Cunningham offers alternative to violence
LAS VEGAS – No one awards a Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration, for the kind of work that Kevin Cunningham does.
But if there is an award for “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States” given to boxing trainers, the St. Louis-based Cunningham should be the first in line.
Few men in boxing have done more to save lives, literally and figuratively, than one of the key men involved in the first significant fight of the year.
The one-time St. Louis narcotics detective is now one of boxing’s elite trainers, and will guide Devon Alexander on Saturday at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., when he takes on Timothy Bradley in an HBO-televised match in a battle of unbeaten world champions for supremacy in the super lightweight division.
“There aren’t many better,” veteran trainer Ken Adams said of Cunningham, high praise considering there are few, if any, better teachers in the sport than Adams.
Cunningham’s boxing knowledge is probably the least of the reason why he’s been heroic to so many in St. Louis.
In 1996, astonished by the rate of violence, the prevalence of drugs and the lack of education in the Hyde Park section of St. Louis, Cunningham began the Hyde Park Boxing Club in one of the most gang-riddled cities in the country.
Young men were dying every day, either by bullets, knives or the drugs they sold to survive.
Cunningham joined the St. Louis Police Department and patrolled Hyde Park in 1991 and 1992. What he saw, literally, every day was a war zone.
“We were responding to so much gang violence and so many shootings and robberies and drive-bys and homicides,” Cunningham said. “What really threw me for a loop was most of the time when we were responding, most of the time, the victims were 14-, 15-, 16-year-old young black males.”
Cunningham eventually was transferred out of the narcotics detail and given what he laughingly calls “a real cushy job” as the driver for the mayor of St. Louis. It wasn’t a difficult job, to be sure, but it was one that gave him connections and which had a much more likely path to promotion than his former job.
But Cunningham couldn’t keep the scenes he’d seen every day driving through Hyde Park out of his mind. Young lives were being wasted, and for no reason.
“It was so bad there,” Alexander said. “However he describes it, he’s probably not describing it like it really was. You can’t even imagine how bad it was.”
It kept Cunningham awake at night, thinking not only of the violence, the destruction and the desolation, but the fact that nothing was being done about it.
The police would respond to calls of gunfire multiple times every day, but little was being done to prevent it.
Cunningham couldn’t accept sitting idly by.
“The gangs hated the police department,” Cunningham said. “But it wasn’t just the gangs. It was the community as a whole. It was us against them. But I thought about it and I said, ‘What are we doing as a department to go and bridge the gap between the police department and the community? And what are we doing on the front end, as opposed to waiting on the back end when another kid was murdered for no reason?’ I thought we should do some crime-prevention activities and meet the problem head-on.”
Cunningham grew up in North St. Louis and avoided trouble primarily by keeping himself busy with sports. He played football, but his true passion was boxing.
He decided in 1996 to begin a boxing program, but the police department turned down his request for funding. He was, however, undeterred. He began the Hyde Park Boxing Club and requested a transfer to the police department’s community schools program. He voluntarily gave up the cushy job chauffeuring the mayor to go into what rightly could have been called a war zone.
That job provided two benefits: First, it put him in direct contact with the young men who needed saving. And second, the hours, 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., coincided with the time most of them were in school. When he got off work, he went to the gym and held training from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
There were about 30 kids who began that program. About a third, perhaps more, are dead, victims of the violence that Cunningham is working so hard to eradicate.
Cunningham recites the names of the fallen – Terrance Baker, Willie Ross, Johnny Hubbard – as if he’s reading off a graduation list.
If you don’t know what has gone on in Hyde Park, if you haven’t heard the grisly details, if you haven’t read the gory police reports, it may seem that the program has been a failure if so many lives have been lost despite the presence of the boxing program.
That, however, would be the wrong way to look at things.
“You have to think of it in terms of how many kids he saved, how many guys wouldn’t be around if it were not for what Kevin did with that boxing program,” said Lamar Alexander, Devon’s older brother and one of the program’s alumni. “He took a lot of guys who had no hope and he gave them hope. He gave them something to live for.”
Cunningham would do pretty much anything for the young men in his program. He made countless trips to the mall to buy shoes for kids who were going to school with hand-me-down shoes that didn’t fit, that had big holes in them, or both. He bought them pants, shirts, counseled them about avoiding the streets and paying attention in school.
He became a folk hero in the community.
“I’ve been with him pretty much every day for the last 15 years or so,” Devon Alexander said. “What he has done for my life, I can’t even tell you.”
There were three Alexander boys who took part in Cunningham’s boxing program. In addition to Lamar and Devon, Vaughn Alexander was also a boxer, perhaps the most talented of the three in the estimation of no less an authority than legendary promoter Don King.
None of the 13 Alexander children were ever in one of the gangs that were so notorious in the city, in large part, Cunningham said, thanks to the strong hand of their parents, Lamar Sr. and Sharon.
One of the differences with the Alexander children is that there were two parents in the home, Cunningham said. That is a rarity among the alumni of the Hyde Park Boxing Club.
“Of all the kids that have come through my program, I think I’ve met what, three, four of the fathers,” he said. “It ain’t many. Most of these kids are from single-parent homes and, even with that, nobody paid them any attention. Nobody cared where they were, at any time of the day or night.
“But when they got into the boxing program, they had someone who cared if they didn’t have proper shoes to wear to school. I’d take a kid who was going to school every day with holes in his shoes, with his toes sticking out, and I’d take him to the mall and buy him a pair of shoes. Or I’d get him a pair of pants. They were like, ‘Wow. Somebody cares about me.’ They needed someone who cared about them and told them ‘You can be somebody.’ ”
Cunningham fought in the Army and he established the rules that he learned in the Army at his boxing club. The first thing was discipline. To remain in the program, the kids were going to have to work hard and stay out of trouble.
They realized with boxing, they had a chance to escape the violence and the poverty and, most importantly, the hopelessness that pervaded the community.
“I think they saw the boxing program as a vehicle of hope,” Cunningham said. “They said to themselves, ‘I can be hopeful instead of hopeless.’ ”
Cory Spinks validated Cunningham’s program by his arrival. The son of 1976 U.S. Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, Spinks boxed early in his life, but gave it up at 13 after both his best friend and his brother were murdered.
But when he was 16, he wandered into the old police station that Cunningham had converted into the gym and began to box again.
“He was hanging out with gang bangers, dope dealers, everything, man,” Cunningham said of Spinks. “I’d seen him box in a couple of tournaments back when he was boxing. I could see he had all the talent in the world. I said to him, ‘Hey man, you have a blessing. Get off the street corner with these guys, where you’re going nowhere, and get into the gym. We can do something.’ ”
Spinks didn’t show up at the gym right away. He’d see Cunningham pull up and duck into an alley to avoid him.
But when Spinks finally did walk into the gym a couple of months later, things changed for the program. Spinks was unnaturally gifted, which was obvious from the moment he began hitting the bag.
No one in Hyde Park knew who Leon Spinks was, but they could see that Cory Spinks could do things they couldn’t.
“Cory was so good and they could see that and it kind of dawned on them that if they worked hard and they pushed themselves, they could make something of themselves, too,” Cunningham said.
Spinks went on to become an undisputed world champion with Cunningham at his side, but Alexander represents Cunningham’s finest work.
Alexander is now one of the top 20 fighters in the world and is facing off with Bradley in a much-anticipated match that has become the focus of the boxing world.
Alexander was a tireless worker and pushed himself to excellence, but he wouldn’t be where he is without Cunningham.
“You know, when Devon started at Kevin’s, he wasn’t the best kid there,” his brother, Lamar, said. “We had some bad mama jamas in that gym. But Devon just wanted it so bad and he worked so hard. Everything Kevin told him, he paid attention to and he took it to heart. And he became what he is by Kevin pushing him and Kevin teaching him and him accepting the teaching and working as hard as one person could possibly work.”
There are many others, though, who haven’t won world championships, who aren’t known to the world, who are alive and productive citizens and that, as much as anything, means the most to Kevin Cunningham.
He’s been a lifesaver, literally, for countless young men in St. Louis who otherwise would be buried and forgotten.
“I’m not a miracle worker,” Cunningham said. “But I wanted to make a difference. These were lives worth fighting for. These kids needed something and I knew boxing could give it to them. Boxing did it for me and it’s doing it for a lot of them.”
And so, if they ever get around to giving out a medal of honor in boxing, Kevin Cunningham should be its first recipient. Because, without question, he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity to save a lot of young men who wouldn’t be here today.
If you don’t believe that, tune into HBO on Saturday and see what he’s made of Devon Alexander. That will be proof enough.