Angelo Dundee & Muhammad Ali — Fact, Folklore and Legacy
The death of famed boxing trainer Angelo Dundee has prompted boxing fans and writers worldwide to share their experiences with the man, so here’s mine.
Met him for the first and only time four years ago, almost to the day. He had come to Toronto to plug his autobiography, and I met him in the lobby of the Marriott Eaton Centre for what should have been a 15-minute interview.
An hour later he was still telling me stories about his life and career, and would have continued if his PR agent/personal assistant didn’t intervene to usher Dundee into the limo idling outside, waiting to take him to an appointment for which he was now late. If I wanted to talk some more, Dundee said, I could call him at his house in Tampa. Then he handed me a business card with his home phone number penned in tiny writing along the upper edge.
I don’t share that anecdote to show off. I just know I can’t be the only fan, fighter or sports scribe with a Dundee story involving a brief meeting blossoming into a marathon conversation.
In 1959 a 17-year-old amateur named Cassius Clay tracked down Dundee at his hotel and wrangled a five-minute chat that turned into three-and-a-half hour seminar on boxing, that in turn spawned one of the best-known and most successful fighter-trainer relationships in history.
And relationship is the word because fighters make trainers as much as trainers make fighters, especially when we’re talking about fame.
Dundee himself said a trainer is only as good as the guy on the stool.
Without Ali maybe Dundee is the same master of his craft, respected by boxing insiders and sought out by prospects hoping to grow into contenders and champions. But he’s not a legendary figure whose death makes both news and sports broadcasts worldwide.
Beyond working with Ali to add substance and strategy to his inimitable style, Dundee also poured hours into turning Ali into a polished product outside the ring, teaching him how to deal with the media and helping pen some of the poems the fighter made famous.
Does that make Dundee a co-inventor of hip-hop music?
But it does mean he played a vital role in crafting what today’s sports business experts would call The Ali Brand.
And his contributions to the Ali Mystique are matters of fact… or folklore, depending on whom you believe.
When English veteran Henry Cooper dropped Ali (Cassius Clay) with a vicious left hook in the fourth round of their June 1963 bout, legend says Dundee cut the leather in Ali’s glove, forcing a delay while the glove was replaced and giving his fighter invaluable recovery time.
Dundee says he simply widened an existing rip in the glove, hoping to call the referee’s attention to a serious safety problem.
And the loose ring ropes in Kinshasa Zaire that allowed Ali to rope-a-dope his way to a knockout win over George Foreman in 1974? The story of Dundee himself loosened the ropes has become a part of contemporary sports history, an example of the lengths to which he’d travel to give his fighter’s a tactical edge.
Except Dundee said he actually tightened the saggy ropes in the hours before the fight, and that Ali concocted the rope-a-dope strategy on the fly.
“Foreman in those days was a home-run hitter, and all you had to do was keep your distance, ” Dundee said in that Star interview in 2008. “Then Muhammad screwed me up.”
Of course, there’s more to Dundee’s story than the ingenious tricks that led to big wins. And while Dundee helped Ali become a heavyweight legend he didn’t raise a moral objection when an overweight Ali, already suffering from the early signs of Parkinson’s, clambered into the ring to absorb savage beatings, first from Larry Holmes and then from Trevor Berbick.
Most of us like to think that faced with a similar situation we would have advised Ali to retire when it became clear his skills and speed had abandoned him for good. And if he ignored that advice we like to think we would have made the same stand Dr. Ferdie Pacheco did, and left Ali’s team rather than enable him any further.
Yet Dundee remained, guiding Ali to his stool round after round, barking instructions the champ’s battered body had long since lost the ability to carry out.
Regrettable, even if Dundee and Ali themselves didn’t regret it.
Still, I don’t know that those final two shameful trips to the ring diminish Dundee’s legacy any more than they tarnish Ali’s. That’s partly because I judge fighters on how they perform at their peak, understanding that even legends linger long enough to lose to nobodies.
But it’s also because I recognize that, despite what I think I would do, I can’t say for sure I would have said no.
Not to Ali.
Not after 20 years and three successful conquests of the heavyweight crown.
Not to the man created me as much as I created him.
I realize I might have been a little too close to the situation to act rationally.
So I just might have said yes.
None of that makes Dundee any less accountable in the fiasco Ali’s final two fights became.
It simply makes him a lot more like the rest of us.
A lot more human.
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