Steve “USS” Cunningham Ready
For Wayne “Big Truck” Braithwaite

By Tim Donaldson
Photos: Edan Davis

Walking up the steps to the second floor of the James Shuler Memorial Gym, you get a sense of both history and destiny. Paintings of the boxers from the past line the walls, watching the present generation and pushing them on to their destiny. On this particular day, they look on as Steve “USS” Cunningham trains for his fight against Wayne “Big Truck” Braithwaite.

When I arrive, trainer Brother Naazim Richardson is wrapping Steve’s hands. Some of the other boxers and trainers are standing around the two, and they are all involved in a conversation about music. They are discussing a singer from the Philadelphia area who was popular a few years back. Then Brother Naazim puts the gloves on Steve and laces them up. Steve is ready to go to work. As Steve sees it, boxing is his job and being in the gym everyday is just part of the job. Even if he does not have a fight coming up, he is in the gym.

Steve starts on the double end bag, punching it and moving around the bag, showing his offensive and defensive capabilities. Brother Naazim is up on the corner of the ring, watching and training his nephew, but he is also watching Steve from the corner of his eye and yelling out instructions to him from time to time. Camp is winding down for Steve now, so it is more about staying in the best possible shape and remaining focused for the upcoming fight. Brother Naazim is a new addition to Cunningham’s corner, although Steve wanted Brother Naazim to train him when he first entered professional boxing. According to Steve, at that time Brother Naazim “just said his plate was too full. He said I don’t want to neglect you, so I understood that.” But they all worked in the same gym, and “it just happened, you know.” Training under Brother Naazim has been tough. Brother Naazim told me, “I am a hard coach. I am a hard coach to deal with.” And Steve echoed the thought, “There’s been days I’ve been very sore, and I worked hard before. Everybody knows my work ethic, but man, he’s picked it up another notch.”

After a few minutes on the double end bag, Steve’s wife Livvy arrives, along with their son Steve. The buzzer in the gym signals when the rounds are up, and between the rounds, Livvy is there to give Steve water. But don’t think this is her only job. She is also Steve’s manager, and she is part of Steve’s support. It is evident that his family and his faith are very important to him. Steve’s career has not always been a picture of easy fights and easy wins. He fought twice, in Poland, to get the belt, and after he lost to Adamek, he had the disappointment of not getting the rematch as he hoped. But he is quick to tell you how important his faith is, quoting Philippians 4:13, he tells me “I can do all things through Christ.” As he tells me about some of the difficulties in his career, he says, “I guess I am a patient guy. That truthfully is from me reading the Word of God. I could have gone nuts and cussed everybody out, my promoter for sending me overseas, my manager for this, but I know God has a plan.”

After several rounds on the double end bag, Steve moves across the gym to the heavy bag. You can really see his power when he hits the bag. The bag swings wildly back and forth with each hit. Brother Naazim yells from his corner at the ring, “your right. Use your right.” Steve spends several rounds on the heavy bag. I asked Steve if the thought that a win against Braithwaite leads to a rematch against Adamek is a distraction. “This camp has been getting ready for Braithwaite. Braithwaite is a former champion, a good puncher. He’s been there before. He’s dangerous still.” Brother Naazim is focused on Braithwaite too. Brother Naazim feels that “Braithwaite could be more dangerous than Adamek. I feel like he’s just as good a puncher. He is more athletic than Adamek is. Plus he is coming in on the information of knowing that you lost, so that’s a motivator that Adamek did not have.”

Brother Naazim walks over to Steve as he works on the speed bag. He throws a towel in Steve’s way as he works on the bag. They spend a couple rounds doing this. Brother Naazim admits that he has been working Steve hard while getting him ready for this fight. “I am going to push him to the brink because he shouldn’t have showed me that he had that much talent. Once you show it to me, I demand it of you.” And he has a lot of faith in Steve’s ability. “He’s capable of doing anything that needs to be done in the sport.” Brother Naazim and Steve move from the speed bag to the ring. Brother Naazim swings some foam batons as Steve works on his defensive moves. As Brother Naazim says, “you have to make the other guy earn everything, don’t give him anything.” From what I’ve seen, Wayne Braithwaite will have to work very hard this fight.

The big difference that Brother Naazim has made in the training of Steve Cunningham is in the mindset. Steve tells me, “Truthfully we changed something that was major, and that was my mindset of who I am. Brother Naazim has been drilling it into my head, since day one, since March, you’re a champion, you’re still a champion. Just because you don’t have your belt right now doesn’t mean that you’re not a champion. His whole thing is perform, walk, talk. He wants me when I come into a store to walk like a champion, hold yourself, carry yourself like a champ, and that’s what we set out to do. That’s the major change, the mindset.”

And for Brother Naazim, boxing is more than just winning, it is about dominating. He tells me, “You got to say I want to dominate. I want to leave a mark. It is that guy who is the problem.” And by dominate, he does not simply mean by winning all of your fights. In fact, he realizes that their will be losses along the way. But the great fighters dominate in every way. That is what he is teaching Steve now. “Steve has to learn to dominate, not just win the round. When I got the round in charge, I want to control the round. When I am in control, I want to dominate. I want to make sure that I secure my place, by securing the moment. You win the rounds, you win the fight. You secure the moment through each round.” That is the mindset of a champion. He is the one that will be remembered years after he retires.

On July 11, Steve “USS” Cunningham is out to show the world that he is someone to be reckoned with in the sport. “I feel ready. I feel good. I’m ready to prove this now.” And what does he want to prove? He left me with these words. “I know I am the best cruiserweight in the world and I want to prove that.”