A Day in the Life: Master Mike empowers students inside and outside of class

Michael Cunningham, the campus recreation coordinator and martial arts instructor, teaches students tools to protect themselves and boosts their confidence in handling dangerous situations.



Master Mike demonstrating martial art self defense techniques.

Michael Cunningham, a campus recreation coordinator and the martial arts instructor, also known to students and staff as Master Mike, has spent his whole life learning martial arts and 13 years teaching BW students to protect themselves. 

Cunningham’s interest in martial arts began when he was six years old when he “saw Bruce Lee on the TV.” 

“By the age of 15, I became very dedicated to the martial arts. … Back in the ‘80s you got picked on, you got bullied, you got all that fun stuff, so I wanted to learn more of self-defense, and just basically get in shape and become stronger,” Cunningham said. 

At 15 Cunningham switched to practicing Taekwondo and by 19 he had earned his second-degree black belt, served shortly in the Marine Corps and then became the Chief Instructor of his dojang. 

“In 1995, that’s when my master came to me and asked me to take over the Brunswick school, which was Kim’s College of Martial Arts at that time,” said Cunningham. 

When he was Chief Instructor, Cunningham did more than just teaching Taekwondo. Cunningham also created “a demo team together of the female instructors and we started doing demonstrations” for women’s self-defense. 

In addition, Cunningham also championed educating elementary students about bullying. 

Cunningham said: “One of the biggest things that I learned through my training was that a bully was someone who was bullied themselves. And the first thing in self-defense is someone’s gonna say something to make you mad, … and then if you get mad … you can’t see clearly. So, you learn to just brush that off. That’s one of the biggest things I would teach my kids, … words can only harm you if you allow them to.” 

In 2005, Cunningham left Kim’s and started his own school. Then in 2010, through a recommendation from Guy Farish, the dean of the college of arts and sciences for BW, he started at BW teaching mixed martial arts.  

Cunningham said that the most rewarding thing about teaching martial arts is seeing the confidence boost in the students whothat take his classes.  

“It’s the self-achievement, not the ‘You can do a roundhouse kick like Master Mike can.’ No, [it’s the] ‘You can do a roundhouse kick, you finally figured it out.’ You have a big grin on your face, and you hit that target and you make contact. You followed all the steps. And then just to watch them progress that way,” Cunningham said. 

A typical day for Cunningham starts at 4 a.m., but he arrives at BW around 7:30-8 a.m. As a Rec Center coordinator, Cunningham oversees the aquatics, so when he gets in, he checks the pool. Then he spends his time doing other responsibilities for his job including looking at fitness programs and connecting with students until 11:40 a.m. when he trains until he breaks for lunch. After lunch, he is taken up by teaching his classes and Cunningham said on Wednesdays he has Martial Arts Club and spends some time preparing for it beforehand. 

Cunningham said that one of the biggest skills needed for martial arts is determination.  

“Don’t give up. I mean, that’s one of the biggest things is to try your best. … Just yesterday, I had a student that took my self-defense class, Taekwondo class, come to the club. And that was one of the first things that she remembered I taught was just to breathe, just to relax. And now her kicks are 10 times better. And it’s just because [of] repetition, repetition, repetition. But yes, breathing is number one,” Cunningham said. 

Drew Levis, a senior engineering major, also works in the Rec Center where his path crosses Cunningham’s in the mornings. And before Cunningham was promoted, Levis also saw him in the mornings before wrestling practice. 

“Before he got that new position this year, he was a building manager that opened the Rec in the morning at six. … [I’m] part of the wrestling team, so we would have 6 a.m. practices sometimes and we would come in half asleep and he’s got a ball of energy as soon as you walk in the door. And we’re like ‘OK great,’” Levis said. 

Levis has also taken Cunningham’s self-defense class, but he said it was during Covid-19 where he had to film all his submissions.  

“It was very weird. We had to make YouTube videos showing the different moves you were doing, and I was just in my living room sending them to Master Mike. It was interesting,” Levis said.  

“He makes work go by a lot better because he’s always joking around. But when we need to get stuff done, he’s there to get stuff done. … It’s a very fun and light-hearted environment, especially at work,” Levis said. 

Levis had not done any self-defense training before taking the class, but he said that he has wrestled “since I was in second grade.”  

“I think I was proficient enough [with self-defense] going into it … because a lot of the stuff he did, I kind of knew already. [But], I definitely think it’s valuable because there’s certain stuff I didn’t know before like different pressure points,” Levis said. 

Nina Frusteri, a senior marketing major and a Rec Center student building manager, also has Cunningham as a boss in the Rec Center. One of her responsibilities is to open and close the Rec Center in the mornings and evenings when she is on a shift. 

“We’ll have morning shifts at like 5:45 [a.m.]. And then we have to come in and open the building, unlock the doors, [turn on] all the lights, make sure everything’s in the weight room, [that] people are there, employees are there — [that] nothing crazy happened,” Frusteri said. 

Frusteri said that she would often run into Cunningham in the mornings and then when he was promoted, the student building managers took on those early morning shifts.  

Frusteri said: “He’s normally the first one that comes in. So, we’re always talking about the day or we’re talking about the latest news or something going on … until our other bosses come in.” 

Frusteri participated in Cunningham’s self-defense course, as well as  participating in the Martial Arts Club he advises.  

Frusteri said that there is a small difference between the class and the club. In the class, they are limited to assignments where “we have to learn specific moves,” while in the club they can learn and practice what they want to do and build on it. 

“I feel a lot safer and comfortable with myself because of what he’s taught me and what he’s  instilled into me. … It’s also the fact that you can utilize anything around you to protect you,” Frusteri said.