Sutherland 'Johnny' Cunningham, 69, boxer 'always in the fight'

June 21, 1998|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

As a boxer, Sutherland "Johnny" Cunningham was a jabber, a dancer who packed a power punch. He was tall and lanky, could bob and weave, and usually went the distance.

He lived and fought out of Baltimore, and though he never had a winning record, he surprised a lot of fighters, including a lightweight champ against whom he won a decision in 1953.

Mr. Cunningham, 69, of West Baltimore, died Wednesday of respiratory failure at St. Agnes Hospital.

His boxing career lasted more than a decade. He retired in 1958 with a record of 13 wins, 42 defeats and four draws.

"He was never spectacular about it, but he was always in the fight," said Jerome Epstein of Atlantic City, who has followed the careers of many East Coast fighters. "He was a good fighter who never got his due."

Mr. Cunningham began his fight career in the late 1940s, after a brief stint working for the city sanitation department, and was duly dubbed the "boxing garbage collector" by fight fans.

He trained most of his career at Mack Lewis' gym at Broadway and Eager Street in East Baltimore.

"He was the most relaxed fighter I've ever seen," Mr. Lewis said. "I had to wake him up to go into the ring. He was one of the best fighters I've ever seen. But he never got a lot of credit."

A native of Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Cunningham came to Baltimore as a boy and attended city public schools.

He served in the Army during World War II and, after his discharge, worked as a city trash collector for about a year.

The highlight of Mr. Cunningham's career came when he won a split decision over lightweight champion Jimmy Carter in Miami. The match was a nontitle bout.

"He was a good fighter, a fighter who knew what he was doing," Mr. Lewis said. "He was also a very nice person. Johnny was a beautiful person."

Before his victory against Jimmy Carter, Mr. Cunningham had won only eight of 35 professional fights, and an article in the next day's edition of The Sun called him a "string bean" who "wasn't supposed to be in the same ring with a champion."

"He had a losing record, but he was one of those guys who could upset you," said Ray H. Leonard Jr., who runs the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame and is past president of the Veteran Boxers Association Inc.

After retiring from boxing, he lived in New York, working as a merchant seaman.

He returned to Baltimore in the early 1990s.

He was a member of the First Apostolic Faith Church, 27 S. Caroline St., where services are scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow.

He married the former Lillie Demiels in 1947. They divorced in the 1980s.

He is survived by four sons, Anthony, Glen, Ronald and Michael Cunningham, all of Baltimore; six daughters, Patricia Cunningham, Brenda Cunningham, Ada Harrison, Connie Mitchell, Karen Moore and Gloria Cunningham, all of Baltimore; three brothers, Charles Hudson and Ernest Hudson, both of Baltimore, and Michael Hudson of New York City; six sisters, Carolee Hudson, Rosetta Hudson, Deliah Hudson, Sally Hudson, Margo Hudson and Maryalice Hudson, all of Baltimore; 17 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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