IN a sport forever ready to celebrate ‘Cinderella men’, Doncaster’s Jason Cunningham has to be considered one of the finest examples competing today.
The never-say-die 32-year-old has lost six times as a professional, and been the underdog more times than he can recall, yet currently holds the European super-bantamweight title and has, by his own admission, never been better.
Known as “The Iceman”, Cunningham lost three of four fights between 2017 and 2018, albeit to very good men, and few, back then, would have believed it possible that he would one day become the best in Europe. Yet that, despite the additional obstacle of a global pandemic, is exactly what’s happened.
“It’s a bit surreal really, coming after all we lived through with the Covid era,” Cunningham told Boxing News. “I didn’t know how long it was going to last or whether I’d be fighting again at all. It’ll be a year in May that the [Gamal] Yafai fight happened. I won that fight as the underdog and not even a year later I’ll have had three European title fights under my belt.”
Looking back, everything changed with that Yafai fight in May 2021. Given just three weeks to prepare, Cunningham, having lost to Kal Yafai [Gamal’s brother] six years earlier, soundly defeated the favourite over 12 rounds, dropping him three times in the process.
“That Yafai fight will always take some beating just because of everything around it,” he said. “With three weeks to go, a lot of people would have turned that fight down. But, credit to myself, I always keep in the gym and stay ready.
“If I had turned that fight down, I’d have probably never had the opportunity again. So, I had to take it really. I believed I was good enough to beat Yafai but he’d had a full camp and I hadn’t. I’d only been ticking over before the three weeks’ notice, so I had to step it up massively.
“I was a 25/1 underdog with the bookies to win on points and I won a lot of money for people that night. It was the defining moment of my career.”
While a shock to most, Cunningham’s victory over Yafai in 2021 was merely confirmation of what Cunningham himself had always suspected. “I always believed I was good enough to become European champion and that was the minimum goal I set myself,” he said. “Whether other people believed I could do that or not is another thing, but I’m pretty driven and believed I could.
“I’ve had my setbacks but I feel I’m at my peak now and have my best years ahead of me. You take the rough with the smooth. I’m glad I’ve had those defeats, to be honest, because they have made me the fighter I am today.”
Though Cunningham considers boxing a sport too enjoyable to ever stop, he nevertheless concedes there was a time, circa 2018, when others around him – those with his best interests at heart – were glancing towards the exit door on his behalf.
“There was one time after the Jordan Gill fight when my dad said something to me I didn’t like,” he recalled. “I got put down a couple of times in that fight – flash knockdowns – and my dad came to see me and said, ‘You want to think about hanging it up now.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a daughter to think about, haven’t you?’
“It offended me really. It was the first time I’d ever had to give my dad a few verbals, if you like. I didn’t like what he had said to me.
“It was then during lockdown, before I got the Yafai fight, I said to myself, ‘What’s happening here? When’s this going to end? Will I ever box again?’ When the Yafai fight was announced, I said to myself that if I didn’t win that fight I would retire. We didn’t know when the pandemic was going to end and I didn’t know where I would go if I didn’t beat Yafai. If I wasn’t good enough to beat Yafai, I wasn’t going to reach the level I wanted to get to.”
Now established at that level, Cunningham, 30-6 (6), is both thankful he didn’t retire and thankful to be headlining shows as champion. On Saturday (April 16) in Telford, he defends his European title for a second time against France’s Terry Le Couviour, 16-0 (2).
“This is the first time I think I’ll be favourite with the bookies, but you can’t underestimate anybody,” he said. “This is his big chance, just like it was my big chance against Yafai. He’s undefeated, so he’s going to be hungry, and he has never tasted defeat before. He looks aggressive, he comes forward, and he leads with hooks a lot. But I believe levels and experience are all in my favour and I believe I’ll do a number on him. I’ll stay disciplined, stick to the basics, and break him down. Then we’ll see what happens to him in the later rounds.”
If there are such things as privileges and luxuries in a sport as unforgiving as boxing, Cunningham is braced to grab all he deserves. “This is what I’ve been working towards my whole career, to have this backing,” he said. “One of the reasons I signed with Frank [Warren, promoter] was because I saw how Brad Foster was treated before our fight [in October 2021]. The promoter did everything for him – their man. I wanted that. I was craving that. I had a good, experienced team behind me and that was the final part I was missing. Now I’ve got it. I’m headlining an event on BT Sport and it’s all about me. I’m going to enjoy the experience.”