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Alton Cunningham on Tuesday -- a day after he celebrates his 26th birthday -- will get his second crack at an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract when he meets Tony Johnson as part of Season 3, Episode 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series in Las Vegas.
“I’ll be 26 the day before the fight, so receiving that UFC contract is going to be the best birthday gift I could ever receive,” Cunningham told Sherdog.com, “but first things first. I have to execute my game plan and get that win. He’s a lot older than me, but I still expect him to be at his best.”
A former professional boxer, Johnson has worked with some of the sport’s best fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California. Cunningham remains confident he can execute a finish and land a deal with the UFC.
“I’m going to put my hands on this dude and I’m going to hurt him very, very bad,” he said. “I don’t see this fight going to decision at all. I know that he’s a tough veteran and has had some pro boxing experience, so you have to respect the skill set that he’s bringing. He has helped Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and those guys at AKA but I’m a different beast than anybody he has fought, and he’s going to find that out right away.”
Cunningham fought Bevon Lewis during the second season of Dana White’s Contender Series, only to be knocked out by a volley of knees from the clinch. He believes the setback made him stronger.
“I was hesitating a lot in that fight,” Cunningham said. “Me and my coaches have gone back to the drawing board, and we’ve grown. Not only have we grown in every single area of fighting, but I’ve grown mentally, as well. This fight, you’re going to see a combination of everything I’ve already been doing, just absolute violence.”
Lewis has gone 0-2 since joining the UFC roster, losing back-to-back bouts to Uriah Hall and Darren Stewart. Cunningham admits he has thought about a rematch with the Jackson-Wink MMA prospect.
“He gave me my only loss, so if our paths cross and I can get that rematch with him, then I will definitely take that in a heartbeat just to see how much he’s grown and how much I’ve grown, but it’s not looking too well for him, man,” Cunningham said. “He took two losses. He’s on the downswing, and I’m on the up and up. What I learned from that fight is there are levels to this s---. You got to be mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually ready to go once you step inside that cage, and there can’t be no hesitation.”
After his loss to Lewis, Cunningham sought out a sports psychologist in an effort to gain a competitive edge against his opponents.
“Working with the guys at Mindlock and working with Dylan Nadler has been a gamechanger for me because he showed me that if you’re not right mentally and if you’re not taking the proper steps mentally, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing physically,” he said. “If you’re not right mentally, then you’re just not going to be able to execute to the best of your abilities and give it your all when the going gets tough.”
Cunningham also believes in the importance of maintaining a routine, which helps him keep his mind in the right place before a fight.
“Having certain consistencies with your training or diet is so important,” he said. “I got things I cannot go without doing every single day or I will feel off. Like if I don’t meditate, I’m going to feel off. If I don’t visualize my fight, I’m going to feel off. If I don’t take my cold shower, I’m going to be off. If I don’t train, I’m going to feel off, so it’s all about the routine for me -- just trying to be as comfortable as possible in your training and when you’re outside of training so when you’re in that atmosphere and things get chaotic, you’re comfortable. Because let’s be honest, when you’re a fighter and things get crazy, that can break the toughest men alive, so for me, it’s just being comfortable and sticking to my routine.”
Watching tape on opponents has become commonplace in MMA, but rarely do you hear about fighters doing film study on themselves. Cunningham finds value in critiquing himself.
“I went and did some rounds on the bag today, and I’m like, ‘[Expletive], I could have been so much better,’” he said. “Then I go and watch the film of me on the bag, and I’m like, ‘Damn, I look crisp as hell.’ It’s good to go back and see that, you know? So even on a bad day, I can watch that and be like, ‘OK, my technique is still there.’ On a bad day, I can still execute the things I need to execute when I mentally feel like crap, so I watch that and think, ‘OK, when I’m mentally drained, everything is still there, and when I’m at my best, it will be amplified.’”
Cunningham had some pointed words for Johnson, perhaps the last remaining obstacle standing between him and the UFC.
“Just bring your best because I’m coming with the heat,” he said. “There’s nothing else to say. Don’t talk crap. Just bring your best because I’m coming for you. I’m coming for that contract, and you’re going to have to take it from me. It’s a want for him, but this is a necessity for me.”