic, and that's what killed him.

"I think it bothered me a lot when I was young -- that my dad left, being raised by my mother only," he continues. "But then again I think it made me stronger too. I grew up fast."

"I noticed that he was more mature with his thinking than most of my other kids were," recalls Maurine Smith, Cunningham's mother. "Sometimes when I would take him to buy clothes, if it cost too much he would tell me, 'Don't buy it.' This was when he was about ten or eleven."

As a youth Cunningham kept busy with football and baseball, even if academics didn't interest him much. He dabbled in boxing, deciding early on to limit fighting to the ring or self-defense. "I never got in big trouble as a kid," he says. "Maybe little trouble -- I was known to get in a fight or two 'cause I never let people step on my toes or run me over. I was known to throw a couple blows in the street, but that was it."

He graduated from Sumner High and put in a year at Forest Park Community College before joining the army. After a stint at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he earned a certificate in criminal justice from an overseas branch of Central Texas College while serving in South Korea.

All the while he was boxing -- if only because it beat the alternative.

"I was a field artilleryman, and we would be in the woods for 30 days at a time," he explains. "After doing that a couple times, I said, 'I've got to figure out something else to do.' One day I went by the boxing gym and they were having open trials. They put me in there with a guy who weighed about the same, and I beat his butt. A week later I was transferred to the boxing team. I went from wearing fatigues to wearing a warm-up suit and traveling around the country boxing."

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."

When the journalists finally come to on this afternoon in April, Cunningham will answer questions about his event's featured fighters: to his right, William Guthrie; and to his left, ex-Olympian and recent Cunningham signee David Diaz.

And, of course, eighteen-year-old phenom Devon Alexander, who's scheduled to go six rounds against junior-welterweight John Rudolph.

"He's known as 'Alexander the Great!'" Cunningham trumpets. "A lot of people said, 'That's a lot of pressure to have a name like that.' Well, this kid has the skills, the talent and the ability to carry a name like that. And I'm telling you, he's gonna be the next superstar to come out of St. Louis.

"Get your tickets. Don't miss it," he admonishes the journos. "It's going to be a great night of boxing!"

One after another the boxers are called to the podium. Alexander, who got to skip trig class for this, can barely choke any words past his gargantuan smile.

"I'm just like Cory," he says, shyly licking his lips. "I'm fin' to be champion, in a minute."

Suddenly the world brims with potential. And for what seems like the first time in months, Kevin Cunningham flashes a grin.

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