Angelo Dundee at 100: the calm heart of Muhammad Ali’s boxing career

The Guardian
The Guardian

Of all of boxing’s trainers there’s arguably none greater than Angelo Dundee. Monday would have been his 100th birthday, but the man who coached Muhammad Ali in all-but-two of his fights also had qualities away from the ring worthy of remembrance. For, like all great cornermen, the advice that helped hone 15 American world champions across six decades was maybe at its best when applied to the world outside of the ropes.

After serving in World War Two as an aircraft inspector, Dundee’s boxing obsession drew him from his native Philadelphia to the famous Stillman’s Gym in Manhattan to reimagine his own identity.

He was born Angelo Mirena, but he worked under the surname Dundee – also adopted by two of his brothers – to avoid drawing attention from their parents, who did not approve of boxing. He initially learnt his trade as a bucket boy to legends such as Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Keen to absorb the teachings of famed trainers like Ray Arcel and Charley Goldman, Dundee was puzzled by the coded language they’d use to assess the fighters on the bags.

“He couldn’t get in on their secrets, but then he told me: ‘Once I learned Yiddish, I did just fine’. I got such a kick out of that one,” Jimmy Dundee, Angelo’s son, tells the Guardian. “He learned their language!”

But it wasn’t just personal convention that Dundee proved so apt at upending. When his boxer brother moved to Florida, Dundee followed, working at the gym on Miami’s Fifth Street where he trained his first champion, Willie Pastrano .

Miami was segregated in the 1960s, with black people subject to Jim Crow laws that extended across the South. Everywhere it seems, bar Dundee’s gym.

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“The only colour in that gym was the red of the blood those guys spilled,” Dundee protege and boxing trainer Matthew Baiamonte says. “It was the only place in the whole of the South where people of different races could be in the same building together. His gym! I mean, just think about that.

“Fighters of all types would battle it out there and then shake hands as brothers. Only once they left, Muhammad Ali wouldn’t be able to enter a restaurant a block away.”

Ali was the most famous resident of the South Beach workout rooms, a venue Dundee’s son terms lovingly as “a real dump” .

“Dad had Malcolm X in the gym one day, had him go downstairs to wait for Muhammad. He sent me down there too, to get an ice cream to get me out of the air. So I got to have lunch with Malcolm X. Which was pretty neat,” Jimmy Dundee says.

Dundee was also known for his calm.

“My nickname for him was Yoda. Because of the way he could talk to people, the way he would talk to fighters. Angelo didn’t have an ego. He never had anything nasty to say about anyone,” Baiamonte adds.

“I was driving him one time and we go through the toll booth. I give the lady my money. As we leave he says to me: ‘What’s the matter with you?’ And gives me a shot the arm. And I’m like, ‘What did I do?’

“He goes: ‘You gave that lady in the booth your money and you never asked her how she was doing. She’s sitting in there all day in this heat! It never cost anything to be nice, to say hope you have a wonderful day.’”
Angelo Dundee (right) also worked with great fighters such as Sugar Ray Leonard. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

It’s an attribute his son also recognizes.

“He was so good at reading a room, reading people’s needs. Muhammad didn’t like people telling him what to do. So, if there was a round where he should have been throwing jabs, Dad would say: ‘God, that was a great left jab you throw just there.’

“Next thing you know, Muhammad’s throwing them all over. He would use subliminal messages because that’s how you got to Ali. Other guys, he’d hit over the head with a two-by-four. To wake up Jimmy Ellis he’d pull his leg hair out and pour ice down his jock!”

Jimmy Dundee recalls his father as a soft touch who left domestic discipline in the hands of his mother and who would lend money and never ask for it back.

“He paid for my wife and I to go on honeymoon,” Pinklon Thomas, the former WBC and IBO heavyweight world champion, tells the Guardian.

Thomas courted Dundee to be his coach right from the start of his career. It wasn’t until Thomas’s title shot against Tim Witherspoon in 1984, however, that Dundee took up the offer, helping the Michigan-born fighter to victory and the belt.

“Angelo would introduce me to everybody saying: ‘Come meet The Greatest’ and I’d say, what you mean, Angelo? Ali’s the greatest! And he’d say: ‘You’re the greatest, Pink! Look at all the shit you’ve been through. You climbed from the bottom to the top and you’re a beautiful human being.”

For a fighter who was a late convert to boxing after becoming a heroin addict at the age of 14, praise from Dundee meant a great deal. “He made me feel real good, you know,” Thomas says, emotion lacing his voice.

And when Thomas began smoking cocaine and missing appointments following the loss of his title to underdog Trevor Berbick, Dundee did not flinch.

“I went to his office, to apologize. I’d lost all this weight, looked terrible. I said ‘I’m here’, but he never even looked up. He completely ignored me. Just told his assistant to hand me the key for my safety deposit box. I had about $20k there,” Thomas recounts of a reaction that hit him harder than any left hook.

“I took that money and booked into treatment. I didn’t tell nobody, not even my parents. Nobody. I did 30 days in the program and came out clean as a whistle. When I got out, a few weeks later, I got a call at my parents’ house and it was a message from Angelo. I don’t know how he knew I was there. Muhammad Ali’s induction to [Ring Magazine’s] Boxing Hall of Fame was coming up and he wanted me to be there. Man, I almost fell off my chair.”

Thomas remains 42 years clean, he says proudly, and instrumental to this success was his relationship with Dundee.

“When my career was over, we became the best of friends. I miss him so much, Angelo was next in line after my father and my wife. His death [in 2012 at the age of 90] was a hell of a loss. I could’t even read his name without breaking up.

“We would always call each other on our birthdays, we won the title together on 31 August, so this month always reminds me of great memories. Not a day goes by I don’t think about him.”

In a sport as unpredictable and chaotic as boxing, Dundee often knew exactly the right thing to say to his fighters. Knowing that Pastrano planned to buy a house with the winnings of a bout he was losing, Dundee played on his fighter’s dreams.

“‘There goes your doors’, Ange tells Willie,” Baiamonte recounts. “The next round, back to the corner, he says to him: ‘Now he’s taken your windows, Willie.’ Pastrano, is like: ‘What are you talking about?’. Finally, he says to him: ‘There goes your roof, you’re letting him take the whole damn house!’ So up gets Pastrano and knocks the guy out!”

Maybe one of the greatest compliments comes from one of Ali’s most famous adversaries, though. It was Dundee who helped Ali emerge victorious from the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman . Despite the crushing blow to Foreman’s ego, Jimmy Dundee remembers how the fighter approached his father years later in Las Vegas.

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Foreman wanted Dundee in his corner for an audacious attempt to win back the heavyweight title aged 45. Dundee agreed and Foreman upset the odds in 1994 , recapturing his crown in the same pair of red shorts he’d worn when Ali took his title in Zaire 20 years earlier.

“He told me, he wanted my father with him because he remembered when he was getting ready to hit Muhammad with a big right hand there was a little squeaky voice cutting through the thousands in the stadium yelling: ‘Move! Move!’” says Jimmy Dundee. “Muhammad moved on my dad’s word and George would miss the punch. He didn’t forget that.”

Dundee also knew when fighters should give up too, his son maintains.

“Dad used to manage a friend of mine, John English. He was in a fight where he got pretty beat up and my father just turned to him and said: ‘You need to find a different career, son.’ John got into oil after that and, let me say, has done very well in his life since,” Jimmy Dundee says laughing. “That’s part of the coach’s responsibility: telling people what they don’t want to hear. Dad was so honest and so good like that.”

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