A Fighter Before Fighting: AJ Cunningham on his harrowing childhood and overcoming the odds

AJ Cunningham has his hand raised in victory. Credit: Reggie Dreaming Photography

26-year-old featherweight prospect AJ Cunningham (7-1) had a productive 2020.

The Arkansas native and cousin to UFC fan-favorite Bryce Mitchell went 3-0 in a year when most prospects were forced to the sidelines wishing they could enter the cage just once. Cunningham calls 2020 his best year to date, professionally, but he is even more excited about 2021.

“Since going pro in 2018, this was my best year,” Cunningham told MMA-Prospects. “Even with all this pandemic BS, this year was sweet. Since starting [my career], I didn’t have a lot of knockouts. This year I brought knockouts. This is my favorite year. Now, time to turn 2021 into my favorite year,” he concluded.

When asked if Cunningham would be taking any time off for the holidays, he told MMA-Prospects he’d fight next week if he got a call to step in for a promotion. But while Cunningham is excited to one day get to the next level, the Arkansasan is in no rush to do so, which differentiates him from the crowd.

“I let myself develop at my own time,” Cunningham explained. “It’s like fine wine: you don’t drink it on day one. You let it sit, develop, and age a little. We’ll see where I’m at in three years, and where those rushing [to the UFC other bigger promotions] are at in 3 years.

“My plan is to be great in the UFC, not to make a quick appearance and disappear.”

If anyone has the perseverance and resilience to work his way to that goal, it’s AJ Cunningham. The 26-year-old, who now stands 7-1 as a professional fighter, has been fighting since long before he ever set foot in the cage.

Originally born Jimmy Stacey III, Cunningham changed his name for his protection after he was adopted. Cunningham labeled his father, Jimmy Stacey, “a gang member in a white supremacy gang called the Aryan Brotherhood” in a lengthy Instagram post in which he described his harrowing childhood.

JIMMY, STACEY Inmate 155478: Arizona Prisons (DOC)
A mugshot of Jimmy Stacey shared by Cunningham on Instagram. Credit: Arizona DOC, Cunningham, Instagram.

Cunningham said that he tells his story to inform, not to ask for anyone to feel bad for him, but it is hard not to imagine the pain and horror he and his brothers, now Abel and Arnold, were subjected to as children.

“It’s surprising none of us died,” Cunningham told MMA-Prospects. “I lived through that for eight years of my life [with] our biological parents — not my parents, because my adopted parents are my parents. My biological father was in the Aryan Brotherhood in Arizona.”

The Aryan Brotherhood, labeled the “oldest and most notorious racist prison gang in the United States” by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), is a white supremacist organization that has seen many of its members arrested for a litany of crimes.

“[He was in a] white supremacist group. He was a crazy dude. He’d beat the fuck out of us — like, not hit us, beat the fuck out of us. I really don’t know how any of us didn’t die,” Cunningham said incredulously.

“He once took a piece of wood with nails in it and beat my brother in front of us,” Cunningham explained. “Hitting him in the head, threw him in the closet, locked him in there.” After, wrote Cunningham, “My father gave him [a] towel and threw him in the closet while telling him to ‘Clean himself up.'”

Cunningham shared further stories of abuse, each more painful to listen to than the last.

“We didn’t have beds,” Cunningham explained. “We slept on those old kindergarten-type rugs with the train station on it. My brother pissed the bed one night, so my father rolled him up in it and smashed the rug against the wall, over and over again.”

Then, “He had this thing called the ‘honey treatment,’ where he would take food and drinks out of the fridge and pour [them] on us. He would then make us go sleep outside with the pitbulls.”

Cunningham also claimed that his father injected the boys — then 3, 4, and 6 years old — with steroids, forced them to fight one another to “be tougher,” and made the children “eat dog food some days.”

The Cunningham boys. Credit: AJ Cunningham, Instagram.

“Just crazy shit, man,” Cunningham reflected.

It didn’t take long for the teachers and administrators of the school system to begin to keep a close eye on the brothers, as scars, bruises, and odd behavior continued to plague the boys. Cunningham and his brothers were taken from the abusive situation and put into foster care, where they were adopted.

“Our lovely mother adopted us, four boys, at 23 years old,” Cunningham gratefully recalled.

It actually was only Cunningham’s three brothers who were adopted, at first. AJ Cunningham was initially placed in a juvenile detention center following a rash of fighting incidents, which `Cunningham attributes to his father’s abuse.

Being the eldest of the four, Cunningham saw and understood more than his brothers, and sadly, could process it all too well. The strong bond between the brothers brought his adoptive mother, Christine, to keep the family together and bring AJ to the loving home.

“I was ripped away from foster care,” Cunningham explained. “I was fighting a lot. I was older, I had seen more, and so I was a little off the rocker as an 8-year-old. My mom had my three brothers and they told her, ‘Well, actually, there is one more of us. Our momma loved us, loved us, and was strict with us. That’s why we are who we are… [The abuse] strengthened me; all of us. We had to be strong for each other. Somehow, we turned into successful young men. We don’t look for any handouts from it, we are tough guys. It is what it is.”

Cunningham, now 26, is a successful professional mixed martial artist with a bright future in the sport. His brother Abel served as a United States Marine, and his brother Arnold was a defensive back at Arkansas State University.

“I don’t want the sympathy,” Cunningham stated. “I lived through that for 8 years of my life. I’m 26. For every bad year of my life, I’ve had some amazing years since, just like 2020.”

However, Cunningham admitted that the years of abuse and mistreatment, including malnutrition, left him with lingering health issues. He wrote that he has “very poor eyesight” to this day.

Looking to the future, Cunningham was asked what was next for his fighting career. Would he be taking a break for the holidays?

“Hell no!” Cunningham laughed. “[Cunningham’s manager, First Round Management’s] Matt [Weibel] is talking to LFA, talking to iKON, telling them I’m ready to fight whenever. If I got a call to fight next week, I’m there, man.”

While it is clear that Cunningham is comfortable developing and taking his time before getting a UFC call, his talent and mentality certainly have him on the cusp of an opportunity there. Throughout everything Cunningham has gone through, he has continued to push forward, and from juvenile detention as an abused 8-year-old, to a promising MMA prospect, Cunningham doesn’t care for the sympathy.

Like he always has, AJ Cunningham just wants to fight.