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Fighter Steve Cunningham's inspiration: His daughter

Jesse Dougherty, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Tuesday, August 4, 2015, 1:09 AM

Philadelphia heavyweight boxer Steve Cunningham holds his nine-year-old daughter Kennedy in the ring at DSG Boxing Gym. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

Kennedy Cunningham was one step ahead of her father, Steve, at DSG Boxing Gym one afternoon last month.

Heavyweight Steve Cunningham and his daughter, Kennedy, who underwent heart transplant surgery in December. CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Kennedy Cunningham plays in the ring with her 4-year-old brother, Cruz. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Kennedy Cunningham, full of energy, plays at her father's gym. CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Photo Gallery: Fighter Steve Cunningham's inspiration: His daughter

While Cunningham, a 39-year-old heavyweight from Philadelphia, changed into his workout spandex, his 9-year-old daughter pulled on big red gloves and threw them at a punching bag. While Steve had his hands taped, Kennedy stepped into the ring and playfully sparred with her 4-year-old brother, Cruz.

Cruz backed her into a corner, and she fought her way out, squinting and smiling. The vibrant aqua tips of her curly hair matched her shoes. When she finally cornered Cruz, she threw a round of light hooks at his head.

"Kennedy!" yelled Livvy, their mother and Cunningham's wife and manager. "I said don't hit his head."

"Man," Livvy said, and when she turned her back Kennedy went right back to it. "Her energy really is night and day."

Seven months ago, the Cunninghams were waiting for a heart transplant that Kennedy needed to live. She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped and unable to function properly. In June 2014, they were told by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia that Kennedy was not eligible for a transplant and that they should enjoy the time she had left.

But after a successful transplant at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in December, her ability to endure and overcome is an inspiration for Cunningham's career, one built on heart and grit before size and skill.

Cunningham (28-7, 13 knockouts) will fight 46-year-old Antonio Tarver on Aug. 14 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Tarver (31-6, 22 knockouts) is 6-foot-2 and last fought at 225 pounds, while Cunningham is 6-foot-3 and last fought at 209.

The Philadelphian has a daughter whose unending courage provides unending motivation.

"If she can do that, I think I can do anything in boxing, in life," Cunningham said. "I always take that into the ring."

Cunningham said that when he was 11, his father started doing crack cocaine and beating his mother. She left and took her son with her.

"I remember thinking, 'In the future I'm going to have a family and I don't want it to be the way mine was,' " Cunningham said. "I want to be there with my kids."

That started with his and Livvy's first child, Steve Jr., and became even more pressing when Kennedy was born with congenital heart disease. Kennedy had two surgeries before her first birthday, and the Cunninghams' reality came into focus.

In April 2014, while Cunningham was preparing to fight Amir Mansour at the Liacouras Center, the couple were told that Kennedy would need a new heart to live. Cunningham went on to beat Mansour in a unanimous decision, but painful news followed in June.

Doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia deemed Kennedy ineligible for a heart transplant. They told Livvy that because hypoplastic left heart syndrome made the left side of Kennedy's heart unable to pump oxygen-rich blood to her body, Kennedy had developed a "network of rogue veins" known as collaterals. Because of that, Livvy said the doctors thought there was a high risk Kennedy would bleed out on the operating table.

A spokesman from CHOP said the hospital couldn't speak about Kennedy's situation because it does not comment on individual cases, according to hospital policy.

"The doctors sat me down and basically told me that this is the end," Livvy said, "and that she was too sick and that there were no more options. It was devastating."

Convinced a transplant could still happen, the Cunninghams went to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh for a second opinion. Brian Feingold, who specializes in transplant cardiology at Pittsburgh Children's, said that he and many others pored over the records CHOP sent and decided to put Kennedy on their transplant list.

"We told the family that she was going to be a complex transplant and that there was a significant risk of not surviving," said Feingold, who was hands-on in the decision to operate on Kennedy but not part of the actual surgery. "But we just felt like that within the spectrum of patients we had done transplants for complex heart disease, we didn't see enough that she was outside of our comfort zone with that."

It was 1 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2014, and Kennedy was still awake, watching TV next to Livvy.

The house phone rang. Livvy was used to rushing to calls only to be disappointed. Not this time.

It was Kennedy's transplant coordinator. "Livvy, we have a heart. Bring her in."

"Mom, is it my heart?" Kennedy asked. When Livvy told her it was, Kennedy said, "Let's go tell Daddy."

When Kennedy told Cunningham, "We got the call," he immediately looked at his wife. Livvy nodded. Two days later, a new heart changed Kennedy's life.

"Despite all of the worries we had with her risk factors," Feingold said, "I think she actually did very well with the surgery."

Kennedy could face complications in the future, he said. Feingold said there always will be a risk of Kennedy's body rejecting her new heart, and she will need to stay on anti-rejection medication to combat that. The side effects will make her more susceptible to a wide range of infections. Kennedy's new heart is also unlikely to last into her 60s or 70s, and Feingold said it's possible she could need another transplant down the line.

The Cunninghams know all this but are using the last year to think positively about Kennedy's future.

They are moving to Pittsburgh to be close to the hospital. Kennedy will start school again as a third grader in the fall. The only outward reminder of her medical history is a circular scar at the bottom of her throat, the result of a tracheotomy that left her speaking in a hushed voice.

"We didn't know if Kennedy was going to make it to the transplant, but she did," Cunningham said. "Any moment to share with her now, when I'm in the ring or at home, it's just precious."

As Kennedy ran around DSG gym, chasing her brother and imitating her father in the ring, a fitting word flapped on the front of her gray dress.

It read "Reflect." A reminder of the 9-year-old fighter behind the heavyweight fighter.

Jesse Dougherty, Inquirer Staff Writer

Read full story: Fighter Steve Cunningham's inspiration: His daughter

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