Cordova Chronicles: Cordova fisherman scores TKO over brown bear

Bruin at the bar is no match for harvester

Ladies and Gentlemen:  Today’s Main Event features Robert Cunningham Jr., 7 foot 1 inch 300 pounder, of Cordova, versus  Ursus Arctos, a 350 pound 4 foot  tall  (at the shoulder)  brown bear, of Softuk. 

It was a brief bout in the middle of nowhere.  In an unusual heavyweight match no one other than a trio of cubs witnessed, Cunningham waylaid a charging sow with one strong right to the chops.   

During a closed fishing period on the Copper River Delta, the Cordova gillnetter decided to hike up Softuk Bar to check on an ATV he had stored there for hunting activities in the fall. 

In the process, he walked over the top of a sandbar and right into a sow with cubs.  Not good. 

While Alaska has had more than its usual bear encounters this summer, including two atypical attacks by black bears that ended tragically, this one fortunately ended up reminiscent of many famous heavyweight bouts.   

My buddy Randy Bruce’s favorite was Ingemar Johansson’s upset win over Floyd Patterson in 1959 to win the world heavyweight boxing title.  The Swedish flag is proudly displayed at his duck shack, and guess which country the European champion hailed from.   

Patterson, who had won an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in 1952 and was the defending heavyweight champion, was favored by 4 to 1 odds in their fight at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1959, but the underdog knocked him down seven times in the third round before the fight was finally stopped.  Said Patterson, “He hit me so hard, I didn’t know where I was.”   

“Tunder and Lightnin”, as well as “Thor’s Hammer,” were favorite Bruce phrases until Patterson ended Johansson’s brief championship tenure a year later. 

Evidently Cunningham’s right also contains similar explosiveness.  And punching a bear in the nose seems to be a more common defensive strategy than one might expect. 

Longtime Cordova fisherman Gary Raymond recalled Brooke Atkinson, who lived at Boswell Bay for years, wandering around the woods with nothing other than a long stick with a solid burl on the end.  When asked if he was concerned about bears, Atkinson replied “Nah. I just hit them in the snout with this stick.”  

The Internet is full of descriptions of Man versus Bear encounters.  One of the more entertaining was between a retired Canadian boxer and a black bear.  The surprised bear stood upright, and the ex-boxer drilled him with a hard right to the chops.  Then this unforgettable quote:  “I had to beat him to the punch. Bears like to lead with their left, you know.” 

Needless to say, facing a  7’1” opponent,  one might think a bear would simply turn and run if Cunningham had stretched his arms overhead and said “shoo.” 

When Robert was in high school here in Cordova, wily Wolverine Coach Bob Lenz tried to recruit him to play hoops.  “Just suit up for the opening tip is all I ask”, said Lenz, who was clearly a master of hoops psychology.  

It never happened, a fact that Lenz, who recently retired from coaching at Melba, Idaho, still laments.  

It’s difficult to say how long a brown bear’s memory is, but I have a hunch there is a large sow roaming around Softuk Bar advising her progeny to pick their fights carefully.  And avoid this big adversary that fights back in a very bold but unusual manner.  

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.