It was not necessary to look like Charley Goldman to work a corner in boxing, but whenever he was not there something seemed to be missing, as if you were looking at a wall from which a favorite picture had just been removed. From the sideshow feet to the derby which crowned a head reminiscent of Van Gogh's potato eaters, Charley was right out of central casting. He was the perfect embodiment of the public image of the corner man, a wandering sect that scratched out survival with swab sticks, stopwatches, pails full of humbug, muttlike loyalty and a compulsive attention to detail.
His looks aside, old Charley was notable mainly because—all things equal—he brought an edge to a fighter. As for the others, most remained just pasty faces moving through yellow light, a parade of dead men with towels over their shoulders and worn satchels in their hands. By day, you looked for them at Stillman's, a temple of higher learning renowned for its foulness of air and the breed's inclination to despoil; by night, in the grayness of an automat, hunched behind very white coffee and a piece of arid cheesecake. Acclaim would only have confused their rigid, solitary lives.
In the old days only a few were more than parenthetical drops in news reports. Some of those who counted: Whitey Bimstein, the Hippocrates of trainers; Bill Gore, the architect of Willie Pep; avuncular Jimmy August, who worked with the late Dick Tiger; Ray Arcel, the quiet tactician who spent too much of his career picking up victims of Joe Louis. They were invaluable to their clients (Charley Goldman gave life to the stone legs of Rocky Marciano), but their rewards were modest compared with the earning power and celebrity of the best of those who followed them.
Three trainers now stand at the top of their trade: Angelo Dundee, who has worked with Muhammad Ali from the start; Gil Clancy, who has Emile Griffith and Jerry Quarry, among others; and Eddie Futch, who handles Joe Frazier, and once salvaged the ruin that was Ken Norton. Neat, trim little men, none of them resembles or even vaguely reminds one of the old elite, most of whom would have stiffened in a restaurant that smelled of anything more than beefsteak and onions. But the new guard is generally comfortable with what currently passes as civilization, as well as the versatility required by the contemporary ring.
February 17, 1975
Today boxing demands an ample brain pan of those who handle the best. There is none of that cursory stuff of jotting figures on the backs of envelopes or sticky bar napkins. You keep an eye on the lawyers (don't even blink) and you keep an eye on the math. The trainer is often now the manager, too. The job requires caution, even with the fighters. They are not the same fellows who used to walk around with lumpy ears and thick tongues and answered to any old name ("bum," for one), and later wondered, childlike, where the money went. The new fighters have names, sensitivities, a sense of the meanness that the ring can be; they also have the money.
Clancy was once a phys-ed teacher in Brooklyn; he boxed in the service and later became a trainer for the Police Athletic League. Dundee was a street kid in South Philly; he did his internship at Stillman's, where trainers swapped theories about cuts as if they were at a convention of plastic surgeons. Futch is one of the few professional boxers ever to make it as a big-time trainer. After a heart condition ended his fighting career, he studied under the great Chappie Blackburn, who tutored Joe Louis. The common ground of Clancy, Dundee and Futch is success. They have the quality fighters, yes, but they also know how to control, to motivate, to run a corner with acumen.
Begin with Eddie Futch, the quiet, gentle ex-lightweight who is probably the least known of the three. His style is pianissimo, yet his ability to transmit knowledge that sticks is incomparable. "If I had a good one now, a young one now," said the late Jack Hurley long ago in an L.A. gym while watching Futch explain a move, "there's only one man I'd have to have, and that's Eddie Futch. The man's a master." Eddie says he doesn't think of himself as "any kind of master," only a man who has patience. If necessary, he will spend six months teaching a kid a left hook. He will break down every move in the ring as if it were a problem in long division, and if he sees it all come together only once, it is enough for him. Of all the punches, he says, the left jab is the most vital to a fighter. "There are four, five different jabs," he says, "and they all look easy. But they don't learn 'em easy."
The late Yank Durham got most of the credit for Joe Frazier, and a lot of it was deserved. Durham's strength was in the back room of negotiations. Still, Futch played a key role in making Frazier a fighter, and carefully mapped the tactics. For years he would think of ways to dismantle Muhammad Ali, who was to him a rare and fascinating bird that he wanted to cage for one long moment. It took a while, but Eddie would be the only trainer to beat Ali—first with Frazier in the most dramatic, maybe the best, title fight of this century; then again with Norton, who had been merely a worker in the fields until Eddie picked him up. The key to victory was the same: relentless and steady pursuit.
Futch ran a cool corner the night Frazier beat Ali, whose own corner seemed to be in chaos. Ali is used to it, may even prefer it that way. Yet such an atmosphere does not usually help a fighter. "If a corner gets rattled," says Eddie, "it's a cinch the fighter will, too." He says the best corners are the ones that are noticed least. "Control, that's the word," he says. "Control of the fighter. Control of yourself."
Angelo Dundee works out of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami. He is the trainer the public knows best, mainly because he has had more fighters on television than anyone else, is often hired for instant analysis between rounds and is united visually with Ali in the public mind. When left alone, that is, when he is not working with Ali, Dundee runs a sharp corner, complemented by two seconds who are the best in the business: Luis Sarrea, the wordless Cuban, and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, for whom boxing is one of many avocations.
The charge that Dundee tampered with the ropes in Za√Øre (making them sag, to allow Ali to play them beautifully) is not true, but the trick is not beyond him. He is expert at prefight detail—not only ropes and canvas but publicity and propaganda.
Working in Ali's corner has been exasperating for Angelo, whose only balm is the money and a closeness to an authentic legend. Ali trains Ali, and he sometimes is a ruthless, heartless conditioner. The situation reduces Dundee almost to being a figurehead, a gregarious, eminently quotable press guide, a mediator of camp wrangles, a watcher of the camp's body politic. And few remember that it was Angelo who saved at least two major fights for Ali. But his role with Ali does not diminish him. He is quick of mind. He can follow a fighter's most convoluted thoughts. He knows how to get response. And he has no peer as a cut man—or as a survivor in a tattered way of life.
Gil Clancy has not done badly, either. He operates from a gym on the lower West Side of Manhattan, a place barren of the slightest comfort. Clancy's face is not warming. It suggests sadism (because his one eye is impaired), and seldom can you measure his mood. He is more private than Futch or Dundee, more within himself, forever wary. Yet he is an emotional man in a gym or in a corner, and the joke is that you can always tell a Clancy fighter; he is black and blue from his own trainer. "Working with Emile Griffith for 20 years can do that to a man," says a friend. Griffith is the essence of professionalism: disciplined, willing and durable. In the ring he can also be a study in limp concentration. Because of it, his fights often flirt with dullness, and defeat.
"Once Griffith tames a guy," says Clancy, "he seems to lose interest. That's what happened against Benny Paret. I had burned it into Emile's mind that once he got inside, he should punch, punch, punch and never stop! He never looked better. Then he goes blank again. He gets hit in the sixth and gets up at the bell. He comes back into the corner, and I look for a long time into his eyes. And then I slapped him across the face so hard my hand stung. Sadly, everybody knows what happened after that." Caught on the ropes, under one of the most uncompromising attacks ever seen in a ring, Paret was knocked out and later died.
Clancy has worked in the corners of more than 200 fighters, including one so nervous he left his trunks in the dressing room. "That's all right," Clancy says. "I like emotional fighters. If they're way up, I don't have to be." Incompetence and sloppiness in a corner tick Clancy off. "All that pummeling of a fighter to refresh him is not often necessary," he says. "Nor is all that water. Sometimes you'd think they were loading up a camel. I remember Oscar Bonavena, with two relatives in his corner. He's tough enough to handle by himself. He kept saying, 'No agua, no agua,' but they kept pushing the bottle up to his mouth and throwing buckets of water on him like he was on fire. They nearly drowned him. I had to yank the stuff away from them."
Such confusion, which unsettles most fighters, emphasizes the need for tighter controls over corner men. As it is, anybody can get a license to work in a corner, the anybodys ranging from boxers' personal gurus to local druggists and the uncle from Waycross. Before a bout it is difficult to tell who will be working the corner of some fighters because of the swarm of people flapping about them; the latest trend is to personal bodyguards. When the bell rings, only three people should appear in the corner, hopefully men who can go about their duties with swift precision. As the 60-second rest interval speeds by, there is no time to guess what has to be done. The corner should know when the fighter prefers water, know what it takes to revive him.
"You can feel quite foolish at times," says Dr. Pacheco. "Long ago, when I was learning under Angelo, I was working with Branca Otero. He came back to the corner at the end of the eighth round looking like he had just come off the Bataan death march. I unscrew the top of the ice bag and empty it, ice cubes and all, into his jock. He stands up for the ninth and just looks at me. Then, with a dagger in his voice, he says, 'Was that absolutely necessary?' "
A corner usually consists of a principal and two seconds. The principal, the manager/trainer, is the only one who talks. The other two carry equipment, Adrenalin, Q-Tips, towels, a bucket, water bottles, all the accouterments of the trade. Ten seconds before the bell rings signaling the end of the round, the principal is up on the top step with the stool, waiting for the fighter. With a swipe of the towel he wipes off the fighter's face, removing grease and sweat, and almost simultaneously he takes the mouthpiece and hands it to a second to be washed. He reapplies Vaseline to brows and cheekbones, talking calmly about the next round. His seconds have stretched out the fighter's trunks and have him gulping deep breaths of air.
Certain rules should never be broken. The word "tired" is banned from conversation in any form, even when referring to an opponent. Fighters sag visibly when the word is mentioned. Also, when the fighter sits down in his corner he should not be allowed to stretch out his arms on the ropes. His arms should be folded in front of him, giving the impression of stoicism. Sponge baths and ice bags are not to be used until late in a fight. Such ministrations made early may convey to the fighter that he is wilting, that he needs maximum help. All of this makes sense, but there is also much charming nonsense concerning the handling of a fighter, so many slaphappy oldtime dicta and so much brittle advice. For example:
Sex is a killer: "It's rooned more good fighters than booze." Or, "It takes de legs right outta a fighter."
A boxer should get up at dawn and run. No sane reason has ever been given. Luis Rodriguez ran at night before supper, and he was remarkably durable.
Conditioning, getting a fighter ready, is a trainer's most delicate test, and for the boxer it is a masochistic ritual if ever there was one. The fighter brings his body, sometimes misshapen by excess, and the trainer brings his whips. Some trainers have been too malleable, some have used hobnails on their boots, and others have been indifferent. Toward the end of his career, George Chuvalo, that most splendid masochist, walked out of his camp when he could no longer stand the taunts of his handler. Few fighters like to train. Gene Tunney, for whom training was nearly a religion, was an exception, and so was the early Rocky Marciano, who would start work nine months before a bout. It is a lonely time. The body hurts, and it is easy to wallow in self-pity.
All the work used to be done in spare, wooded isolation, but now the big fighters are more public, close to the scent of perfume and unending distraction, often in the garish ballrooms of hotels. But there is only so much you can do to condition a fighter: the rest is up to him and his state of mind, specifically in the area of will. Tunney had it, Marciano had it, and so do Ali and Frazier. Because of their singlemindedness, if he were around today Whitey Bimstein would call them "nanimals." A lot of fighters think they qualify for that description, but few ever do. Inside, they are often frail men who lean toward hypochondria and, like most men who must live in constant communion with their bodies, they are forever looking for the secret: maybe a swallow of goat's milk and calf's blood; something, anything, to make them superhuman.
Cuts also are the object of much hocus-pocus. Every gym has its witch doctor, every fighter has a trainer with a formula that will stop a river of blood. The fact is that too many cut men are clumsy butchers.
The location of a cut dictates the treatment: a cut eyelid is more serious than a cut ear; a cut on the bridge of the nose rolls up skin and is a nonstop bleeder; lips that are cut through are very ugly and difficult to handle; nose splits are rare but terrifying (e.g., Marciano's in his September 1954 title fight with Ezzard Charles). But in general, says Dundee, the procedure for handling a cut is this:
"You wipe off the grime and ring dirt and apply Adrenalin on it with a Q-Tip, then apply pressure with both fingertips. This is the most important part of the treatment, pressure for at least 20 seconds. The Adrenalin causes the end arteries to clamp, and the pressure causes small clots, or stoppers, to form on the ends of the constricted vessels. Some cut men use bismuth powder to further clot the blood. Then a thick coagulant paste is applied. It has a cementlike quality that forms a tamponade. The first minute of the next round might see this punched out, but enough remains to stop the bleeding. The fighter returns to the corner, and the process is repeated over and over."
Dundee says the worst cut he ever had to handle was a slash over the left eye suffered by Florentino Fernandez in a fight with Jose Gonzales; it later required 64 stitches. Gil Clancy remembers Rocky Rivero in the Fernandez bout in 1963: "He had a six-inch cut under the chin. It looked like a second mouth." And of those who were there, who could ever forget Leotis Martin, whose lip was nearly sheared off, left hanging, by Jimmy Ellis in their 1967 Houston encounter. It makes one wonder about Ernest Hemingway, who would handle a fighter occasionally back in Idaho and once said, "I enjoy working the corners, handling the cuts, the fat eyes, the fat ears...."
If you have a fighter who cuts easily (Henry Cooper had no equal), there is not much that can be done before a fight. Oldtime fighters used to soak their faces in brine, a practice that has long since been abandoned.
A few fights have been won by a quick-witted corner man when all was seemingly lost. Three such incidents stand out in memory, all involving Angelo Dundee. In his first bout with Cooper in 1963, Ali ran into one of Henry's famed left hooks. The bell saved him. Dundee then discovered that Ali's glove was ripped. Ali didn't even know he had gloves. Dundee was given time to get another glove. It took 10 minutes, more than enough time for Ali to put his head back together. "The last time a glove ripped in England," said one critic, "was when Henry the Eighth's falcon got fresh with his hand."
Then there was Ali's first fight with Liston, when Ali, blinded by wintergreen from Sonny's shoulder, wanted to quit, and Dundee shoved him back into the ring. And again Dundee, this time handling Willie Pastrano as Pastrano defended his world light-heavyweight title in England against Terry Downes. Willie was being soundly whipped. Downes was quite tired, so was Willie; and for some reason he was mad at Angelo. In the corner, Dundee berated Pastrano viciously. Willie glowered and started to lunge at Dundee.
"You mad at me?" Dundee bellowed at his man. "Don't be mad at me! I ain't takin' your title! There's the chump over there you should be mad at! He's takin' your title, sucker!" The aroused Pastrano knocked out Downes in the 11th round.
It is doubtful that the ancient Captain Barclay, a pioneer of precise training methods early in the 19th century, would have been as abrasive as Dundee. He liked to refer to the business as pugilistic art. His formula for training was conceived with great care; to him there was no higher calling than to prepare a man for combat. After the Captain's time the trade evolved first toward shoddiness, when, among other things, trainers would tape hands with lethal bicycle tape and would use razor blades to relieve swelling, and then to what is now (for the most part) humaneness and competence. The Captain would be pleased.
And so would Charley Goldman, who treated all of his fighters as if they were made of porcelain. His advice was endless: never buy diamonds off anyone on the street; only a sucker git hit with a right hand. At the end of his life at 85, Charley lived alone in one room on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The fixtures of his work were all over that room, O-Tips, beat-up satchels, old chewed-up mouthpieces with a thin coat of dust. He used to sit there, his gnarled little hands clasped, and speak of Rocky Marciano. "I was the trainer of Rocky Marciano," he liked to say. He was not being boastful. He just wanted to make sure it was part of the record, for that was all he had left. And then one day they found him in his room, dead and wearing an old robe of Rocky's. Greater love hath no trainer.