As her father’s hands got taped up for the media-day showcase he’d soon perform, 9-year-old Kennedy Cunningham bounded about the ring inside DSG Gym playfully sparring with her younger brother Cruz.
It was a scene that would’ve been impossible to see just eight months ago while Kennedy was awaiting a transplant to remedy a lifelong congenital heart defect.
But on Wednesday afternoon, as her father Steve “USS” Cunningham met the press at fellow boxer Danny Garcia’s gym in advance of his upcoming heavyweight fight against Antonio Tarver, Kennedy was a fountain of energy.
She playfully punched heavy bags with her dad’s untied gloves on her hands, hit the treadmill and chased her little brother around the ring with a beaming smile. The only remnant of a nearly decade-long wait was prominent scar on her sternum.
About the outcome — a life-saving necessity for a young girl who diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome days after birth — her parents couldn’t be happier.
“It really felt like it feels for the fights themselves: Training, waiting and then when ‘fight night’ gets here, it’s over so quickly,” said Kennedy’s mom Livvy of relocating the family to Pittsburgh and pausing before getting word that her daughter would get a transplant in December. “It was the best victory of our lives, for sure.”
During that time last year, Cunningham — a 1994 graduate of Germantown High School — trained locally, travelling cross-state regularly to see his family.
That he had to continue fighting to help cover Kennedy’s medical expenses was the narrative as he approached an Oct. 2014 fight in South Philly.
At Wednesday’s media day, he likened the boxing community’s fundraising response during his family’s time of need to that of America entering World War II to help defend the allies.
“We really found out that people can work together to get something done. A lot of people showed her a lot of love,” the boxer said.
“She’s doing awesome. It’s amazing. We’re just riding a wave,” he continued. “It’s not an ‘it’s over’ thing, but she’s doing much better. We take it how we get it, knowing that nobody lives forever. We won’t. She won’t, but she’s just a little girl and I’d like to see her live the biblical 70-plus years. That’s what the fight is about.”
Though the transplant was surely a relief, it’s not as if the weight has been entirely lifted.
“If she was perfect, there’d still be a concern in the back of my mind about taking care of my kids,” he said of three children and a nephew for whom he and Livvy care. “That’s always in the back of my mind.”
But at the front of his mind on this day was his Aug. 14 fight against Tarver in Newark, NJ. It will be aired live on Spike TV.
If Tarver’s name sounds familiar to local sports fans, it’s because he lost to Bernard Hopkins in what was supposed to be the latter’s last fight ever, and portrayed Mason “The Dixon” Line in the film, “Rocky Balboa.”
Cunningham, who is in the process of permanently moving to Pittsburgh while planning to return to Philadelphia regularly for boxing and business interests, spoke highly of Tarver as an experienced foe.
He also spoke with a confidence necessary to do his job effectively.
“Back [in my earlier years as a light heavyweight], I knew I couldn’t [compete] with the man, but now, Steve Cunningham is different,” he said. “I got the ‘USS’ in front of my name, and that means a lot.
“We tried to get this fight a few years ago [trash talking] on Twitter and he said something to the effect of nobody knows who I am, who am I? Well, after this fight, he’s gonna know who Steve Cunningham is, plain and simple.”
The gym’s namesake, Danny Garcia, is a current junior welterweight champ who will move up in weight class. He will face Paulie Malignaggi on Aug. 1, and the fight will be aired on ESPN.