For a moment, his voice goes soft, a word seldom associated with the man on the other end of the phone.
Hardened by the streets of inner-city Philadelphia as a boy, Navy boot camp as a young man and boxing rings the world over ever since, Steve Cunningham (28-7, 13 KOs) possesses both the physique and temperament of someone who’s had to fight for just about everything in life.
He looks like he could deadlift a dead T. rex and talks like a man who knows it.
But when Cunningham speaks of his 9-year-old daughter, Kennedy, you hear something from him that you seldom do, a hint of vulnerability, a letting down of the guard.
In September 2005, Kennedy was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a life-threatening condition that rendered a portion of her heart unable to function.
She underwent her first open-heart surgery when she was but two days old, enduring the procedure once again six months later, spending the first year of her life in the hospital—a year that felt like 10 for Cunningham.
But Kennedy beat the odds and recovered, something her father has done again and again in the ring.
By the time she was 8 years old, however, things turned dire once again, as the Cunninghams learned that Kennedy was deemed an unsuitable candidate for a heart transplant that she needed to survive.
“That was a hair-raising situation, when we found out that the children’s hospital in Philly didn’t feel like they could do the transplant.” Cunningham recalls, not trying to hide his emotions. “They were basically like, ‘Make her comfortable.’ And I’m like, ‘What’s that? I’m supposed to wait until my daughter dies?’
“Heck no,” he continues, the steeliness returning to his voice. “We’ve got to move what we can move, heaven and earth if we can, in order to see what we can get done.”
And so the Cunninghams got a second opinion, this time at the children’s hospital in Pittsburgh.
Then, last June, they learned that she was accepted into the hospital's heart transplant program.
Three weeks before Christmas, she successfully underwent the surgery.
Since then, she’s recuperated right on schedule.
“She’s doing exceptionally well,” says Cunningham, who will battle Antonio Tarver on Friday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (Spike TV, 9 p.m. ET/PT). “She just had an appointment yesterday. The doctors have been weaning her off the medication.”
Still, Cunningham’s not exhaling too deeply just yet.
If there’s one thing being a fighter has taught him, it’s to never drop his hands—in the ring, or in life.
“It’s been an awesome, scary, nail-biting roller coaster—and it’s not over,” he says. “We’re never out of the woods with a situation like this, but it’s much, much better.
“This is our life,” he adds firmly. “This is what we do. We deal with it.”
For complete coverage of Tarver vs Cunningham, visit our fight page.