Stick AJ Cunningham in the cage with the baddest fighter alive. Stick him in there with two. You’ll never see a flinch from the featherweight. The road to fighting people he’s supposed to fight was a long, hard road of fighting people he should never have to fight.
As the son of an Aryan Brotherhood father, things were far, far from normal in Cunningham’s childhood.
Dog fights, removals from the home and drive-by shootings weren’t uncommon for the now 27-year-old to witness as a child.
Forced to be violent before even stepping foot in the fourth grade, Cunningham’s morning routine was horrifically different than most people’s.
“Every morning I remember us having to do workouts, like, hit these pushups and then box each other and s*** and then we would get these shots in the arms and s***,” Cunningham said. “I remember that.”
His father’s mistreatment of Cunningham and his brothers wasn’t limited to steroid injections in between battering his brothers and vice versa.
Punishments went beyond cuts and bruises. Far beyond.
“There would be times he’d come home and he’d be pissed off at something that happened to him or something we may have done and he’d, like, sit us down in a chair, and he’d call this ‘the honey treatment,’” Cunningham said. “So we’d sit down in a chair and he’d go to the fridge and he’d just take random condiments out of the refrigerator - ketchup, mustard, milk, you name it. Pickles. He’d pour it over our heads and then he’d go let us sleep outside for the night with the dog and if you know anything about Arizona, it gets real hot during the day but it gets super cold at night.”
He witnessed his brother get beat on the head with a tackboard from the floor and thrown in a closet, and it wasn’t long before the school system intervened. Unfortunately, when they intervened, Cunningham’s father found a loophole.
“He got in trouble for some drive-by shootings and got us took away,” Cunningham recalls. “You know, you mix in the drive-by shooting with the fact that the school was noticing bruising and our behavior, and we got took away in Arizona. They brought us back and they said, ‘Hey guys, these kids get took away one more time in the state of Arizona they’re going to be gone; they ain’t yours no more. So they packed up their s**t and moved to Missouri, Arkansas. Right there on that line and same s***, different day.”
The family was able to run away from child protective services but not for long. At eight years old, Cunningham and his brothers were finally removed from his parents. Unfortunately, as Cunningham recalls, he may not have been getting assaulted at home any longer, but his days of fighting were far from over.
“Not only did I get took away, we got took away and put into foster care and I was always trying to fight the other kids just because I was, like, weird, I guess, from all the s*** and so they ended up putting me in this juvenile detention home,” Cunningham said. “I remember that s*** was bad, too. There’s 16 and 17-year-old kids there and I’m eight and there ain’t no f****** separation in there, so there’s an eight-year-old trying to share the same level as a 17-year-old. I just got my ass whooped all the time.”
Fortunately, Cunningham’s early life story comes with a happy ending.
Within the year, Cunningham had a family interested in adopting his brothers and him. The family may have been initially encouraged to keep their distance, but some angel somewhere was looking out for AJ.
“When she was going through the adoption and the case worker said, ‘Hey, there is one more but he’s kind of far gone. He’s in this place, it’s just better off to leave him be,’” Cunningham said. “And she said, ‘No. No, we want him.’ She came and visited me one time and the rest is history.”
Today, Cunningham is a 7-2 featherweight in one of the most decorated MMA promotions under the sun.
One of his brothers is a Marine, another is a former Arkansas State football player.
The family turned out as “normal” as can be after one of the most traumatic childhoods imaginable. Cunningham speaks with Arkansas manners, has a career vision and has never dwelled on or blamed his actions on his past.
He believes that between God putting his adoptive parents in his life and mental strength, there’s more to be happy about than sad.
“For every bad day I’ve had, I’ve had three great ones, you know?” Cunningham said. “Some people never make it out of that. Some people, like I said, are mentally weak and got to use that as a crutch the rest of their life and be little b*****s, but I refuse to, and I knew that me getting out of that and everything else I’ve been through in life means that I’m destined for something great, and this is what I think fighting is. I think I’m going to be able to share my story and be motivating to kids out there that are in similar situations.”
Cunningham may refuse to be looked at as “the kid with the abusive childhood” but you can’t help but imagine that every time he gets his hand raised, it feels just a little bit sweeter knowing all he’s overcome.
Catch the return of AJ Cunningham to UFC FIGHT PASS LIVE at LFA 122. Action starts Friday, January 21 at 6pm PT, ONLY on UFC FIGHT PASS!