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BUNDINI: SVENGALI IN ALI'S CORNER

Feb. 15, 1971
Feb. 15, 1971

Table of Contents
Feb. 15, 1971

Yesterday/Stilt Race
Camille
Tomorrow's Generals
Bundini
Envoy
People
Horse Racing
Archery
Skiing
Mieuli
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

BUNDINI: SVENGALI IN ALI'S CORNER

He's the 'float like a butterfly' man who psychs up Muhammad before fights and in the ring. As usual, he was the first to embrace his champion after the sudden knockout of Oscar Bonavena

In his hotel room the evening before the Ali-Bonavena fight Angelo Dundee was trying to knot his tie in a mirror and keep a watch on a televised pro football game at the same time. But he was thinking about neither. "Somebody ought to write a book about Bundini," Angelo said, referring to Drew Brown, that blithe spirit who is Muhammad Ali's self-proclaimed assistant trainer and psyche coach as well as the often most ebullient member of a fight camp renowned for its fervor. "Hey, Jimmy, what is it you always say about Bundini?"

This is an article from the Feb. 15, 1971 issue Original Layout

"Put a headdress and beads on him you'd have a witch doctor," said Angelo's brother. "And I don't mean that in any negative sense. There's good witch doctors, you know."

"Right," Angelo said. "This Bundini, he's a strong person, very interesting. I met him just before our Doug Jones fight. He was talking about the planets. Like to drove me up the wall. While we were getting ready for our first fight with Liston, the champ says, 'Angelo, guess who's coming down?' I said, 'Oh no, don't tell me!' But there's no friction between Bundini and me. He insists on being called assistant trainer. There's no crossing of roles. I like him. The trick is, if you try to understand him, he'll drive you crazy. So I don't try."

A few doors along the hall from Angelo's room, on the 15th floor of Loew's Midtown Motor Inn in Manhattan, a tall black man with a deep scar on his right cheek sat on a chair rubbing his hands together and looking desperately unhappy. Ali lounged on the bed, in his right hand a .38 pistol that belonged to a detective who sat grinning in the corner. Ali touched the cold pistol muzzle to his head and smiled at the man with the scar.

"Don't you do that, champ. Put up that gun," said Bundini.

"Click!" said Ali.

"You're playing when you should be praying," Bundini said.

Ali stuck the pistol against his foot.

"Bang!" he said.

"Champ, this ain't right. I can't stand this. You know how I feel about guns." As Bundini left the room he could hear them laughing behind the closed door. "Makes me look like a nut, a weakling," he muttered, walking down the hall. "But it scares me what could happen when a man gets hold of a gun." He entered Angelo's room and poured himself a drink of Scotch into a coffee cup.

"How's it going?" asked Angelo.

"Everything cool," Bundini said.

Then he went farther down the hall to his own room and began dressing for a prefight party. Bundini hadn't intended to go to the party, but he found he was too nervous to stay in his room. He put on a pair of red pants with flared bottoms, a red vest, white silk shirt with balloon sleeves and red and black boots. With the heavy hip-pocket comb that he keeps ready in case the champ needs to straighten up for a TV interview, Bundini scraped at his hair. But his mood was melancholy, his temper disturbed, emotions rising.

"I get sick before a fight," he said. "I feel like a pregnant woman. I give the champ all my strength. He throw a punch, I throw a punch. He get hit, it hurt me. I can't explain it, but sometimes I know what he's gonna do before he even knows it. Some of my duties with the champ, anybody could do—use the watch, carry stuff, all like that. Other things couldn't nobody else do because I don't even know how I do them myself."

Except for a desolate interlude of seven fights beginning with the defense against Floyd Patterson, Drew Brown has been a conspicuous figure in Muhammad Ali's camp and corner since those weird, exuberant days in Miami Beach in early 1964 when the young, beautiful heavyweight, who had just changed his name from Cassius Clay, was training to destroy Sonny Liston with psychic aid from such slogans as: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Bundini thought up that one and now wears it lettered on the back of a T shirt. ("The ropes are the champ's worst enemy," reasoned Bundini. "He got to move fast, but not so fast he won't hit with power. But he the boss, so if you gonna tell him something you got to have a memorable and pleasing way to put it.")

Bundini came to Miami for the first Liston fight and he lived in a house where he grew roses. "He has a green thumb, actually," says his friend, George Plimpton. "He's a strangely gentle man in the midst of all that violence." In Miami, Bundini was close to his origins. He was born poor, on rich land around Sanford, Fla. 42 years ago. His father was a hunter. "I was what I call a pillar-to-post baby. You know, born on a doorstep with a note on your chest that says, 'Do the best you can for him,' " Bundini says. "Self-experience is one of the great things in the world, but I wouldn't say all people should live like me. Of 10 born like me two will make it and only one really make it. It's an exciting life. You meet all kinds and learn to know the truth, not just from words in a book. There's man's truth, and there's God's truth. I live by God's truth."

At the age of 11, during the Depression, Drew Brown shined shoes and carried water for Civilian Conservation Corps crews building bridges in the Florida swamps. They called him Baby Gator. When he was 13, three months after World War II broke out, he joined the U.S. Navy and served aboard three ships in three Pacific island invasions, as an ammunition loader locked between decks during battles and as a messboy dishing out soup and biscuits to officers in more peaceable times. Bundini says he got a bad-conduct discharge for attacking an officer with a cleaver. "He was the ignorantest man I ever met. I used to breathe hard over him. If I was as ignorant as he was I'd of spit in his coffee and put glass in his food. I was just a nigger to him. I didn't understand the word then or I'd of laughed and kept going. A nigger is a ignorant man, not a color, and he was the nigger. I'm a defender, not a fighter, and I waited for him to make a big move. Finally I went for the cleaver to chop his head off. But Shorty—that's what I call God—Shorty didn't want me to kill him. Shorty wanted me to stick to my mission. They tied me up before I got to the stairs. The officer made it to the deck and jumped overboard. Any man would jump overboard when he is facing sure death.

"Worst punishment about the discharge was they wouldn't let me keep my uniform. Little girls like uniforms, and I was only 15." Neglecting to mention his Navy record, Bundini signed up with the Merchant Marine, where he was to spend 12 years and travel around the world, he says, 27 times. "I loved the sea. Fell in love with it. That's not hard. It's peaceful, and the world becomes so small."

When his ship was laid up in Beirut after a screw had got bent in a torpedo net Drew Brown met a Lebanese family. He says the parents loved him as much as the daughter did, and on the day his ship pulled out again the family stood on the dock in the rain crying, "Bundini! Bundini!" That was the name they had given him. (He pronounces it BO-dini.) "I don't know what the name mean," he says. "Just like I have my eyes I have the name. People try to give it mystery. Say it mean lover or witch doctor. But a name don't mean much now. It's only the claim behind the name that's important."

Between voyages Bundini hung out in Philadelphia and New York. He had money off and on; he had clothes and jewelry. The former Baby Gator was now frequently called the Black Prince. "I was on top of the world," he says. "New York was a play toy to me, like Paris and London. Japan was just another seaport. I was a pirate. When a man is a traveler the world is his house and the sky is his roof, and where he hang his hat is his home and all people are his family. I was truly the Black Prince because I was free. I didn't get angry or frown much. Nowadays your problem is my problem, but in those days my interest was in strictly minding my own personal business."

In Sugar Ray Robinson's Golden Glove Barbershop in Harlem, Bundini ran into an old Philadelphia friend, Norman Henry. In hard times Bundini had slept on one of Henry's pool tables. Henry introduced him to Johnny Bratton, a smooth-skinned, handsome fellow with an unmarked face. Norman Henry said Bratton was a fighter, and Bundini laughed.

"Why you laughing?" asked Bratton. "Ain't you ever heard of me?"

"Only fighters I ever heard of in my life is Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis," said Bundini. "My daddy used to hold me on his shoulder down in Florida so we could listen to Joe Louis fights coming out of a tree. The quietest our people ever got was listening to Joe Louis. He gave them some gladness and some proud when he'd win and say, 'I'm all right, Mama. I'm all right, Mama.' It was some glorious feeling. But you don't look like no fighter to me. Where's your scars at?"

Bratton invited Bundini to go with him to Canada for his next fight. "Norman Henry said to come on and go, that I'd give Bratton energy because he was mad at me. In the dressing room Bratton said he was dedicating the fight to me to prove he was a fighter. Bratton put on one of the greatest fights I ever saw, including up to today. Trouble with him was, his hands was smaller than his wife's hands. They used to shoot novocaine into his hands to freeze 'em so when he broke 'em or hurt 'em he wouldn't feel it. If he'd had hands wouldn't nobody in his class—Gavilan or nobody—could beat him. But he was like a cripple running a race. I stayed around Bratton and around New York, and the sea kind of faded away.

"Bratton introduced me to people, but Sugar Ray didn't pay no attention to me. As the champ, he was one, and I was one among many. Then my friend Shelton Oliver sold his car and bought a place called Shelton's Rib House two doors down from Sugar Ray's. I was the cashier at Shelton's. Sugar Ray came in one night. An old lady with a crutch was eating at the front table. Sugar Ray tossed me $5 and said take care of that old lady's bill. I said, 'Champ, they'll be falling in the ring, and you won't know why they falling.' Sugar Ray said, 'You a strange nigger, Bundini. Very strange.' From then on I was not one among many to him, I was just me.

"Later Sugar Ray asked me to go to camp with him. I didn't know what I was doing then, but it was the same as it is now—a spirit thing. Like George Gainford told me: 'Wherever you are and whatever you are doing make sure whenever you leave you are missed.'

"Working with these champions, I know they are born, not made in a gym. If you could make 'em in a gym they'd turn 'em out like a bakery turns out cookies. Sugar Ray was a true champ, like Muhammad Ali is a true champ. They don't need no teaching. Worst thing is for a fighter to train a fighter. An ex-fighter tries to make the new fighter like the old fighter was. I couldn't teach the champ to deliver a blow. No man could do that. But I can talk to him about other things."

According to Muhammad Ali, he was introduced to Bundini by Bob Nelson, Sugar Ray's brother-in-law. "He wouldn't of knew me if it hadn't been for Bob Nelson," Ali said in his dressing room one afternoon, grinning at Bundini. "Bob said to me, 'I got a man you ought to meet, name of Bo-dini. You think you cart talk, you must hear this man.' I said to go and find him. After listening to Bo-dini for 10 minutes I gave up."

Before the first Liston fight Cassius Clay joined the Muslims and became Muhammad Ali. There was pressure on Bundini to enlist officially in the religion. Muslim Leader Elijah Muhammad was quoted as saying he would rather convert Bundini than 12,000 ordinary men. "We was having dinner with Elijah Muhammad one night, and ever time I said something the champ would kick me under the table," says Bundini. "Finally I asked Elijah Muhammad to please tell the champ we was talking O.K., before my legs got bloody. Malcolm X, too, he told the Muslims to let me be. I think the Muslims have done many wonderful things. They're growing up, like the Catholics are growing up. Heaven and hell are here with us, as people are learning."

When Muhammad Ali split up with his first wife, Sonji, on grounds that she did not behave as a proper Muslim woman should, there were renewed, more insistent demands that Bundini should also be expelled from the champion's life if he did not become a Muslim. Some of Ali's religious advisers were very critical of Bundini for having a white wife, Rhoda Palestine. During this emotional travail Muhammad Ali's apartment in Chicago burned, and Bundini saved the championship belt from the fire. Relations between the two men had become so frayed by then that rather than return the belt Bundini hocked it to a Harlem barber for $500. For a time after the second Liston fight Ali and Bundini separated, each feeling a kind of angry disappointment with the other.

While he was not in Muhammad Ali's employ Bundini scratched out a living by selling carpets and, briefly, by running an Upper East Side bar in Manhattan called Bundini's World. One of his carpet customers was Willie Morris, editor-in-chief of Harper's Magazine, to whom Bundini also tried to sell a novel. "It was the story of a trip on a riverboat in Florida," Morris recalls. "There were plenty of hot dogs and Cokes for everybody, and everything worked out fine. It was very touching."

In this tormented spell of his life Bundini flew out to Las Vegas to watch Ali fight Patterson. Bundini went as hired assistant to George Plimpton, supposedly to furnish expertise for a magazine story on how Patterson could beat the champion. The distraught Bundini probably would have given this knowledge to Patterson as well as to Plimpton, but neither Patterson nor his aides trusted the man who had been so close to Ali. Whether or not he was moved to brutality by hearing Bundini shouting encouragement to Patterson during the fight, the champion taunted his opponent and beat him cruelly, knocking him out in the 12th round, long after the question had become not whether Ali could knock him out but when Ali would choose to do it.

At last Ali relented and brought Bundini back into his camp. "The champ is a very compassionate man. He loves Bundini and wouldn't keep him in a state of banishment for too long," said a friend. Bundini resumed his spiritual sessions with Ali. "We talk eye to eye, heart to heart," says Bundini. "We talk about the nitty-gritty of life. We think the same. When we see people who are crippled, blind or hungry we feel bad. We are both sons of God. We feel we are on a mission to do good for all people, bringing people together through understanding. The people who need help most in this country is the black man. When the black man get help it help the white man, too. If the black man get equal opportunities, it will make the white man look good. The black man is the onliest one can save this country. If the black man pack up and leave, this country will fall, because there's a sin on it already. We got to overcome this sin, forget it, straighten up from today on. The young people know this, and the champ is their hero. Last spring me and the champ was out for a walk one day and we run into about 20,000 kids carrying candles. They crowded around the champ yelling, 'Our leader! Our leader!' They lifted us clean off our feet. 'Bundini, quick, what's our mission?' the champ ask me. I say, 'Champ, our mission is to not get stomped by those who loves us.' "

Talking this way, Bundini's lip begins to quiver and his eyes grow wide and round in his round, dark face. Energy vibrates from him. His listeners stir. It is not possible to sit there in the room and evade him. "When you can appreciate a human being and respect him for his good and try to help him for his wrongness, you've found God's law," he says. "Trouble is, people become robots, mechanics, puppets. But that's not the real thing. If the President think it is the real thing to make a man act like a puppet let him go tell Henry Ford to give him a nose and a eyeball and a new heart. Make me a man, and I know you the boss. Put coal in the sun, change the bulb in the moon, take the sea and dry it up and I'll know you are God.

"But life ain't for robots. Life is a feeling. Plug in your television. Thirteen channels are here in this room, but you can't see 'em without you are plugged in. On the radio, 150 stations are coming in, but you can't hear 'em unless you turn it on. A blind man live, a deaf and dumb man live, but when you lose your feelings you're dead."

Bundini continually assures Muhammad Ali that he cannot be defeated in the ring or even truly hurt. "I want the champ to relax and never feel that kind of fear we called channel fever at sea and on the stage they call stage fright. But that ain't hard for him. The champ has got no fear. He is full of God."

Although many are still demanding that Muhammad Ali be locked into prison, Bundini hopes for a powerful justice that will set his man free. An omen, in Bundini's eyes, may have been Ali's comeback fight in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry. A platform for the bellicose oratory of the Lester Maddoxes, Atlanta nevertheless became Bundini's favorite U.S. city and a symbol of his hope. "We go into a restaurant in New York, they serve us because it's the law," he says. "In Atlanta they serve us because they want to. A Northern white man speak to you because you're spending money. In Atlanta when a white man speak to you it's from the heart. People in Atlanta would grab our hands and treat us nice. It wasn't no paintbrush!"

Traveling around the world in the Merchant Marine, Bundini says he discovered "this world is a black shirt with a few white buttons." He has often encountered racial attitudes he considers totally baffling. Once, in Houston, he and a white friend went to a Mexican tavern. The Tex-Mex waitress shook a finger at them and ordered them to get out. "We no serve you!" she said. They went into the coffee shop of a big hotel where Bundini's was the only black face and were served without comment by a blonde waitress. "Which one was it them Mexicans wouldn't sell a beer to—you or me?" Bundini asked his friend, laughing. "This Texas, I tell you, it's as confusing as real life."

Remembering this incident years later in his hotel room, Bundini was on his feet, laughing again. Someone asked him to compare Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray, the two greatest fighters he has ever seen. "They're different," he said, "like a son and father is different. Sugar Ray was the most glamorous fighter that ever lived. Oh, he live high! During his time the manager and trainer went in the office and sold fighter's flesh by the pound while the fighter sat outside. The black fighter especially had to take orders or get cut down. Sugar Ray said, if you gonna sell me, I'm gonna see the scales. He was the Jackie Robinson of boxing. Sugar Ray is the causing of a fighter getting inside the office and talking for hisself. He's the causing of closed-circuit-TV fights, though nobody give him credit.

"Sugar Ray was the world's greatest fighter, but the champion, Muhammad Ali, have a chance to overcome this. Only Muhammad Ali hasn't been born yet. A boy won the title, and now a man will have to come and prove he is the greatest. When he fight Joe Frazier you will find out, the whole world will find out, Muhammad Ali is the greatest!"

The next evening the entourage was proceeding to Madison Square Garden for the Bonavena fight when Ali, wearing an expensive new overcoat, leaped out of his large black limousine and rushed into the subway, followed madly by Bundini, Angelo Dundee and many others—street people, reporters, random fans and curious souls who had just happened to glance up and see Ali marching along at the head of his delegation. "This is being free, staying down to earth and nature!" Bundini shouted, descending the grimy steps into the dark tunnel. Ali looked around at the crowd, which had swelled to about 50, and said, "Bo-dini, you got to see that all these people get into the fight free or there won't be no fight." When the train arrived at 34th Street, Ali's crowd converged on the door of the Madison Square Garden employees' entrance and swarmed against folded-arm guards as the voices of Ali and Bundini pierced the general racket. The guards fell back and the people poured in.

As the fight with Bonavena began, Bundini crouched in Ali's corner, rising prominently above the crowd, tilting sideways, head turned as though not looking at events in the ring so much as twisting toward a communing spirit, crooning like an old hound dog sending a mystical message into the forest-"The world is watching you, champ. Go to war!" Bundini would cry. "You the boss! Kill the bull!" A quarter of the way through the fight, after Ali had used part of a round to mock Bonavena's style, Bundini jumped into the ring to meet his man long before Ali reached the corner. "Stop that! Stop that clowning! Box like Sugar Ray! Get vicious!" he pleaded. Angelo Dundee stepped in, working fast, talking quietly. Bundini is apt to get out of control in the corner, his feelings driving him into displays that sometimes embarrass Dundee or even Ali. Bundini admits he cannot tidily wrap himself up when his man is fighting. "When a volcano go off you are gonna have some noise," he says.

In the 15th round a short left hook ripped Bonavena's head backward as if a bomb had exploded in his face, and he went down without looking for a place to fall. Arising, he was immediately knocked down again and then again, and the heavyweight championship match between Ali and Joe Frazier became a real thing.

In the ring, while Bonavena blinked and cleared his head and scores of people climbed out of the night to try to wrestle through the ropes to reach the fighters, Muhammad Ali and Bundini embraced. Their cheeks pressed together. Bundini was weeping. "The world will know," Bundini said. "The whole world will know."

SIX PHOTOSPHOTOBEFORE THE COMEBACK AGAINST JERRY QUARRY, BUNDINI HOVERED OVER ALI