It didn’t matter much to top-rated cruiserweight contender Steve Cunningham that he was buried deep on the undercard of the recent championship doubleheader featuring Zab Judah-Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck-O’Neil Bell at Madison Square Garden on January 7.

The 29-year-old Cunningham, who hails from Philadelphia, fought so early on the show his wife Elizabeth was still waiting on line to get into the fabled arena. Utilizing his dizzying array of boxing skills, Cunningham raised his record to 19-0 (10 KOs) by stopping journeyman Lloyd Bryan in the fifth round.

He also set himself up for a bout against Bell, who stopped Mormeck later in the evening to become the first unified cruiserweight champion since Evander Holyfield in 1988. The effervescent Cunningham couldn’t be happier than to be where he is right now.

“I always listen to the little voice in my head, and that voice is telling me that I’m going to be the champion of the world,” said Cunningham a few hours before Bell stopped Mormeck in the tenth round of a slugfest.

“I can do anything I put my mind to. I’m willing to fight anybody. If Mormeck wins, I’ll go to France to take his title. If Bell wins, I’ll go to his backyard. It’s all the same to me.”

Cunningham has been upsetting the odds since he first put on boxing gloves in the U.S. Navy. While serving aboard the U.S.S. America and the U.S.S. Enterprise he refueled aircraft of all kinds. With little to do when off duty, he made his way to a small boxing gym near the Little Creek Amphibious Base in 1996. In his first amateur bout, he beat the light heavyweight champion of the entire Navy.

“My opponent’s captain was there, so there was a lot of pride involved,” laughed Cunningham. “He was expected to take advantage of me. A lot of people were surprised when I beat him, but I wasn’t. When I begin something new, whatever it is, I want to be the best at it. I’m willing to work very hard to become the best.”

Cunningham, who served four years in the Navy, moved to Atlanta upon his discharge in 1998. “That was the best place to start a boxing career,” he explained. “The Olympics were held there two years earlier, and I was told it was a great training ground.”

The quick-learning and fast-starting Cunningham won the 1998 National Golden Gloves and turned pro two years later. He garnered much-needed professional experience fighting at whistle stops in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.

Finally, in mid-2002, he aligned himself with promoter Don King and found himself squaring off against Joseph Awinongya at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

“I won a tough eight-round decision and realized I wasn’t in South Carolina anymore,” recalled Cunningham. “I said this is the big-time. I’m happy to be promoted by Don King, but realize the importance of also promoting myself. That is why I have a website and why I am always eager to make friends with reporters. This game is not just about having talent, it’s about being available and open and honest with reporters and your fans.”

Although Cunningham has had relatively few fights, many of them were against big names in big venues. He beat South African strongman Sebastian Rothmann by 10-round decision at the Carnival City Casino in South Africa, Forrest Neal and Bryan at Madison Square Garden, Terry McGroom at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, Demetrius Jenkins at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Guillermo Jones at the Centrum Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Kelvin Davis at the Gund Arena in Cleveland.

“It’s been quite a ride,” said Cunningham. “I’ve loved every minute of it. I can’t wait to fight for the title. Bell – he’s a good fighter but a little shaky. I’m not worried about him at all.”

As much as Cunningham loves boxing, the sport is not the only thing of importance in his life. He and his wife, whom he met while she was taking a boxing class at the Atlanta gym where he trained, still look at each other as if they are starry-eyed teenagers.

“I like to say we were married the minute that we met,” said Cunningham. “It was like we both knew we were made for each other. We are soul mates.”

The couple has two children. Their son Steve Jr. is three and their daughter Kennedy is four months old. Sadly, Kennedy has not yet come home from the hospital. She was born with a heart disease that requires constant and urgent medical care.

As difficult a challenge as her disease has been, the family’s deep-seated faith has enabled them to cope effectively. “Having Kennedy has only made our faith stronger,” said Elizabeth. “Even though she was born with only half a heart, we like to think she has daddy’s heart.”

“She’s the real fighter in the family,” interjects Cunningham. “It’s not me. I want to get her autograph when she gets older and is all better.”

The Cunninghams are also glad to have esteemed trainer Richie Giachetti in their corner. For many years Giachetti trained former heavyweight champions Larry Holmes and Oliver McCall, as well as many other championship caliber fighters. They are certain that he can help them attain the same level of success.

“If Richie told me to jump on one foot, I would,” said Cunningham. “He’s not just a boxing trainer, he’s a teacher. He’s like an uncle to me.”

Cunningham spends an inordinate amount of time training at Giachetti’s gym in Lodi, Ohio, a predominantly white town where Giachetti and his twin brother Steve run a restaurant called Little Tony’s. While Steve often jokes that the residents must think that they are in the Witness Protection Program, the Cunninghams are thrilled with the receptiveness of local residents.

“I think we are the only African-Americans in town, but we are treated like longtime neighbors,” said Cunningham. “The people there are very down-to-earth and no-nonsense. When I become champion, it’s going to be as much for the good people of Lodi as it is for the good people of Philadelphia.”