Angelo Dundee's ringside patois was not always easy to transcribe, or even translate. But in his otherwise casual approach to the English language he was never more exact than when he described himself as a "mixologist." Dundee, who died in his Tampa apartment Wednesday at 90, blended so many talents in the corner that it was always difficult to think of him as just a trainer. He was, by his own estimation, "a doctor, an engineer, a psychologist and sometimes an actor." This was in addition, of course, to being a pretty good boxing man.
All those abilities came into play -- were required -- in one of sport's greatest collaborations. In his life, Dundee trained 15 world champions, beginning with Carmen Basilio in 1952 and including Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. However, he's best known for his work with Muhammad Ali, at times ghosting his poems, at others inspiring comeback, and once or twice engaging in some outright dubious shenanigans. Together, ever since the young Cassius Clay approached him for advice after the 1960 Olympics, the two ruled the heavyweight division with a color and flair that hasn't been seen since.
Dundee, a gnomish man with oversized spectacles, was absurdly genial; his mantra -- "It doesn't cost anything more to be nice" -- was a seemingly poor maxim in boxing's rough and tumble world. But when it came to appraising talent and understanding the best way to develop it, he was absolutely genius. He realized immediately that Ali, or Clay as he was then known, had gifts that were not going to be constrained by orthodoxy and, rather than impose himself upon the young improv, decided just to goose him along.
"I never touched that natural stuff with him," he wrote in a memoir. "This kid had to be handled with kid gloves." He put it a little differently in a later interview: "I just put the reflexes in the proper direction."
This is a modesty that cheats their partnership, because in at least two fights, we have Dundee to thank, perhaps even more than the fighter, for what eventually became boxing's greatest era. As the young Ali was winding his way up the ranks, back in 1963, he found trouble in the form of Henry Cooper, who floored him, nearly aborting his career right there. Ali (Clay then) was in a horrible fog and Dundee recognized he wasn't in any condition to continue. So Dundee, having noticed earlier a slight tear in one his fighter's gloves, gouged it out with his finger and then explained to the referee he'd need to get replacement gloves. The extra time allowed Ali's head to clear and his path to greatness to remain forward.
Then again, the next year, in his fight for the championship, Ali felt blinded, perhaps due to an ointment on Sonny Liston's gloves. He ordered Dundee to cut his gloves off, he was done. Dundee refused, pushed him back into the ring, and awaited another clearing, this time until the young fighter eventually clocked Liston for the title.
Their alliance would carry them into strange places, for strange fights -- the Rumble in the Jungle (the Rope-a-Dope made possible when Dundee found the ropes in Zaire to be loose, so he shrewdly tightened the ropes on his own), the Thrilla in Manila (where Dundee again had to press Ali into continuing, just as Joe Frazier's trainer was throwing in the towel). It was a magnificent spell with Ali leading the charge, creating as much controversy as excitement, and his little sidekick always there, always at his service.
It says something about Dundee that he, indeed, was always there. Because at the height of Ali's powers, when he became embroiled in religious and political controversy that forced him into exile for nearly four years, Ali was a dangerous man to befriend. Yet Dundee, who others in the basically Black Muslim camp wanted to force out, remained constant. "Angelo never got involved," Ali later said. "He let me be exactly who I wanted to be, and he was loyal." They continued, following that exile, to stage some of the most memorable fights of our generation.
Lest you think Dundee was merely a stagehand, a lucky accomplice, somebody fortunate enough to latch onto a rising star, consider the rest of his career. Having taken Ali to the top, in the middle of that ruckus for 21 years, he then joined another Olympic phenom, Sugar Ray Leonard, and helped pilot him to multiple championships. Once more, Dundee adapted himself to the fighter's natural abilities, allowing Leonard's stardom to develop. But in at least one fight, just as he had with Ali, it was Dundee who may have saved the day. With Leonard flagging in his back-and-forth fight with Tommy Hearns, Dundee got in Leonard's face after the 12th round and, in no uncertain terms, called him out. "You're blowing it, son." Leonard famously rallied.
There were others as well: De La Hoya for a while, and even George Foreman when the big man regained his heavyweight title in his comeback. There was always somebody, though. Dundee was a boxing man, destined to carry a bucket, happiest when he was swabbing cuts or taping hands. Long after the line of champions had ended, he was still in his gym, his bubbling optimism creating contenders out of anybody who walked through his doors. He was training until the end.
But it was those years with Ali, that incandescent time when boxing was last important, that we remember him for. What a time. What a pair! They would have been an odd couple in any case, the young fighter's flamboyance and braggadocio in outlandish contrast to Dundee's puckish demeanor. But they were more simpatico than most would have guessed, sharing their love of boxing, but also a capacity for hijinks. Ali recognized in Dundee a kindred spirit, after all, and was not above rigging the hotel curtains with a long rope, pulling them back and forth in a spectral fashion, until the little trainer exploded from his room in fright. They were a pair.
Would Ali have been The Greatest without Dundee? Maybe, though probably not. Would he have been as much fun without Dundee, certainly an enabler, if not quite a co-conspirator? Absolutely not. Ali's tendency toward meanness, his inexcusable treatment of men like Floyd Patterson or Frazier, was an innate and probably important part of his personality. But that meanness was alloyed by Dundee's presence, had to have been. Dundee's influence, his unabashed sweetness, was its own kind of smelling salt in Ali's career, the sort of freshener that cleared his head from time to time, restored his goodness, if not his greatness.