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By his own estimation, Steve Cunningham has lived five different lives. He grew up poor without a father in Philadelphia, he sold drugs on the street before starting high school, he had a gun stuck in his face, he learned to draw but missed out on art school, he enlisted in the Navy, and he took up boxing and willed himself into becoming one of the best cruiserweights in the world.
But his biggest passion—the one place he could always turn for inspiration and escape—was comic books. He began drawing them when he was a kid, and now at the age of 39, he’s putting the finishing touches on his first comic book creation.
First, though, he’s got business to settle inside the boxing ring. On Saturday night, Cunningham will try to win his third world cruiserweight belt when he meets current titlist Krzysztof Glowacki on NBC primetime. Cunningham—with a record of 28-7-1 with 13 knockouts—is currently a slight 6/5 underdog to Glowacki (25-0, 16 knockouts) for his version of the 200-pound weight class title.
But that doesn’t bother Cunningham. He’s already succeeded in life—in escaping his drug-dealing youth, by becoming a world-class fighter, and by following the passion in his heart.
“I grew up in this rough neighborhood, and you watch movies and TV shows for an escape,” Cunningham told the Daily Dot. “But reading comics was an escape to another universe where everything was possible—dudes flying around, people freezing you. That’s a little boy’s dream—to find some type of land where people are super.”
Despite all of his successes, Cunningham still can’t stop himself from escaping to the world of fantasy.
He’s in the process of illustrating, writing, and eventually releasing his own comic book called USS Comics. Cunningham is the super hero of the story—he calls it a “fictional autobiography”—and he battles villains who borrow some of the traits of his former boxing opponents. It’s typical good vs. evil, but Cunningham also strives to add depth to his character.
Just like in real life, he’s a Navy man in the comic, and there are centuries-old secret societies, men who want to take over the world, an army of supermen, and a military that wants to experiment on him. Cunningham becomes public enemy No. 1 of the power-hungry secret society, and from there, the story expands.
Despite all the turmoil in his life, Cunningham could always draw, and he always had the motivation to do so. At 7 years old, his parents split up, and his father turned to drugs. His mother and siblings hopped from home to home, and eventually, Cunningham began selling crack. It helped pay for his school clothes, but soon after he was nearly robbed at gunpoint—his only saving grace, he told Grantland in 2014, was that distant police sirens scared off his assailant—he stopped and began focusing on school. And on drawing.
His older brother was the first to pick up a pen, but Cunningham soon followed suit. After returning home from school each day, Cunningham and his brother and sister would watch The Transformers on TV. That animation inspired him. His drawings, which he referred to as “chicken scratch,” began to take shape. The Cunningham kids would try to draw their own versions of the Transformers, and the ideas and possibilities of how his pencil could move across the paper rarely left his mind.
He was infatuated with comic books—DC Comics, Marvel, Superman, X-Men, you name it—and he remembers a Batman scene in particular when Mr. Freeze punched through a glass wall trying to catch the superhero. With so much glass shattered throughout the page, Cunningham studied the scene intently because the shards looked so difficult to draw.
He planned to apply to art schools in Philadelphia and New York, but he didn’t understand the urgency of college application deadlines, and his busy single mom had never been to college and couldn’t guide him. Cunningham never submitted his application or his portfolio. The next thing Cunningham knew, it was April and all his friends were receiving their acceptance letters and he wasn’t.
That led to Cunningham joining the Navy and forgetting about a potential career as an artist. It was there that Cunningham began to box, and for the past 16 years, he’s fought professionally, eventually winning two world cruiserweight titles and putting together standout performances against world-class fighters like his bout vs. Marco Huck that Cunningham later called his most gratifying victory.
But Cunningham never lost the desire to draw, and the idea of creating a comic book germinated in Las Vegas when he was visiting former boxing champion Chris Byrd. He had just won one of the biggest fights of his career vs. Wayne Braithwaite in 2009, and while sitting at Byrd’s table, Cunningham simply had the urge to draw. He began randomly sketching superheroes, and on a whim, he drew himself.
It looked something like this.
Cunningham’s initial thoughts: “I was like, ‘Whoa.'”
But the actual process of producing the comic book has been slow going, because he’s producing it all himself, and it’s difficult for Cunningham to put effort into drawing and storylines when he’s training for a fight. Seven years later, though, Cunningham is nearly ready to release what he hopes is a masterpiece.
Ultimately, though, Cunningham is looking to the future. He’ll turn 40 this summer, and his boxing career is almost certainly nearing its end. Unlike his childhood, his life is stable now. But he’s still got that passion for comic books and for the art that goes into them.
“This is one of those things that could really turn into something,” he said. “It could turn into that. I would love for it to be something. Am I expecting it to go? Not necessarily. I know comic book fans can be fickle and funny. But I’m already coming in with a fan base from boxing. People are like, ‘I can’t wait to see it.’ There is an interest out there.”
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.