Alton Cunningham was a sophomore at his high school on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, when a substitute teacher, Miss Miller, arrived to class. Cunningham, the class clown, wanted to pull a prank on her.
Miss Miller asked Cunningham his name. He replied, “Marvin ‘The Bo-Man’ Beetster.”
“Not Alton,” Cunningham said he told her. “Do not call me Alton.”
At the time, Cunningham didn’t really know what “The Bo-Man” even meant. It just sprung into his mind, influenced by his time at home watching pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. Maybe it was partially inspired by watching Bo Jackson, too.
And from there, Cunningham’s self-given, somewhat absurd nickname is who he became.
“The whole time she called me ‘The Bo-Man,'” Cunningham said. “Ever since, people are like, ‘The Bo-Man.’ Honestly, I stuck with it because it’s got a mystique to it. It’s got that aura. That’s who I am when I get inside that cage — I’m ‘The Bo-Man.'”
On Tuesday night, “The Bo-Man” will be the nickname read for Cunningham on the latest episode of Dana White’s Contender Series. He’ll face Tony Johnson at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, and an impressive victory could earn him a UFC contract.
This is the path that Cunningham knew he’d be on even before “The Bo-Man” was spawned. Cunningham was (and is) a huge pro wrestling fan. When he saw Brock Lesnar move over to the UFC and win the heavyweight title, he was turned on to MMA and decided that’s what he wanted to do with his life.
In eighth grade, Cunningham said he and his friends were trying on a pair of “American karate” gloves and he essentially fell in love.
“I never felt so alive doing anything,” the light heavyweight said. “I played basketball eight years and I was good at basketball, just being an athlete. I just never felt more alive than when I put those gloves on. I knew from that day. All my friends said, ‘We’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it.’ I’m like, ‘I’m doing this. I’m gonna do this. This is what I’m gonna do. I will be a world champion. You will see me in the UFC.'”
Growing up between Marion, Arkansas, and Wisconsin, he wanted to be a pro wrestler, but there weren’t many schools around. Plus, MMA was a different kind of vehicle, one that would let him take out his aggression. Cunningham grew up an only child — his sister died at two months old due to a birth defect — and he was bullied often.
“I just always had a frickin’ boatload of just anger and just being pissed off,” Cunningham said. “MMA was like an outlet where I felt like I could explain myself to people without saying a word.”
Cunningham, 25, sees pro wrestling much in the same way he does MMA — as expression. Everyone has to have a persona, he said, and he sees his as wanting to uplift everyone, being humble and funny. But when he competes, it’s “absolute violence,” he said.
“It’s entertainment — they’re both entertainment,” Cunningham said. “You can express yourself. When people ask me, what’s the difference, honestly, there’s really no difference. Professional wrestling is just scripted. You go out there, they tell you who’s gonna win and you’ve gotta go out there and you’ve gotta create a story and paint a picture with the moves that you do inside the ring. It’s the same in the cage, except they’re not telling you. There’s nothing scripted in there. You go out there, you paint a picture, you tell a story with how you fight in there.”
Cunningham (7-1) is a top prospect out of Pura Vida MMA/BJJ in Milwaukee. He’s won all seven of his fights by knockout. Cunningham’s lone loss came against Bevon Lewis, now a UFC middleweight, on the Contender Series last July.
We won’t be seeing Cunningham in the cage Tuesday night, though. When the door closes, that’s time for “The Bo-Man” to perform. The part of himself he found in that 10th-grade classroom.
“That’s who I am now.”
Dana White’s Contender Series, Week 2
Middleweight: Michael Lombardo (8-1, Florida, 29) vs. Kyle Daukus (6-0, Pennsylvania, 26)