Like father, like son

Frankie Cunningham, 44, with his son.
Frankie Cunningham, 44, with his son.

Frankie Cunningham could pack a punch.

And the lad from Middlesbrough in England's northeast could also pack a hall back in the 80s.

"We used to pack out the Oakura Hall. With Frankie fighting, the hall would be chocka-block. That was until the fire department rang us up and warned us to limit our numbers for safety reasons," said New Plymouth's Pat Ryan, who used to coach the young boxer.

Frankie Cunningham with the cup for winning the New Zealand light middleweight title and the Jamieson Belt for the most scientific fighter at the champs.
Frankie Cunningham with the cup for winning the New Zealand light middleweight title and the Jamieson Belt for the most scientific fighter at the champs.

"He was a hardnosed kid, but he had talent . . . raw talent. He had all the skills and I just trimmed the rough edges."

Trim them he did, with Cunningham winning the New Zealand light middleweight title in 1987 along with the Jamieson Belt for the most scientific fighter at the champs and then represented New Zealand at the Oceania Games in Rarotonga winning a silver medal.

Cunningham came to New Zealand at the start of 1987 to live and work for his uncle - Paul Cunningham - at Oakura.

Frankie Cunningham's name popped up again two weeks ago in the 50 years ago column in this paper, which also lists achievements from 35 and 25 years ago.

Cunningham is still winning awards, but not as a boxer, rather as a coach.

Now 44, he lives in Ingleby Barwick where he was recognised for his coaching achievements in England a few weeks ago after the Wellington Amateur Boxing Club had a record three boxers fight in the Senior Amateur Boxing Association's championship finals earlier in the year.

One of the boxers was Cunningham's son, Louis, who finished runner-up in the light middleweight division.

Ryan, who represented New Zealand at the 1972 Munich Olympics and was a winner of the Jamieson Belt at the New Zealand champs, said Cunningham was one tough lad.

"Frankie came from a pretty rough area, a hardnosed kid. They brought them up tough there. When they went to school, they had to fight their way there," he said.

"He came out here with nothing. His uncle gave him a job in construction and that's a tough job. You don't see many fat scaffolders and it kept Frankie fit."

Ryan said he was fortunate as a coach to get hold of someone with good knowledge of boxing.

"To be honest, there were things he taught me."

Ryan said that like all boxers from Britain, Cunningham had the right technique.

"They know how to punch correctly, not round swings like in cage fighting. He learnt to fight at a young age and he was a clever boxer. He had the x-factor. He knew how to feint, his moving in the ring was next to none."

Ryan said Cunningham only boxed for the Oakura club for a year.

"Like all young fellas, he went off the rails a bit and went home. We've kept in touch . . . he was part of the family while he was here."

Ryan, who boxed himself from 1965 to 1972, then coached and later umpired and refereed in the sport, said he was pleased Cunningham had gone on to coach.

"Frankie's done really well. It's not always a good boxer can pass on his skills as a coach. He's obviously got the right technique and he's in that top echelon of coaches."

Cunningham said he remembered his time in Taranaki fondly.

"I moved to New Zealand because there was a shortage of work. I worked for my uncle on construction sites all around Taranaki which was a great experience."

Cunningham said he was lucky to meet Pat Ryan and his brother, Martin, and their families.

"I boxed in England to a high standard, winning loads of regional titles and was runner-up as a 19-year-old at the British champs. I think Pat put the finishing ingredients that helped make me a champ," he said.

"The man was big on technique and had me travelling round gyms to get the best sparring. He was a good pad man as well and very calm, cool and collected in the gym and in my corner with the help of his son, Shannon."

Cunningham said Martin Ryan was a well-respected person in New Zealand boxing.

"He helped arrange the best bouts and entered me in the right tournaments to get me to the top of the rankings in New Zealand as quick as possible."

If there was a regret for Cunningham, it was at the Oceania champs.

"I boxed four times and won bronze. I felt as though I should have done better. I think I had 18 bouts in New Zealand and fought some good lads."

Cunningham said he got to travel all around New Zealand through his boxing.

"Thanks to Pat, Heather Ryan [Pat's wife], Martin and my uncle, Paul, I got to see a lot of New Zealand. I count my blessing of how lucky I was meeting these great people and they're memories I will always treasure," he said.

"I consider myself lucky to have been trained by Pat and I use a lot of his coaching methods. If I ever win the lottery, I will bring a boxing team over to tour New Zealand . . . it's a beautiful country. A wee bit of me will always be Kiwi."

Cunningham was reported in the Evening Gazette as saying he was honoured to receive the coaching award.

"I'm over the moon and honoured," he said. "We've got great coaches in Middlesbrough, never mind the northeast, so it's very flattering."

Cunningham said he had been in boxing since he was 11 and had been coaching at the Wellington club for eight years.

He praised his original coaches, Ryan and ex-England squad trainer John Dryden, for the knowledge they had given him.

"Pat and John have always been a massive influence on me," he said. "They were always big on skill technique and footwork when I boxed and I've tried to build on what they have taught me. I haven't done it all on my own either. I've been with John since the start and he is still a massive influence."

Cunningham said the key was trying to make training interesting.

"I think to be a good coach, you've got to keep things fresh. You can't just keep doing the same things the same way, because you all get bored," he said.

"I look online at what the Cubans do and don't have a one-style-fits-all mentality. Boxers are individuals and you've got to work out what suits them best and what makes them tick."

Taranaki Daily News