As a multiple kickboxing World champion Canadian Peter Cunningham earned the nickname “Sugarfoot” for his lightning fast and sweet kicking techniques that kept his opponents at bay just as much as legendary “Sugar” Ray Leonard used his amazingly quick punching combinations to become one of the most popular champions in professional boxing. Today, Peter is sugar-coating his focus mitts and kick targets for new talents and championship prospects in order to tease them into becoming new world champions in kickboxing, ultimate fighting and MMA. We met Peter Cunningham in “The House of Champions”, a hotspot gym of fighting sports in the greater Los Angeles area, California (coverstory with Peter Cunningham) . His main method of teaching fighting prospects aiming for the top at UFC, Glory and WAKO championships is the same: Sparring with Mitts! He just can’t let go of fighting as the focus mitts give him the feeling of staying in the game. His protégées are more than happy to learn from his competitiveness. Let's listen in to an interview with Sugarfoot Cunningham fighter-turned-coach:
Peter, it is fabulous meeting you again. These days you are working as a trainer out of this beautiful gym here in California, the “House of Champions”. Tell us a little bit about your transition from retiring as a fighter to becoming a coach.
I tell you what: I have always been a fighter-trainer. Even back at the height of my fighting career. When I retired officially after my last fight against Dida Diafat in Paris I had a three movie pciture deal with Scott Fry. It was a pay no play deal. The deal fell thru. About at that time or shortly thereafter I started working with other fighters. Some of my friends gave me an opportunity to work with them. Hector Lopez, an amazing boxer. He was a ’84 silver medalist. Javier Diez, boxing world champion, Danny Steele, Danny Loohan. I worked with boxers and kickboxers. Let’s not forget Mia St. John. We have a great picture of her together with sensei Mark with me here at the wall of fame in the House of Champions gym. She was a great fighter. I guess I just fell into it as a natural transition.
Then is was like fighters taking care of others, just like brothers help each other out?
Yes, that’s right. That’s how we started off. Hector was in my corner and I was in his when he had a fight. Maybe not all fighters become a good trainer, but if you know the game and you love the art of the sport - you know the art of it - you want to contribute and produce a great champion. That’s just like another kind of winning. It’s the same in kickboxing, boxing and MMA.
Peter’s retirement fight took place in Paris in 1996. He handily beat French opponent Dida Diafat by points for the ISKA Oriental Rules World Title. Diafat had previously defeated legendary Dutchman Ramon Dekker, twice (Photo: Kung Fu Revue).
You have been fighting with leg kicks most of your kickboxing fights, but you didn’t win your fights by kicking to the legs. You weren’t the tough guy breaking opponents apart, but you were holding your opponents on a distance while pointing and out-scoring them. The discipline to do that over 12 rounds is an outstanding phenomenon in the sport as most lowkick fighters tend to aim for scoring with leg kicks. What kept you going to hold up your style and discipline?
That’s lifetime training, maybe like a cultivation of a style. I know what works for me best. The discipline I learned from my senseis: Robert Supeene Jr., Robert Supeene Sr. back in Canada to Tom Forstreuter, Doug Dunn, Donnie Smart. The people kept you being you. And of course sensei Benny Urquidez and his brother Ruben, sister Lily and Blinky saw the way that I fought and they said that’s exactly the way to go into a fight. Everytime I fought in my heart that was me. And that’s who I became. They are my senseis and my honour towards them contributed to me fighting that way. I was kinda in that zone.
Fighting your style was your game plan for a fight?
When I see fighters like Floyd Maywether or Lomachenko, I adore these fighters. They fight a certain way and they never go too far away from that. They may sit down to punch for a while, but then they go back to their thing, slipping and sliding because that works for them. You know. I have always been a fan of that style. The movement, keeping your distance. The hit and not getting hit philosophy.
When you were an active fighter there was a lack of good kickboxing trainers. Now, you represent the first generation of fighters who become trainers.
Yes! My first trainers in Canada when I was kickboxing were martial artists. When I came to the USA to train with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and his brothers Ruben and Arnold they were also great fighters. The boxing trainers I worked with Ray Barnes and Ed Cousins, great guys, these great trainers were also good fighters from way back. It was a tradition for fighters to become trainers, some great trainers you know. The trainers who trained me were also great fighters in their past. Certain trainers weren’t fighters, but had a good mind. And then you have some great fighters who can’t train. Thy can’t get it across. And there are some good fighters who became great trainers. Maybe I have the art to be the later. For my trainers it was very easy to get across to be what had to be done. For me it has been a natural transition.
I observed your training yesterday. You train people that are almost complete fighters where you don’t have to teach them how to execute a technique. You are mainly working with them on mitts. What’s the deal with your pad work?
It is almost personal, like sparring. A lot can be learned, but also missed. Mitt work is the next best thing to sparring. When a Thai fighter gets a good mitt coach he becomes a very good fighter. Literally, you are sparring. To me it is most important more than heavy mag, speed bag or kick post.
Holding the mitts is not that easy over longer periods of time. Do you condition yourself for that?
No, I don’t do that. I still train push ups, squads to stay strong. I don’t do weights. Holding the mitts for kicks and punches is a good workout for me that gives me condition, you know. Now, I hear about trainers complaining about wrists, elbows and shoulders hurting, but not me. I knock on wood. My upper body never ever had problems with that.
Peter Cunninham prefers using small pads with a curbed shape similar to these leather focus mitts. They are good for kicks and punches.
What pads are you using?
Regular mitts. Once in a while Thai pads for kicking. I like the curbed boxing mitts and actually I got that technique from Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s trainer Pat Goossen. Pat was a great fighter and a great trainer. I saw him as the first time as a boxing trainer holding small mitts and Don was throwing kicks and punches at it. I go: I like that. I got that technique from Pat Goossen. Thank you Pat!
Some trainers argue working on mitts will give you a false sense of focus because you are aiming for the hands of your training partner instead of the head. What’s your take on that?
A little yes. But no, not necessarily. When you deal with pads you have a mental state where the mind is the master. You have to visualize and keep that picture in your mind of striking that head or hitting that liver shot. It’s not too far off because you are in proximity tho that person with two arms standing on two legs holding those mitts. The rest of your work is done in your mind. For me - and that’s what I explain to my students: When you are hitting mitts you are not just hitting mitts you are sparring somebody right now. You don’t have to do that much of visualizing as somebody real is coming at you right now with the intend of a shot. I hold it up here and there is an opening for a liver shot and so on. Right? I call the shots. The verbal recuse is also forcing it. Mitt work, I really like it!
Large Thai pads are ideal for power kicks and knees: Fighters' Thai Kick Pads are slightly curved to center the power into the mide section of the padding.
How about sparring. How important is that when fighters are preparing for an event like Glory or UFC?
Very important! You have to know when and watch the fighters closely. Some guys can sparr four days straight without rest in between. Some fighters can sparr twice a week. That’s a lot for their bodies. As a coach I have to watch them closely, engage it and know which is which. When you have a guy that doesn’t need to much sparring you don’t want him to get messed up too much.
What kind of sparring do you prefer: Light or hard?
Light sparring most of the times and hard sparring once in a while. Meaning three or four weeks out before a fight I have them go hard. It is a tester. We put the gear on, the big gloves, shin pads, elbow protectors - I have them go hard at it. I don’t want them get hurt sparring, but I like them get tested, you know what I am saying?! I tell them, tomorrow you gonna go 15 rounds just to push them. Once he recovers from that he is getting in shape. If he gets tired we need some more workin’. I always tell them: You don’t have to kill the guy here. But once in awhile I give them a test. When you are helping your partners to get ready for a fight we say, today is lump day. They are laughing. That means you are going to take some lumps, today. I mean, he is your boy and he loves you, but guess what: When your figh is up I am going to take some lumps from you. You get some back, too. He is going to hit and kick you hard. With big gloves and big shins on you really won’t get hurt too much, but you gonna get it today. That’s good for the mental condition. They know they can go there. If they go there every day, they can become numb to it and they can get broken down. We call it 'leaving your fight in the gym'. You get too worn out.
When you say light sparring, how does that look?
It’s not easy, that’s not going to help you. You wanna have guys who can mimic your opponent as much as possible. Light sparring is for the last 2 weeks out. You don’t want your fighter to get cut or injured or anything. Most of the time it’s medium intensity, maybe 65 or 75 percent of power. There is still that sub-memory in their heart from the hard stuff 3 or 4 weeks out.
Do you have plans for a comeback?
(Laughs out laud) Wow, my comeback is done over. My brother and his two boys Jay and Josh Jauncey had a great time at Glory 52 in Long Beach. It was beautiful. Every time these kids fight and every time thy win, I win. It feels great. When Vince Pichel wins his UFC fights it’s a style. It feels like me winning all over again.
Vinc Pichel is looking on as Peter explains the next combination. Pitchel is an emerging UFC prospect with a winning record in MMA competition.
You are in a age now, where your past has shown some tear and wear to your body. You had hip replacement surgery. With that in mind would you recommend people to train differently, today?
That’s a hard one to co-sign. How I trained in the past? I trained very hard, six days a week because I had to get to a place. And I knew in my heart I had to do this kind of heavy work to get to that place. Maybe I was trying to outspeed my body. The truth is other fighters are there who trained and fought for a very long time who never suffered the injuries I did. The doctors are proposing or theorizing that it maybe could be genetically caused. If there was somebody in your family generation ago that had hip disfunction it may be genetics. There is a chance it was passed to you. Somebody asked me about sensei Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. That he is indestructible is an understatement. Look at his hips. He threw jump kicks, spin kicks, axe kicks, scissors, you name it. And with power every time. He fought the longest for any reigning kickboxing champions. No hip problem. Mister Bill Wallace, with the amazing speed and velocity of his kicks, have had both hip replacements like myself. There are other fighters that I know of. Don “The Dragon” Wilson never had a problem. He fought for way longer than I have. For me to say a fighter should not train as hard to accomplish that, honestly, I can not say that.
How about consulting with a doctor?
Yes! That is absolutely right. Here is what we did back in the day, old school: Suck it up! We were supposed to be tough guys. When I watch my fighters today and somethings hurts they will get it checked out tomorrow. Back in the old school we felt the need to be tough. We’ve been silly. If something hurts a bit you have to push through, but we learned maybe there is a reason the body sends us that signal. Go and check it out. It does not make you less of a tough guy. The toughest guy that I know is a kid that I train, now. He fights in the UFC. Watch him, he is a UFC legend in the making: Vinc Pichel. If Vince’s pinky hurts he goes in and gets it checked out. I go: That’s a good kid. He goes a 100 every time.
Imagine there would have been UFC while you were a fighter. Would you have wanted to compete at ultimate fights in MMA?
I tell you what, back when the UFC was just coming out. Different times, different circumstances. Myself, sensei Benny “The Jet”, Don “The Dragon”, Bill Wallace all would have been UFC champions. They are legends. The talents that we have and the work ethic would have went that direction. Absolutely.
Click above images to see the drills.
The House of Champions:
The House of Champions is one of the finest martial arts school in Sherman Oaks owned and amanged by Shihan Mark Parra. The dojo offers various martial arts classes from kids to MMA. Shihan Mark operates his gym since 1994. He was a student of legendary karate and kickboxing champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and follows his Ukidokan style with his spacious gym and generously friendly mentality. Many active and former champions workout here every day.