Recess at school is supposed to be fun for kids. It’s a time to get away from class, play with friends, and think about anything other than schoolwork.
But on a day in 2003, that was not the case for then-fourth-grader Alton Cunningham.
“Literally the whole fourth grade class was surrounding me, making fun of me,” Cunningham, now 26, says.
Born in nearby Memphis, Tennessee, Cunningham grew up an only child in the small town of Marion, Arkansas. He had a sister who died at the age of two months. He was two years old at the time, and doesn’t remember her much at all. Life was difficult in Marion, which Cunningham described as “ghetto as sh-t.” There, opportunities to make it in this world were few and far between.
“It was nothing but rough,” Cunningham says. “It was nothing but gang-banging, playing basketball or football, or going to the military. Your options are really limited. There’s only a couple ways you can go.
“It was country as hell. You go down a road and see nothing but liquor stores, a McDonald’s. You don’t have much. That’s ghettos in America. It was all I knew.”
Cunningham was a die-hard pro wrestling fan as a kid, so much so that he wanted to be a pro wrestler himself when he got older—far from the ordinary for someone from Marion.
“When you come from the ghetto, and the people you are influenced by are rappers, basketball players, the local people that are in the ghetto, you don’t have anybody to have any positive influence on you, or anybody that was successful you can look up to,” Cunningham says. “I always felt like I had to change the dynamic of my family and the people in my city by doing something different.”
In search of a change of scenery and a different way of life, Cunningham and his parents moved to Madison, Wisconsin in the summer of 2002; he was nine. Cunningham missed Marion at first, because he wanted to be back home with his extended family, but eventually opened up to city life.
However, Cunningham’s new life in Madison soon took a turn for the worse.
Starting in elementary school, Cunningham was severely bullied for being different than everyone else. He looked and talked different, dressed differently, and had different interests.
He loved pro wrestling; kids gave him a hard time for that. He wore khakis to school, while others sagged their baggy jeans; kids gave him a hard time for that. Coming from the south, he was darker than most; kids also gave him a hard time for that.
“No one really understood me,” Cunningham says. “You got this kid who comes and he’s dressing all proper, wearing glasses, talking this way. He’s the new kid on the block, and what he likes doesn’t fit in with what this group likes. But he wants to get along with this group. What do they do? They pick on him.”
That day in Madison, the one where Cunningham was surrounded by bullies, it stands out in his brain. He remembers it well.
Cunningham stood in the middle of the playground, his classmates all around him. They were shouting at him, calling him names, saying mean things for fourth grade. One girl smacked him in the face. The teachers did nothing.
“That was one of the lowest days of my life,” Cunningham says. “Hands down. Now that we talk about it, it was one of the lowest days of my life.
“I got a son now; I couldn’t imagine—I would go to the school, I would go inside that classroom, and smack the f-ck out if somebody ever did that to my son.”
The students who taunted Cunningham returned to the school after recess was over, and so did Cunningham. He carried on his day at school, then went home and told no one about what happened.
“I dealt with it,” he says. “What am I gonna say? I grew up in the ghetto. If I said, ‘Dad, they’re picking on me,’ my dad gonna say, ‘Go smack one of the motherf-ckers in their f-cking face.’”
That day put a chip on Cunningham’s shoulder. It grew a certain kind of intensity inside him that he believes eventually led to his career in mixed martial arts. He wanted to be better than those kids, and he knew he would be.
“I look back and you see these kids, those same type of kids, look where they are today,” Cunningham says. “Some of them are in jail; some are working at the local McDonald’s. And when I go there, they’re flipping my f-cking burgers. What’s funny is, some of those people that bullied me are some of my biggest fans now. If you want to talk about ultimate fulfillment, there you go right there.
“The bullying led to me visualizing greatness, visualizing being successful, visualizing having a better life than what I felt I had. It wasn’t a sh-tty life, but it definitely could have been much, much better.”
Cunningham’s parents divorced in 2004, two years after they moved to Madison. His father stayed in Wisconsin for a while, then moved back to Arkansas, then much later back to Wisconsin. Back then, his father not being around made things more difficult for him. Today, Cunningham has a good relationship with both his parents.
“We struggled for a while,” Cunningham says. “I never grew up in a financially stable home. I grew up with a mom who worked hours upon hours just to make sure we made ends meet.
“I didn’t have a father figure, and I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I grew up with my friends like they were my brothers. I spent a lot of time alone.”
Around high school age, Cunningham and his mother moved to a small town half an hour outside Madison called DeForest—which at the time was predominantly white. That’s when he experienced racism and prejudice for the first time.
“You walked down the road, and you looked to the side of the road and people are yelling out ‘n-gger’ outside their f-cking car,” Cunningham, who attended DeForest High School, says.
“That created a series of anger, and it also created a series where I felt I had to prove myself. It got to the point where I was just like, ‘I’m f-cking tired of this sh-t. I’m tired of being disrespected. All I’ve done is just try to give love to everybody and uplift everybody’s spirits around me.’ From that moment on, I just did not give a f-ck anymore. Did not give a f-ck.”
The same intensity Cunningham felt when he was bullied in elementary school had hit a climax.
The first MMA fight Cunningham ever watched was B.J. Penn vs. Jens Pulver in 2007. He was visiting his family in Arkansas. His late grandfather was watching the fight, but Cunningham, still a massive pro wrestling fan at the time, thought nothing of it.
“I was like, ‘Man, you’re talking about B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver?’” Cunningham says. “Don’t you know Triple H and Stone Cold Steve Austin are fighting Sunday on pay-per-view? I don’t want to watch this sh-t.’”
Unsurprisingly, Cunningham started getting into MMA when Brock Lesnar transitioned to the sport from WWE. He was enticed by his first fight with Frank Mir, then followed his path to the UFC heavyweight title.
He soon discovered MMA heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko, a pudgy guy – Cunningham’s words – who destroyed bigger fighters, and yet remained incredibly humble afterward. Emelianenko was Cunningham’s true inspiration to start training MMA.
“I knew the moment I watched Fedor Emelianenko that I was going to be an MMA fighter and I was going to be in the UFC,” Cunningham says. “Nothing else mattered. I was telling everybody in high school that that was exactly what I was going to do. From that moment on, there was no other option. I knew I was gonna find a way to make it happen.”
But before Cunningham started actually training MMA, he tried his hand at a much more unstructured, unsanctioned form of combat. Cunningham started his own high school “fight club.”
“We just had these Karate America gloves,” he says. “I’d beat the living sh-t out of everybody who put those Karate America gloves on. In school, I had a reputation, and nobody f-cked with me.”
Not only was it fun for him, but it let loose all the anger that had built up inside of him during his years of being harassed. He was finally able to prove himself to everyone—something he had been waiting to do since elementary school.
It wasn’t long before he was hosting what he called “cards” in different areas of the school or close by: the locker room, somebody’s backyard, at the park. Cunningham was truly the “high school Dana White,” he says.
“I had people always coming up to me like, ‘Hey, you guys doing something today? This motherf-cker was talking sh-t; I want to fight him,’” Cunningham says. “It took off. Could you imagine being a kid, the whole school was surrounding him, and now that same kid has control of a whole grade? I was a sophomore in high school, having these juniors and seniors duke it out.
“There were so many times we had the locker room packed. People on top of the lockers. We had a fight card. I’m in class like, ‘F-ck math class, I’m trying to put this card together for tomorrow in the lunch room.’”
Being bullied was not a positive time in Cunningham’s life. Far from it. But, he believes his past had to unfold the way it did for his life to look the way it does today. Cunningham is 7-1 in professional MMA, and just days away from an opportunity to fight in the UFC—the biggest stage in the sport. Cunningham fights Tuesday night in Las Vegas, on Dana White’s Contender Series—a feeder league for the UFC. He’ll be taking on Tony Johnson, who is 7-2. It will be the biggest fight – and perhaps moment – of Cunningham’s life.
If he wasn’t bullied as a child, Cunningham says he may not have started the fight club in high school. He wouldn’t have had the same “deep, intense anger and energy” he does today. Competing in MMA himself would never have been a thought after watching Emelianenko’s fights.
Cunningham knew the second he watched Emelianenko, and especially the second he put on those Karate America gloves for the first time, that he would be a pro fighter and make it to the UFC. For him, it wasn’t a matter of ‘if,’ but a matter of ‘when.’ But how? And why was he so sure?
“I knew I found not only what I loved, but I knew I found what best describes what I’ve been through in life without me saying a word,” Cunningham says. “I finally had an outlet to let out every single thing I’ve been through. I knew I was going to thrive. I just had this belief. The kid that was surrounded by all those kids, nobody believes in you. But if nobody believes in me, I’m still gonna believe in me.”
Cunningham, who trains at Pura Vida BJJ & MMA in Milwaukee, was on Dana White’s Contender Series last year, too. He lost to Bevon Lewis by first-round TKO. It was his first pro loss and only his second loss ever in the sport. Since then, he has moved up to the light heavyweight division and has won two straight.
Cunningham admits that ahead of that fight, he got caught up in his past: Growing up rough. Being bullied. The racial slurs he heard as he walked down the road. He started to doubt himself. It simply wasn’t the right time for him to be on that stage.
But this time, just a day away from his second shot at his biggest dream, it feels so much different, Cunningham says.
“I felt like I didn’t deserve that moment,” Cunningham says. “I was having doubts, and you can’t have doubts in those moments. There’s no doubt right now. I’m at my full potential, I’m ready to go, and I’m ready to give this guy hell. I’m enjoying this moment, because I’ve been waiting for this moment and have wanted this moment my whole life. And it’s here now.”
Every up-and-coming fighter dreams of fighting for the UFC, because it’s often life-changing. But it would be more than that for Cunningham. It would be even more special.
That’s because Cunningham grew up in a place that limits people. They play basketball, or join the military, or belong to a gang. Maybe they pack up their bags and start a new life elsewhere, like his family did. But that’s if they’re lucky. They surely don’t end up fighting live on ESPN.
That is until “The Bo-Man” came around.
“It means so much, because I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Cunningham, who celebrates his 26th birthday on Monday, says. “I’ve visualized this moment from even before I knew I was gonna be an MMA fighter, this moment of ultimate success. That kid who was getting picked on, now the whole room is looking at him. All eyes on me.
“Everybody wants that moment. I live for that moment. I would die for that moment. Why? Because I came from nothing. I’ve been at the bottom. Now it’s my time at the top.”