Better Life

Angelo Dundee

Angelo Dundee Featured
Dundee was a stand-up guy who knew how to get an edge in the sewers as well as in the boardrooms, and how to tell the rats from the gentlemen.

The last time I saw Angelo Dundee, we met for dinner at Elaine’s restaurant up on Second Avenue in Manhattan. He spotted linguini with white clam sauce on the menu, and wondered if he should order it. I told him I liked it, and I reminded him of one of his more, uh, perceptive quotes from back in the day when he was training Sugar Ray Leonard and I was a sportswriter with Newsweek magazine. Leonard had yet to win a championship, and I asked Angelo for his reaction to some critics who questioned the young fighter’s punch and heart. “What can I tell you?” he shrugged. “There’s even some people who don’t like linguini and clams.”

Angelo laughed at the memory, and said, “It’s true. You can’t make everybody happy.”

Angelo tried harder than most. All those years ago, I was happiest covering boxing, thanks in no small measure to Angelo Dundee, a Hall of Fame trainer who granted me countless interviews that enlivened my copy and helped educate me in the sweet science of boxing. In all, he trained 15 world champions—including Muhammad Ali, who was indeed The Greatest—and his observations and opinions made a legion of boxing writers swear by him.

It was Ali who advised Leonard to go with Angelo as his manager and cornerman. Angelo was a stand-up guy who knew how to get an edge in the sewers as well as in the boardrooms, and how to tell the rats from the gentlemen. And nobody was shrewder or more alert in the corner. During a fight, he was a taskmaster, a motivator, a psychologist, and a doctor armed with ice bags, Q-tips, and an assortment of exotic ointments and implements to heal his fighters’ wounds. He was also the voice of God. “When the bell rings,” he said, “there’s no noise in my corner. I do all the talking.”

Like the time: On the road to turning Leonard into a champion, Angelo wanted to see how his fighter could handle a big southpaw banger named Tony Chiaverini. Leonard won a fourth-round TKO, but not before he took two solid left hooks to the head in the third round. “I’m seeing three guys out there,” he told Angelo in the corner. Angelo’s advice: “Hit the one in the middle.”

Another time: Leonard was getting pounded and falling behind Thomas Hearns in their 1981 welterweight championship fight. When he returned to his corner after the 12th round, Angelo screamed at him, “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it!” That was all Leonard needed to hear. He rallied to knock Hearns down in the 13th round, and won the bout when the referee stopped it in the 14th.  According to Leonard, Angelo “knew precisely how to get through to me at the most pivotal moments, and no moment in the fight, or in my career, was as pivotal as this.”

It’s fair to say that no fighter-trainer relationship endured more pivotal moments than that between Ali and Angelo—both inside and outside the ring. Angelo became Ali’s trainer for his second pro fight in 1960, when he was an impossibly young and quick and handsome loudmouth named Cassius Clay, and remained with him until his last fight, 21 years later. And in guiding Ali to the heavyweight title a record three times, he made today’s so-called crisis managers look like chumps.

Like the time: Near the end of the fourth round in his 1963 fight with Henry Copper, Clay was knocked down and returned dazed and confused to his corner. Trying to buy his fighter time to clear his head, Angelo stuck his finger in a small slit in Clay’s glove and ripped it a little more. He then asked the referee for a new glove. None was available, and the extra seconds of delay allowed his fighter to regain his senses. Clay won the fight on a fifth-round TKO.

Another time: In the fourth round of his 1964 title fight against Sonny Liston, Clay was practically blinded by a mysterious substance of unknown origin. Panicked, he wanted Angelo to cut off his gloves, ending the fight. Angelo refused. Instead, he wet Clay’s eyes to ease the stinging, shoved him back into the ring for the fifth round, and told him to run. Midway through the round, Clay’s vision cleared, and he went on to win the crown when Liston quit in his corner, unwilling to answer the bell for the seventh round.

Angelo never got involved in Ali’s personal life or the controversies that swirled around him. Not when he joined the Black Muslims and changed his name. Not when he defied the draft at the height of the Vietnam War and was exiled from boxing for more than three years. Not when his extra-marital dalliances made headlines. As Ali put it: “He let me be exactly who I wanted to be, and he was loyal. That is the reason I love Angelo.”

I first met Angelo in late 1970, when Ali returned to the ring in a bout against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. Over the next 11 years, I covered a dozen Ali fights, including 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, and 1975’s Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier. That day in Manila, Ali and Frazier waged an epic battle for the ages, but it was Ali’s performance against Foreman that lingered in my mind that last night with Angelo.

Some 12 hours or so before the fight in Zaire, the masterful Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer persuaded me to join him for a ride to the 20th of May Stadium. He wanted to check the strobe lights that were being installed above the ring. When we got there, we saw Angelo pulling on the ropes and bouncing off them, then seemingly giving instructions to couple of workers in the stadium’s crew. Naturally, we asked Angelo what he was up to. “Nothing, not a thing,” he said, and that was all he’d say.

Neil and I were convinced we got a more definitive answer during the fight, when Ali rope-a-doped the supposedly invincible Foreman. The ropes were slack enough for Ali to lean way back, deflecting Foreman’s sweeping punches aimed at his head and shrugging off the heavy body blows that landed on his arms as he covered up. Every so often, Ali would spring forward and pepper Foreman with jabs and combinations, then retreat against the ropes again. By the eighth round, Foreman had punched himself into exhaustion, and Ali knocked him out with an etherizing right to regain the title.

Angelo always denied he had loosened the ropes to give Ali more room for maneuvering, insisting that Ali himself had devised the rope-a-dope strategy on the spot, right there in the ring, maybe as early as the first or second round. That was Angelo’s style. He let the spotlight shine on his fighter. “He’s the one taking the punches,” he’d say, “not me.” Years later, attempting to quiet the persistent rumors once and for all, he claimed that he had actually tightened the ropes, using a razor to cut and refit them, because they were sagging in the high humidity. Oh, really?

So, during dinner at Elaine’s, I just had to ask: “Come on, Angelo, you can tell me now. It’s been so long. Off the record—you loosened the ropes in Zaire, right?”

“You’re right, Pete,” he said with a smile. “This linguini and clam sauce is great.”

Angelo Dundee died peacefully on Feb. 1, 2012, in Clearwater, Florida. He was 90 years old—and a stand-up guy to the end.