Steve Cunningham’s talking about making things fly—fists and F-14s alike. This is how the conversation tends to go when you’re speaking with a fighter who first entered the boxing ring circuitously, by way of an aircraft carrier.
It all started when an 18-year-old Cunningham enlisted in the Navy, eventually becoming an aviation boatswain's mate (i.e., the dude with the gas—in a good way).
“Anything that landed, we refueled it: jets, helicopters, you name it,” he says of his duties serving aboard a warship. “I got qualified to be a crew leader, and we worked, man. We were up at 7 a.m., and sometimes we didn’t hit the rack until 1 in the morning. We were like that almost every day. When you’re working like that as a young man, that sets a standard for your work ethic in life.”
Obviously, that work ethic paid dividends as Steve Cunningham (28-7, 13 KOs) immersed himself in the daily rigors of becoming a pro boxer, boot camp eventually begetting training camp.
And it all went down almost by happenstance.
Stationed at the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, Cunningham started working out at a nearby gym where, as it turned out, the Navy boxing team trained.
Cunningham, who faces former 175-pound champion Antonio Tarver in Newark, New Jersey, on August 14 (Spike TV, 9 p.m. ET), had done plenty of street fighting in his native Philadelphia when he was a kid, but it was here that he laced up the gloves competitively for the first time.
When he did so, he cannonballed into the deep end of the local talent pool.
“I messed around and got my first amateur fight, which was against the light heavyweight champ of the Navy. I beat him and that set me off,” says Cunningham, a former 200-pound champ who’s now a heavyweight contender. “After becoming a national champion in the Navy and winning a couple of silver medals in the Armed Forces tournament, I decided to leave a secure job with benefits in order to chase this dream of being a boxer. I put all my eggs in one basket.”
When he enlisted, Cunningham thought it was for the long haul—“I was envisioning retiring out of the Navy at a certain rank,” he says—but the work changed him, prepared him for something else, something greater than even he initially thought himself capable of.
To underscore this point, Cunningham references an old Armed Forces recruiting slogan: “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.”
It sounds like hyperbole—until you’ve lived it.
“Being in the Navy, your limits are pushed beyond what you even know,” Cunningham says. “That basically carried over into boxing. It’s like, ‘No matter how big the task is, it can still be done. We still can do it, just take it one step at a time.’”
For complete coverage of Tarver vs Cunningham, visit our fight page.