Alton Cunningham’s phone continued to buzz, desperately trying to alert its owner to an incoming call. Then another… and another.
Cunningham, 25, didn’t hear it. The Wisconsin native was busy. Cunningham (7-1) was at the gym, and he was trying to finish off the last part of a circuit from his intense strength and conditioning routine.
Finally, after a grinding session of working out, Cunningham finally sat down, caught his breath, and checked his phone. There was a barrage of notifications from his coach.
“My coach, he was blowing my phone up like, ‘Hey! Call me, call me,'” Cunningham told The Body Lock. “I called him, and he’s like, ‘Hey, f**k that fight [an LFA matchup with Mike “Biggie” Rhodes], man. Let’s go do the Contender Series.’ I’m like, ‘F**k yeah! When?'”
On June 25, a day after Cunningham will turn 26, he will face Tony Johnson (7-2) in what will be his second stint on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Though he doesn’t put too much stock into birthdays these days, Cunningham believes this opportunity is a birthday present of sorts from the UFC.
“Yeah, man. Being older, I don’t really focus too much on my birthday. When my birthday comes, it’s like, ‘Wow, another year,’ you know what I mean? But, this time, it’s going to be me focused on fighting, you know, getting ready to go in there and do my thing. I mean, it’s going to be a birthday gift, yeah. It’s gonna be a birthday gift.”
In Cunningham’s first appearance on the Contender Series, he faced top prospect Bevon Lewis (6-1) in a middleweight bout. Since, Alton Cunningham has moved up to light heavyweight, a division in which he feels far better suited. Yet, despite the move up in weight, he still won’t be having any birthday cake ahead of his fight with Johnson.
“Nah, I’m not gonna have some. I’ll have some cake after the fight,” Cunningham said with a laugh. “I have a little bit of a weight cut. I don’t walk around big; it’s not going to be too severe of a weight cut. Right now, I’m walking around at 215, 216 [pounds], not too big, and that’s eating a lot. That’s eating whatever I want. I’m not saying I’m eating crappy; I have a really clean, healthy diet. I ain’t really worried about my diet and my weight right now. I’m focused on keeping a good amount of size on me.”
No, not that Tony Johnson
Alton Cunningham accepted a second chance on the Contender Series instantly, without giving any thought to who his opponent might be. Once he had an opponent, though, he began his research. What he found surprised him.
“I didn’t know him at all. Actually, when you Google him, the other Tony Johnson pops up; the [Bellator and ACA] heavyweight Tony Johnson,” laughed Cunningham. “So, I was like, ‘Oh, dang! You’re coming down to light heavyweight? Okay. Okay. You’re a big boy, but let’s get it!’ When the records didn’t line up, we found out that it was Tony Johnson, 7-2, from AKA, and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, okay.'”
Once Cunningham cleared up the confusion surrounding which Tony Johnson he’d be fighting, he began his pre-fight preparations. Ultimately, it didn’t matter too much to Cunningham who it was across the cage from him, as he’s been focused on becoming a better fighter regardless of who he’s up against.
“Well, I think for a lot of fighters, the first thing they do when they get an opponent is to look them up. So, I mean that’s what I did. I looked him up. To be honest, I really haven’t focused too much about what he’s bringing. He’s got some good things. I mean, being a boxer, I’m a striker, of course. It’s like, okay, you know, he’s a boxer and we’re going to see how that’s gonna work out.
“But, you know, not really. I’ve got the respect for him as an opponent and as an athlete and as a competitor, but, honestly, I’ve been focused on just getting better. I’ve said it for a while that it was never a matter if, it was a matter of when I was going to make it to the UFC because I know I belong in there with those guys. And hey, man, I’m prepping like I gotta find [Johnson’s] teammate, Daniel Cormier, one day, or Jon Jones, you know, that’s a dream fight of mine, you know what I mean? So, I’m just focused on getting better and executing because the real work starts when I get this contract.”
One of the unique aspects about the Contender Series is that a win, nay, even a finish, doesn’t guarantee you a UFC contract. No matter how impressive a fight you have, it might not be enough to win over UFC president Dana White (just ask Chris Curtis). But, Cunningham says, he’s the type of fighter White wants to sign.
“I mean, I’m gonna go off of past experiences, but I know me, and I know how violent I am in there. I know whether this fight goes to a decision or it’s a knockout, it’s gonna be a violent night. I’m such an explosive fighter, an athletic fighter, and I carry a lot of pop in my shots, that I don’t see how he’ll be able to withstand my shots when I’m landing on him for three rounds, and that’s not saying anything about him.
“Hey, look at some of the power strikers in UFC today, some of these knockout strikers in the UFC today, like McGregor. People that’s going three rounds with him, they’re getting messed up. Dustin Poirier is a knockout artist, a violent artist. He just went five rounds with Max Holloway, Max Holloway’s fucked up. Even if those guys win, it’s violent. I just gotta be myself and go in there and execute. The biggest thing is to go in there and executing my game. The last time I was on there I froze in the moment. I can guarantee you that won’t happen this time.”
A new Alton Cunningham
To prevent from freezing up again, Alton Cunningham has dedicated a significant portion of his time since the Lewis fight to his mindset, even going as far as to say he is a “completely different fighter” now.
“I would say just spending more time in my gym, focusing on my mindset, being confident and self-belief, which I’ve never really lacked self-belief, but I’ve also – I would say I’d never been in the true, proper mindset to be able to go in there and compete. The biggest things I’ve been focusing on are my mindset and just spending more time in my gym. I’ve been at Pura Vida now for a little bit over a year. Before that I was at a smaller gym, and now I’m at a true mixed martial arts gym, and I’ve been there for a long time, and I’m just a completely different fighter than I was last year at this time.”
In order to obtain the right mindset, Cunningham sought out and partnered with mental training company, Mindlock. Cunningham credits Mindlock with the strides his been able to make in his game, alongside, of course, his team and coaches.
“I would like to give a shoutout to my sports psychologist, [Mindlock founder] Dylan [Nadler] and Mindlock. I’d like to give a shoutout to my team, Pura Vida MMA and BJJ; my speed and sports coach, Nick Billegas.”
A new, improved Alton Cunningham is a terrifying thought. The light heavyweight knocked out all fourteen of his professional and amateur opponents and has won two straight since his lone loss to Bevon Lewis. With a win on the Contender Series against a tough opponent from AKA, Cunningham could punch his ticket to the UFC.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.