Angelo Dundee: Fighting Muhammad Ali's corner
He was one of the last loyal men in boxing. Steve Bunce recalls the times he shared with the trainer
Angelo Dundee was a dapper little man who had the ability to walk through a room at any big fight and stop any conversation that was taking place. He could do it without opening his mouth and in boxing that is an art.
In the ring and in the gym he was a brilliant and skilled motivator with a lifetime of black arts in the boxing business, which kept him working for about 70 of his 90 years. In 2008, Dundee was hired as an adviser by Oscar De La Hoya to help him prepare for his fight with Manny Pacquiao. Dundee was 87 at the time and it was just the latest in a list of cameo roles with great fighters in one of sport's most memorable twilights.
"I get together with George [Foreman] and we remind each other about things we've forgotten," joked Dundee over a club sandwich, one of his favourite meals, in Tokyo in 1996. Both fighter and trainer were going over old ground and it was a delight to watch the pair work.
I ate a club sandwich with Ang for a few days and it was always a meal interrupted. He was busy between visits to the gym to watch Foreman prepare for his title fight during his second reign against Crawford Grimsley and the constant demands of the Japanese media.
Dundee told Muhammad Ali stories and I swear I never heard him tell the same one twice, but mostly when he was on the road he talked about his beloved wife, Helen. "She took pity on me," he would say when people inevitably asked how they met. "She was a model and I carried buckets at fights." She died in 2010, after nearly 60 years of marriage, and he had been heartbroken ever since.
In 1993, at a five-star hotel in Mexico City, I spent a week of lunchtimes with Dundee and it was club sandwiches all the way. He was there for the crazy night at the Azteca, when Julio Cesar Chavez was watched live by 132,247 people; Dundee's fighter, Michael Nunn, retained his title on the undercard with a one-round knockout.
"It was a good wake," he said, which about sums up Dan Morgan's contribution in the Nunn fight. Dundee was particularly quiet in Mexico City and he explained to me why he was not interested in going out for walks.
"This city reminds me of Helen and all the great years we came here again and again together," said Dundee, who worked with the Mexico City-based world champions Sugar Ramos and Jose Napoles. "We were here so often and I don't want to ruin the memories."
Napoles and Ramos both had world title fights at the Plaza El Toreo in the city in the Sixties and Seventies, and the day after the Nunn massacre Dundee did accept an invitation to go to a bullfight at the Plaza. I sat high in the cheap seats with Dundee.
"I hate this," said Dundee. "I've been to a lot of bullfights and I've never seen a bull win one fight! Give me boxing any day." However, he was up from his cushion a few times when the matador pulled off a slick move. "I think bullfighters would make good fighters," he claimed.
However, it was in the gym in private that Dundee did his finest work – one-on-one with a fighter and communicating from about six inches. It was in this closed environment of deep trust that Dundee, the coaching guru, flourished and he had since his first world champion, Carmen Basilio, in 1955.
"Carmen was a tough man and I had to find ways to make him think," said Dundee. "He was hard and he was stubborn. I used to give him ideas and those ideas became his ideas. Later, I did the same with Muhammad. I like to call it kidology and I know one thing – it works!"
In 1992, Peckham's Derek Sweet D Williams went to Florida to prepare for a fight at the Royal Albert Hall against Lennox Lewis. Sweet D lost the fight with Dundee in his corner but has never forgotten the time with the trainer.
"He would say to me: 'I like the way you throw the hook off the jab, that's fantastic,'" remembered Williams. "It made me feel great, but then I realised that I had not thrown a hook off the jab! The next day in the gym I would throw hundreds of hooks off the jab. He was a great man and he made everything positive."
In victory or defeat Dundee would always praise "my guy". He was loyal, and the night he swapped corners for an Ali fight perfectly captures the almost lost sense of honour in a business that is shifting forever closer to having exclusively financial goals.
In 1971, just a few months after Ali had lost for the first time in his career to Joe Frazier, a fight was made with Jimmy Ellis, another of Dundee's heavyweights. On the night, Dundee was with Ellis, who was stopped in the 12th. "My guy gave it a go," Dundee said at the time; he was soon back in the gym with Ali. "There were no hard feelings; my guy understands that I've been with Jimmy a long time." It all made sense to Dundee.
Gene Kilroy, one of about five people in Ali's real inner circle, called early yesterday to pass on news of Dundee's death. He had made plans to fly Dundee to the MGM in Las Vegas for the Ali tribute on 18 February. Kilroy works at the MGM and remains the king of executive hosts in the city. "You know," Kilroy said. "Angelo never had a bad word for anybody, ever. I can't ever remember him saying something bad and I remember this one time, we were sitting about with Muhammad and a few of the guys and Charles Manson's name came up. Angelo said: 'I bet he's not a bad kid, he just needed a break.' That was Angelo, always good, always decent."
That is good enough for me.