Steve Cunningham fighting for more than career against Amir Mansour

Friday April 4th, 2014

Steve Cunningham (left) lost to Tyson Fury in 2013 but could get a career boost vs. Amir Mansour.
Joel Plummer/

PHILADELPHIA -- What do you do when a doctor tells you that the heart transplant operation your eight-year old daughter desperately needs is too risky to perform? What do you say when the doctor says that girl, that sweet girl who has already been through so much, has no choice but to wait for her tiny heart to give out?

Last month, Steve Cunningham faced these questions. His daughter Kennedy was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Put simply, half of her heart didn't work. She spent the first year of her life in the hospital. Doctors didn't think she would live much longer. She has undergone two heart surgeries, and she has suffered a stroke.

But she has fought. Like her father, Kennedy Cunningham is a fighter. With the enthusiasm -- and smile -- of her mother, Livvy, and the spirit of her father, Kennedy refused to give in. The Cunninghams believed a heart transplant could save her. In March, Kennedy stayed at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for two weeks, undergoing tests to determine if she was a candidate. Livvy spent every minute with her. Steve visited during the day and stayed home and took care of the Cunninghams two other kids, Steve and Cruz, at night.

In mid-March, the Cunninghams got the news: The collateral veins that were visible all over Kennedy's body created too much of a risk for surgery. If they opened her up, she could bleed out. There were no other options. "Basically," Cunningham said, "she is waiting for heart failure."

Livvy got the news first. Over the phone, she relayed it to Steve. Cunningham is a tough guy. Raised on the drug-infested streets of Philadelphia in the early 1980s, violence was around every corner. When Cunningham turned 18 he enlisted in the Navy, serving his country for four years. When he got out, Cunningham, who learned to box in the military, turned professional, traveling the globe, fighting in hostile environments, all to support his family.

He could handle a lot. But not this. As Livvy spoke, her words choked him. The man who had endured so much fell apart.

"I just broke down," Cunningham said. "I thought she was going to get the surgery. When she was in the hospital, it felt like they were dotting the i's and crossing the t's on everything. We thought we would go home and wait for the transplant. When the doctor told us, it was like a dream crusher. The transplant was our last hope."

Cunningham wanted to be with his daughter. He wanted to hold her, cherish her, spend every minute with her. But he couldn't. There was something else: Cunningham was in training. He was weeks into camp for a scheduled fight with Amir Mansour, a fight that he badly needed to win to keep his career going.

He didn't want to fight. But he had to. He still dreamed of being heavyweight champion, of course. But more important, the bills were piling up. His family needed the money. Kennedy needed the money.

"I signed a contract to fight this man," Cunningham said. "I have a family to take care of. I have been doing my job under stressful circumstances for years. It's what I have to do."

On Friday Cunningham (26-6) will take on Mansour (20-0) at the Liacouras Center (10 p.m., ET, NBC Sports Network). At age 37, Cunningham knows every fight could be his last. He lost a controversial split decision to Tomasz Adamek in 2012 and was knocked out by Tyson Fury last year. He has battled to remain focused, fought to make sure Kennedy never sees him cry. He has smiled through what can only be described as indescribable pain.

"None of us know that pain," said Cunningham's trainer, Naazim Richardson. "To face the death of your child, that is a darkness no one should ever face."

Doctors have encouraged the Cunninghams to seek second opinions. They plan to send Kennedy's medical reports to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and several hospitals in Boston. The doctors in Philadelphia say that it would be careless for anyone to operate on Kennedy, but the Cunninghams' unflinching faith simply won't allow them to accept defeat. Meanwhile, Kennedy will be ringside on Friday night, as she often is, watching her father fight for his career, for the money to keep fighting for her life.

"It's been a roller-coaster," Cunningham said. "I wish God could take my heart out and give it to her. But I'm putting this on me. I have to do this for my daughter. I feel if I can make as much money as I can, I can keep helping her. I have to win this fight. I need to win. My family, we need a win. Even if it doesn't turn out right, we are still going to be walking in faith."

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