A Native Detroiter and the Road to Regain the World Title

By Steven Malik Shelton on November 13, 2014
A Native Detroiter and the Road to Regain the World Title
“Boxing has made it possible for me to be known all over the world, and not as a thug.”

“A lot of the time when someone from my side of the tracks is on TV it’s because they killed somebody. I’m on TV because I did something positive…”

On Detroit’s west side, amidst abandoned buildings and weed choked streets along Schaefer Highway, sits an anonymous building. One cannot enter it from the main street; but must brave the alley where two small parking lots sandwich the entrance door to what is called The World’s Best Boxing Gym. It is late in the summer and Cornelius “K9” Bundrage has chosen this place to get in shape for his second shot at the IBF junior middleweight crown he lost almost a year and a half ago. He was dethroned by Ishe Smith via split decision in a title bout in front of his hometown crowd. Yet after winning an elimination bout against Joey Hernandez earlier this year, he is scheduled to fight current IBF titleholder Carlos Molina on October 11th in Cancun, Mexico.

I first met Bundrage in December of 2011 at, what was then, the new Kronk Gym on West Warren in Detroit. He explained how he’d begun his journey to the pinnacle of boxing on the mean streets of Detroit’s southwest side where he developed a formidable reputation as a street brawler and knockout artist. He would later gain national attention as a finalist on the network television show, The Contender, which matched boxers against each other in a series of elimination bouts. He continued to gain fame in the boxing world, culminating with his defeat of Cory Spinks (son of renowned former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks) and the capture of the junior middleweight crown.

Bundrage is the quintessential Detroiter and he personifies some of the Motor City’s best and most formidable qualities. Like the blue collar city of his birth, he is an exceptionally hard worker who, although faced with difficult obstacles, always manages to land on his feet and to get the job done. And while he is the oldest fighter (at 41) to ever hold the title in his weight class, he exudes a boyishness and familiarity which has drawn scores of friends and admirers. “I used to fight in the streets all the time,” said Bundrage. “And when I’d beat somebody up people would pat me on the back and want to be my friend. Boxing has made it possible for me to be known all over the world, and not as a thug. A lot of the time when someone from my side of the tracks is on TV it’s because they killed somebody. I’m on TV because I did something positive, and that’s a blessing.”

Bundrage did not sharpen his boxing acumen in the usual way by coming up through the amateur ranks before turning pro. He polished his skills in numerous gym ring wars at Detroit’s legendary Kronk Gym under the tutelage of the late great boxing wizard, Emanuel Steward. I recall once when a visiting heavyweight from out of state challenged some Kronk heavyweight and light heavyweight fighters to spar with him. He was very good and got the better of them. “Don’t take your gloves off yet,” shouted Bundrage from across the ring. “We can’t allow you to come in here and show out and leave. This is Kronk. I want a piece of you. Hold on while I glove up.”

Bundrage took the fight to the heavyweight and proved his point.

For the fight with Molina, odds makers have made him the underdog. Yet, far from being discouraged Bundrage seems to gain strength from naysayers when it relates to his boxing prowess. And although he turned 41 in April, he shows no signs of slowing down due to the scourge of time and age; an inevitable and implacable enemy for all fighters.

It is not easy to find the gym and Bundrage gives me more detailed directions over the phone. The place is small, with the thick air of sweat and blood that almost always clings to boxing gyms. I signed the ledger and looked at an assortment of boxers and grizzled trainers working at their craft, along with the usual spectators posted like predatory birds around the ring apron. In the rear of the room, I spot Bundrage working devoutly on the speed bag. “Hey y’all,” he shouts to the regulars in the gym in way of introducing me. “That’s Steve the writer!”

When Bundrage lost his belt to Ishe Smith early last year in front of a packed crowd at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, he believed he’d won and after he had the opportunity to view the video of the fight, he was certain of it. He also felt that Floyd Mayweather, who was promoting Smith, was allowed too much leeway and influence during his title defense,  going so far as to make comments close to the judges table while the fight was underway. He was even allowed, incredibly, to talk to and dance around Bundrage’s wife and manager, Shawana, as she sat at the ring apron in what was apparently an effort to distract K9 while he fought to retain his title.

Two weeks after his loss to Smith, Bundrage and I met at a west side restaurant. He looked surprisingly good and his spirit seemed to be high for someone who had recently lost what he struggled his entire adult life to achieve. Far from being depressed or remorseful, he was his usual wisecracking, jovial self. He framed his loss to Smith with the opportunity to reach even higher heights of skill and fame in the boxing world. Yet, I sensed an edginess beneath his pleasant demeanor. He explained to me that he had terminated the services of his longtime trainer, Sugar Hill. And I detected the disappointment and anger in his voice when he told me that officials should have done more to protect him from Mayweather’s shenanigans outside the ring while he was busy fighting Smith.

“I was the world champion, and I was fighting in my city and I don’t think that Smith did enough to take the championship,” explained Bundrage. “It was the Floyd Mayweather show. I wish you could have went and stopped Floyd from bothering my wife during the fight. It reminded me of a bar or night club, how he was able to do whatever he wanted to and to get away with it. It was crazy man. I couldn’t believe it was going on. Floyd was doing everything he could to distract her and me. He was dancing behind her like she was a stripper. But the good thing about it is that my wife kept her head straight and stayed focused and showed class. And it’s obvious that the judges were influenced by Floyd Mayweather and it’s obvious that the referee was influenced by Floyd Mayweather. The fact is that I didn’t get the decision, but life goes on; you turn the page and you move on.”

I was at the Masonic Temple with my 14-year-old son Michael, the night Bundrage lost the title to Smith. When the judges announced the decision, an awful specter seemed to fill the arena and settle on the partisan crowd. I sat there devastated, oblivious to the patrons and to the fighters making their exits. I was so optimistic of Bundrage retaining his title, that I almost felt as though I had lost and a weight of disappointment and of empathy seemed to cover me like a shawl. Suddenly, I could see Bundrage from my seat on the balcony over his corner as he made his way around the arena. “K9, you’re still the champ!” I shouted. But he didn’t look up, and I don’t believe he heard me.

A few months before he began to train for his fight with Hernandez, Bundrage had a boxing ring constructed in his house on Detroit’s northwest side. He used it as a forum to teach neighborhood teens the art of boxing and, more importantly, the art of avoiding the snares and traps of street life.

It was inspiring to watch him as he challenged and maneuvered these young men in the four cornered ring. Many of them were pretty good athletes in the Detroit Public Schools as well as on the streets. Yet the streets also tempted them with the lure of fast money and the inevitable dangers inherent within them. And it is laden with a different kind of violence than what one encounters on a football field or a boxing ring; a violence without good purpose or honorable intent. These young men were, probably, resistant if not hostile to the type of tough-love treatment and blatant platitudes regularly administered by Bundrage; but coming from him they could identify with it and accept it.

Bundrage would go three or four rounds with each youngster, barely resting between sessions, and talking incessantly during the exchanges. “Come on, that’s the best you can do?” he’d ask. “I know little girls that hit harder than that.” Or, “You running out of gas already? What did I tell you about getting high and smoking cigarettes?” And, “When you go backward, step back with your rear foot, and when you throw your punches don’t lean forward so much, don’t forget to keep your legs under you.” And “Don’t forget to breath. That’s why you’re getting tired, you’re holding your breath during the exchanges.” Months later in a different Detroit gym, located above an auto repair garage, I watched him go through a series of professional sparring partners in much the same fashion as he prepared for his elimination bout with Joey Hernandez. A bout he would win soundly by unanimous decision.

It is about six weeks before his championship bout with Molina. Bundrage is training harder than I’ve ever seen in preparation for his second title shot. He knows that it will almost certainly be his last. During a break in his training we sat down in the plastic chairs situated on the perimeter of the ring. The sweat pours off of his body in streams and makes deep pools on the floor in front of him; a visible and undeniable testament to the unforgiving rigor of boxing.

“I try to stay ready at all times,” he tells me. “I used to think that I could take a fight on short notice and still get in shape and win, but I’ve lost fights like that. I have to remind myself that ain’t nobody undefeated but God. When I was running the streets in Detroit all thugged out, it was God that protected me. It wasn’t my boys that made the bullets fly by me without hitting me when I was being shot at, it was God. Do what’s right and keep God first in your life and you will always come out a winner. Even when others think you’re a loser, with God in your life, you still win.”

It is the eve of the fight with Molina. It has been reported that Molina is training at high altitude in Mexico City, in an attempt to boost his stamina and endurance for the fight with Bundrage. Yet, there is research that indicates that training at high altitudes can have negative consequences. It has been known to have a deteriorating effect on the immune system as well as placing intense stress on the body, especially if an athlete makes the mistake of overtraining which is something Molina may be doing, judging by some of the comments he’s made. Another detrimental effect with high altitude training is a loss of muscle mass and strength. Also, most boxing aficionados have Bundrage pegged as a slugger and knockout artist with little boxing skills, yet I know this assessment to be faulty. I’ve seen Bundrage up close in action in many Kronk gym wars and I’ve heard him expound on and demonstrate boxing techniques. I know what the boxing experts seem not to; Bundrage has boxing skills as well as knockout power.

“They always talk a little trash,” Bundrage says in response to whether Molina has been selling ‘wolf tickets’ leading up to the fight. “He feels like he’s better than what he is. But he’s never been in this position before where he’s a world champion defending his belt. I have. I’m getting ready for Molina. He’s not really getting ready for me the way I’m getting ready for him. He’s not used to this level. I’m used to it. Going back to when I was on the Contender TV show I’m used to having a target on me saying that if they beat me, then that’s going to get them in the door. Nobody’s ever said that if they beat Molina that’s going to get them in the door. Except now, I’m saying it because there’s a championship involved. But all he’s doing is borrowing my championship belt. Only holding it for me. And I’m going to take it back on October 11th.”

The fight is held in Cancun, Mexico. Bundrage is the challenger and he enters the ring first. He looks confidant. He wears on his head a baseball cap with the statement Jesus 4 Life stenciled on it. Moments later, Molina makes his way down the aisle. Molina, even before he reaches the ring looks tentative and uncertain, though he is fighting before an overwhelmingly partisan crowd.

The ring announcer introduces the fighters and, in contrast to Molina, Bundrage looks very strong. He literally has an aura of victory emanating off him. He is in constant motion and seems very anxious for the bout to begin; as if convinced that Molina is a mere interloper who is destined to return the crown to its rightful owner. 

Molina, although looking superficially resplendent in gold and white trunks and gloves, appears listless; almost meek.

At the opening bell, Bundrage takes immediate control of the tempo of the fight, bruising Molina with powerful jabs and punishing him with thunderous shots to the body. Halfway through the round, Bundrage catches Molina with a right that buckles the champion and sends him crashing into the ropes. He recovers quickly and even attempts to press the action, but almost all of his punches fall short of the target and those that land seem to have no detrimental effect on the challenger. Then, with about 30 seconds left in the first round, Bundrage explodes a quick, short right off of Molina’s jaw and he drops to the canvas.

In round 2 Molina picks up the pace, throwing jabs and pressing forward, no doubt aware that his momentum and performance in the first round was disappointingly low. Bundrage remains in laser focus, skillfully picking his shots and taking his time. He buckles Molina again in the last seconds of the round with a right hook that lands behind the champion’s head.

In round 4, Molina looks tentative, almost discouraged, while Bundrage continues to find his range. One notices that the crowd seems surprisingly quiet for one filled to capacity to support their hometown hero. Suddenly Molina connects with a several clean solid punches on Bundrage’s head. But the challenger is unfazed.

Bundrage seems to tire a little in round 5. And I’m reminded of that awful and fateful night at Detroit’s Masonic Temple when he also seemed to tire and to coast through the middle rounds of the contest (an action that did much to lose him the fight on the judges’ scorecards). Also Bundrage is not getting the full weight of his body behind his punches and is throwing what amounts to arm punches. But Molina still can’t take advantage of it and he remains strangely cautious, as though he can’t seem to figure Bundrage out.

Round 6 finds Bundrage moving well and delivering volleys of jabs. The zing has returned to his punches and he seems to have garnered a second wind. Molina, again, seems listless and uncommitted, especially for someone who has a world title on the line. Bundrage continues with what has been a successful formula throughout the fight; stiff jabs, straight rights, and one-two shots to Molina’s body. He also begins to smile at Molina’s feeble attempts to outbox him.

In the 7th Bundrage delivers dozens of surgical jabs and body punches. He moves brilliantly around the ring, feints and almost catches Molina at will with an effective toolbox of punches. It is Bundrage’s best pure boxing round so far.

In round 8 Bundrage continues to have his way, catching Molina with brisk jabs and strong rights. I notice that Bundrage sometimes delivers a punch similar to a backhanded strike used in some martial arts disciplines. I remember Bundrage explained to me that he studies martial arts as well as boxing. He is one of the few boxers I’ve seen use it. It is unconventional but effective.

During a spirited attack he has Molina dazed and in trouble but the referee meddles in the action and gives the champion a reprieve by momentarily stopping the fight and taking a point from Bundrage for holding. Ever the optimistic workman, Bundrage finishes the round strong by pummeling Molina with hard rights to the body and head.

Round 9 is pivotal because boxing is extremely demanding on the legs as well as the cardiovascular system of fighters. And after nine rounds Molina was probably expecting the 41-year-old Bundrage to run out of gas and weaken. Yet while fatigue was a factor it was not nearly so much as to allow Molina to snatch victory from the jaws of Cornelius “K9” Bundrage. In perhaps the best condition of his career, he doggedly fought throughout the ninth, pummeling Molina with steaming rights and uppercuts. And Molina, again, could not muster an adequate answer.

Round 10 has Bundrage alive with renewed vigor, and he peppers Molina with a series of crisp jabs, hooks to the body and uppercuts to the head that has his supporters screaming and barking on their feet. In the closing moments of the round, Bundrage steals a very clean and very short right-hand lead into Molina’s head and he kisses the canvas for his second knockdown of the fight.

To Molina’s credit, he fights back bravely and survives the round purely on ego, but by the sound of the bell it is clear that, unless Molina knocks out Bundrage, the world will have a new champion tonight.

In the 11th Molina stalks Bundrage, desperately seeking that elusive miracle punch that will save him, but true to the old fight adage that “you got to bring it to get it” Molina’s rushes toward Bundrage have merely made him a more accessible and convenient target.

Round 12. Molina, desperate to salvage his title, goes all out to catch Bundrage with a do-or-die knockout, yet just can’t pull it off. And Bundrage wearing well what many considered the improbable mantle of strategic boxer and ring general ends the round swinging and becomes the IBF Junior Middleweight Champion for the second time.

Steven Malik Shelton is a writer and human rights advocate. He can be reached at: malikshelton19@aol.com.

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2014-10-11 Carlos Molina vs Cornelius Bundrage

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  1. Leigh 11:39am, 11/22/2014

    Yeah liked the first contender the best a few good little fighters came from that first show .Should do another for sure .

  2. Julio 05:12pm, 11/19/2014

    Always liked K9 since The Contender show.

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