Craig Cunningham: ‘I wanted to win titles and get big paydays; the titles came but the money didn’t.’
By Louis Devereux
It’s no secret that boxing is a difficult way to make a living, and the path to the top is by no means a level playing field. Talent tends to play second fiddle to popularity where big events are concerned, and the backing of a top promoter is the difference between paydays and big opportunities, and just being left to fend for yourself.
Someone who has experienced the latter is former Midlands Area and WBC International champion Craig Cunningham- the man that beat and retired Anthony Ogogo, who, at the time, was fancied by many as ‘the next big thing.’
After causing such a big upset on Sky Sports, you’d think that Craig’s career would have skyrocketed, but unfortunately it never did. Having never got the opportunities he felt he deserved, Cunningham retired at just 30, and now spends his days working with cars at Jaguar Land Rover, working as a fitness instructor, and training kids at his local Amateur Club.
Clearly he is still heavily involved with the sport of boxing, but there is a sense of wasted potential with Craig’s career, and as such I was curious as to whether there was ever a sense of regret at not having the career that his ability perhaps warranted.
‘Nah, obviously I didn’t achieve my full potential but as far as I’m concerned I didn’t have a hold over that. I didn’t have a promoter which makes everything harder, and after I beat after I beat Ogogo, Hearn never put me on another show again. I was chasing the British title fight but obviously that didn’t go to plan either. I couldn’t do anything more for myself; I fought everyone that was put in front of me and that’s about all you can do.’
Craig may not have achieved as much as he could have, but he still had a successful career that outweighed his original expectations when he first got into boxing.
‘When I first turned over I didn’t even think I’d win a pro title to be honest with you- I just wanted to fight and get paid for it. My ambitions changed as my career progressed, and I had high hopes. I wanted to win titles and get big paydays; the titles came but the money didn’t.
‘I was 16 when I first walked into a boxing gym, which is quite late compared to some. I didn’t really train as an amateur, and looking back now I wish I had. I enjoyed doing it, I’d won a few midlands titles in the amateurs, so I decided to turn pro when I was around 24.’
Perhaps as a result of his late introduction to boxing, Craig told me that there was never a single stand out boxer that he looked up to and took inspiration from growing up. Strangely, it seemed as if Craig was more interested in watching boxing now than he had ever been before.
‘I didn’t really follow boxing that much when I was younger to be honest. Apart from when it was on normal Tv, I didn’t pay it too much notice. Boxing interested me mostly because I just wanted to be able to fight legally and get paid for it! Obviously you see the Mike Tysons, and Muhammad Alis, but I never really followed it in depth growing up. I follow it a lot more now; I watch all the big fights, and look back at the history and watch some of the great fights from years ago.’
There’s no doubt that Cunningham’s most prolific victory was against Anthony Ogogo, but Craig believes that the absolute best performances of his career came earlier that same year against a number of his midlands rivals.
‘My best performance was probably my fight with Ryan Aston which was tipped to be fight of the year, and obviously there was the Welborn fight as well, which was my first fight at super welter.
‘Ogogo was a lot bigger than me and a lot of people would have gone into that fight scared, but I was coming off my best year that year and I was fearless.’
Craig must have been expecting his profile to take off and to really hit the big time, but it seemed as though it just wasn’t meant to be. Logistical issues and late pull outs killed of all momentum he had built up throughout 2016.
‘After the Ogogo fight I had the WBC international belt which obviously gave me a world ranking, and it just seemed like no one wanted the title. Bear in mind I didn’t have a promoter, to put on a show with me headlining would be difficult and very costly. No promoters were interested, my first mandatory was a guy in Singapore and he pulled out. My second was in Russia and he pulled out as well, so I was just stuck with no one to fight. I only really wanted the British Title (held by Tommy Langford at the time) but that fight never materialised either.’
After such a frustrating end to his life as a professional boxer, you couldn’t blame Craig if he looked back on his career with a bitter feeling, regretting the day he ever got into the sport; however, he assured me that there were just as many good memories as there were bad, and that he regrets nothing. I also asked who or what was to blame for the unjust and corrupt nature that seems to exist in the boxing world, and why it seemed to affect him more than others.
‘Where there’s money there’s corruption, so obviously that plays a part, but it’s also a case of people dodging each other and not wanting to fight. Boxing is a hard man’s sport but there are too many boxers who are worried about protecting their records, and they aren’t willing to test themselves- when they step up a level that’s when they get found out.
‘I was always a high risk/low reward opponent, so there was never much incentive for promoters to put me on their shows. If a promoter doesn’t get the money they expect for a fight, then the fight won’t happen. Or, they’ll keep putting the fight off to try and make it bigger and make more money.
‘Look at the Brook vs Khan fight. I have no interest in that fight anymore, but it would have been a huge event a few years ago. It was the same story with Mayweather Pacquiao; it was still a big event but it would have been a lot bigger if it had happened earlier when both guys were in their primes.
‘I’ve got mixed feelings about my career really; the team I had were a class bunch of lads, I’d never dodge a fight and I enjoyed fighting. I’ve had some good experiences sparring guys like Billy Joe and Kell Brook, they’re some highlights that spring to mind, and I’ve always enjoyed fighting so getting in there and doing it as a living was a dream. I don’t regret getting into boxing.’
On the topic of Billy Joe Saunders, I thought it would be interesting to ask Craig his opinion on Saunders’ eye injury, and the accusations of ‘quitting’ that also came when Cunningham forced Ogogo to retire with his own eye problems.
‘Yeah I watched that fight, and in my opinion if a fighter is injured that badly then there’s not much you can do. People go on about quitting without ever being in there themselves, he had a fractured eye socket which can’t have been too comfortable. I’d say it was the right decision, and I can never imagine Billy Joe just quitting for no reason, so it must have been serious. He got out with a lot of money, and he lives to fight another day.
‘People will always have something to say online, and even if he had won they’d still find something to hate about. You see undefeated fighters getting hated on, and there’s always someone that has something to say. The only way to tackle it is to ignore it, they’ve never been in a boxing ring themselves, and the only way to sort them out is to offer them a trip down to the gym for some sparring.
‘What you’ve got to remember is boxers are putting their lives on the line for the public’s entertainment. No matter what everyone has to say, Saunders still earned millions, fought a great fighter in Canelo, and he lives to fight another day.’
Fighting an all time great for millions of pounds would surely appeal to any fighting man, I asked Craig who, out of all the boxers in history, he would choose to fight given the chance.
‘That’s a really tough question man. I thought about saying Mike Tyson, but I don’t think that would end very well for me! I’d love to share the ring with someone like Muhammad Ali, just to say I’d been in the same ring. Don’t get me wrong, if I was going in with anyone that big I’d definitely be expecting a big payday!’
Though there is obviously no chance of Cunningham vs Ali or Tyson anytime soon, Craig is still of the age where he could come out of retirement and still compete at a similar level to where he was a few years ago. I asked how he felt about the idea of coming back for another fight, and the answer I got was fairly conclusive.
‘I really can’t see that happening to be honest mate. The only thing that would convince me to come out of retirement would be for a huge payday and I know that no promoter would be interested in paying me that much money to come back, so I’m gonna say no. My life is good, my family is good and I’m happily retired.’
I ended this fascinating interview with the same question I like to ask all that I speak to. I asked Craig what he wanted his legacy to be, how he wanted his career to be looked back on, and how he wanted to be remembered.
‘I want to be remembered for fighting anyone, not being afraid of anyone, and doing my job as best as I could. I’d like to be remembered for that, and for giving the fans a few good away days and a few great fights.’