One of the greatest trainers in boxing history, Angelo Dundee began his tenth decade on August 30th. Dundee, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, trained 15 world champions, including Carmen Basilio, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman.
The son of Italian immigrants, Angelo followed his brothers into the bruising arts. "My eldest brother Joe was a pro and a pretty good one. But he didn't want pops to know that he was boxing so he changed his name from Mirena to Dundee. Another brother, Chris, established himself as a promoter. After the war, I went to work with Chris in New York where I lived in our office, right across the street from Madison Square Garden. In 1951 we moved to Miami Beach and opened the Fifth Street Gym -- that's where I trained Muhammad, Sugar Ray, and hundreds of other fighters."
In those early years, there were times when Dundee would be in the corner of some boxer five and six nights a week. The dean of boxing, Dundee has seen it all.
Early this summer, Sugar Ray Leonard confided, "In the heat of a fight, there was no one better in the world to have in your corner than Angelo." The former champ would know. In one of Dundee's stellar moments, Leonard was losing his 1981 megabout with Tommy "the Hit Man" Hearns. The Sugarman badly needed a spark. Just before the 13th round, Dundee blasted Ray, "You're blowing it son. You're blowing it." In the next round, Sugar Ray drove Hearns through the ropes with a vicious fusillade of punches and stopped him in the 14th stanza.
More famous yet was the February night in 1964 when then Cassius Clay challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. An 8-1 underdog, Clay was soon in complete control, out-boxing the supremely intimidating fighter known as "The Bear." However, in the fourth round, a strange substance mysteriously found its way into Clay's eye and he was virtually blinded. He came back to the corner pleading to cut off the gloves and to take the issue to the boxing commission. Dundee knew better and shoved his charge center ring, screaming "run, just run." After a couple of minutes, Clay's vision cleared and he returned to slicing his opponent to ribbons until Liston's corner ran up the white flag in the seventh round.
Dundee is a cornucopia of stories, many of them captured in his superb, My View from the Corner. On his birthday, he reminisced about his time in Cuba, "We used to have fights in Havana almost every week. The revolution came and I was there with a fighter. Three days after the revolution we had a bout. Castro came in on a tractor or something to show that he was one of the people. Che Guevara was there with him. At one point there were shots in the arena. Oh man. What a night."
Dundee added that he returned to Cuba, "But they suspected that I was trying to help my Cuban trainer friends to get out. They were right. They got very hard on me so I stopped coming back. Then Castro outlawed professional boxing."
Dundee is a vibrant link to the past. He knew Jack Dempsey and his manager Doc Kearns, and absorbed lessons from Rocky Marciano's trainer Charley Goldman as well as master trainers Ray Arcel and Chickie Ferrara. But the ever-moving Dundee knows the truth of Bob Dylan's line, "He who is not busy being born is busy dying."
Angelo Dundee is still going to the gym, still learning and passing on his matchless knowledge of America's martial art, but with one twist. In the past, Dundee never worked with amateurs -- at least not until he was about ninety. On the day before he became a nonagenarian, he made his regular trip to Alessi's Ringside Gym in Tampa to tutor some kids fighting for medals instead of dollars.
Once in the door, there were stories and verbal jabs zinging back and forth. A couple of fighters leaped into the ring and started moving around. Dundee hollered, "Keep your shoulders even. Slide, don't step. Bend your knees when you jab." One amateur let go with a combination and then moved his head side-to-side. Dundee corrected, "Good movement there but not so much -- otherwise you get out of position." Always on the qui vive, he glimpsed a young boxer lumbering towards the weight room with his head hanging down. "Tell that guy to fix his posture, and stand up straight. If he leans forward like that when he is walking, he'll do the same in the ring and get cracked with uppercuts."
At the end of the session, the boxers were all but bowing to the guru of the ring. Always gracious Dundee effused, "My pleasure. Happy to be here. You guys are doing me the favor. You keep me fresh. Really. I'm not kidding."
Before the final bell of our discussion, I pressed Dundee as to what the sweet science had taught him about the science of living. Most boxing people will tell you that a life at ringside will teach you to take punches and get off the canvas when you are knocked down. There is wisdom in that notion, but the master psychologist who tutored warriors as different as the hidebound Carmen Basilio and hip Muhammad Ali, gleaned another, more subtle truth, "The main thing that my years working with thousands of boxers has taught me is that no two people are alike. Everyone is different. And that you have to be open and able to go with those differences and not to try to force a mold on anyone," or so said the man who broke the mold of boxing trainers.