Commentary

Trainer to the champions had unique view of Ali and other fighters

Ask Angelo Dundee to recall some of his shining moments and he'll share stories about training boxing greats like Carmen Basilio, Ray Leonard and George Foreman. His fondest memories, though, involve Muhammad Ali.

Originally Published: December 18, 2007
By Kieran Mulvaney | Special to ESPN.com

Cassius Clay, Angelo Dundee AP Photo/Dan GrossiAngelo Dundee, right, would have done anything for Cassius Clay.
Louisville, Ky. February 1957.

Angelo Dundee and Willie Pastrano were relaxing in their hotel room.

The phone rang.

Dundee, who had been training light heavyweight contender Pastrano for a bout against John Holman the following day, describes what happened next in his recently published autobiography, "My View from the Corner: A Life in Boxing."

"Willie was caught up in whatever it was that was on TV and ignored the ringing, so it fell to me to pick up the phone," he writes. "'Hello, this is Angelo Dundee,' I said. And what to my wondering ear should I hear from the earpiece but a rush of words that went something like 'Hello, my name is Cassius Marcellus Clay … I'm the Golden Gloves champion of Louisville … I won the Atlanta Golden Gloves … I'm gonna be the Olympic champion and the champion of the whole world …' and on and on, the number and the names of the titles he had and would win flying by so fast I could barely keep track. Then he said, 'I'm downstairs and I want to come up and talk to you and Mr. Pastrano …'"

Dundee agreed to let the young man come up to the room to talk, with the understanding that it could be for no longer than five minutes as Pastrano needed to take a nap. After bombarding the two men with questions and compliments for three-and-a-half hours, he finally left.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee
Ray Fisher/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesAngelo Dundee, left, had a certain way of talking to Muhammad Ali that got the fighter to listen to his trainer.
A little under four years later, the man who would become Muhammad Ali had indeed won Olympic gold and had turned professional, and Dundee was about to become his trainer, the start of a relationship that would be arguably the most successful and celebrated in heavyweight championship history.

"A lot of guys didn't think he would make it," Dundee said of Ali during a recent conversation in Las Vegas, "because he was doing so much jumping around, kept his hands down, jerked around."

Most trainers would have tried to change him, mold him, make him do things the "right" way. Not Dundee.

"I left him alone," he said. "I just smoothed out a lot of stuff."

The smoothing, though, had to be done in a particular way. If he wanted Ali to jab, he wouldn't tell him to jab; he knew the boxer's ego wouldn't allow it. Instead, he started complimenting him on the way he was jabbing.

"I made him feel like he innovated it. If I was the guy that gave him directions, he'd say, 'Hey, who's this midget to tell me what to do?' No, I never gave him a direct order. The only time I told him what to do was in the ring."

One such occasion came when Ali challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world in February 1964. At the end of the fourth round, Ali came back to the corner, blinking and squinting, screaming that he couldn't see, and pleading with Dundee to cut off his gloves and stop the fight. Instead, Dundee sent him back out for the fifth and told him to keep moving until he regained his vision.

"'Take off the gloves, there's dirty work afoot,'" Dundee recalled his fighter crying. "He couldn't see. He was frantic, the poor kid."

That something had indeed invaded his eye, there was no doubt.

"I put my finger in his eye, I put the finger in my eye. And I knew there was a caustic substance there. There's a lot of variety, a lot of stories, I think it was the liniment on Liston's shoulder. My kid may have touched it. Both eyes went; not one, both.

"Everybody says, 'Gee, why did Angelo let him get back in there?' Because I cleaned out his eyes, I wiped them clean, threw away the sponge, threw away the towel, and when the referee was coming toward me, I made him stand up. I didn't pick him up. I said, 'Get up,' and the referee turned back to the neutral corner. That's what trainers are for. You've got to be there for that kind of situation. You've got to do everything to help the fighters."

Everything, including delaying the resumption of a round when your fighter has just been knocked into cloud cuckooland at the end of the previous frame -- as had happened during Ali's previous fight, when he had fought Henry Cooper.

After toying with Cooper for four rounds during their bout at London's Wembley Stadium, Ali was clocked with a thunderous Cooper left hook that, he said later, "made me feel as if I had gone back and visited all my ancestors in Africa."

Slumped on the canvas, his arm draped over the second rope, Ali was saved by the bell. Dundee leaped into the ring and dragged him to the corner, where, according to urban legend, the trainer cut Ali's glove, called the referee's attention to the fact that the glove was split, and caused a delay during which a new glove was placed Ali's fist and he recovered his senses.

Everybody says, 'Gee, why did Angelo let him get back in there?' Because I cleaned out his eyes, I wiped them clean and when the referee was coming toward me, I made him stand up … that's what trainers are for. You've got to be there for that kind of situation. You've got to do everything to help the fighters.

-- Angelo Dundee, on the lengths he would go to protect his fighters

Not so, insists Dundee.

"That was something they gave me credit I don't deserve. I didn't cut the glove," he said.

Rather, he had noticed in the early going that the glove was split slightly along the seam, the leather sticking up. As he writes in his book, "Well, who knows when something like that might come in handy?"

"So, he kicked the hell out of Cooper in the first round, he got back, and I made sure the referee wasn't looking my way," he recalled. "I said, 'Keep your hand closed,' because if he'd have kept it open, the crack would have shown. And then when I saw an opportune moment [after the knockdown], I called the referee over and said, 'The glove's split.' I put my finger underneath the leather and lifted it up.

"The idea was, I went to the referee, and he went to the commissioner. The commissioner went to the back room looking for gloves. He came back, the referee told me, 'Angelo, we don't have any new gloves.' I said, 'That's OK, we'll use these.' I never took them off."

Nor is it the only myth concerning his fighter that Dundee is keen to dispel. Another is the so-called 'phantom punch' that felled Liston during the emotionally charged rematch for the title in Lewiston, Maine, in May 1965. Contrary to what many believe, Liston did not, asserts the trainer, take a dive in that first round. The punch, he says, was entirely real and devastatingly effective.

"I made Muhammad jump on him," he said. "The first punch he landed was a one-two. And I think it brought back memories [of the first fight]. Liston had lost all the inner strength; there was no more there. He knew he was going to get the heck kicked out of him. And those two shots really bothered him. And the shot he got knocked down with was the perfect punch: slide right, boom, drop it over. You could see the punch. It got him in the temple. A guy from Scene Magazine was taking pictures with the first 'click click click' camera; I got the magazine, there's a sequence where Ali hit him, [Liston's] left foot came up and he crumpled. It happened. It was a good punch. The punch you don't see is what gets you."

***

The names of many great fighters are sprinkled throughout "My View from the Corner," as befits the autobiography of a man who has trained the best over six decades in the fight business.

"I had the luxury of working with some great fighters," said Dundee. "Carmen Basilio was the first great fighter. Great fighter. Proved it when he beat Ray Robinson. But I've had other guys: Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas, George Foreman, Luis Rodriguez, Sugar Ramos, Jose Napoles … oh, in the new Ring Magazine, they've got the 20 best welterweights [of all time]. I had four of them: Luis Rodriguez, Ray Leonard, Jose Napoles, Carmen Basilio."

It's a fact he mentions, not with a sense of boastfulness or pride, but of wonderment that he has had the good fortune to be involved with so many of the all-time greats, as if it were an accident that he just happened to be in their corner during their greatest moments.

But there is one fighter more than any other who bestrides the book's pages with the same swaggering dominance with which he tamed the boxing world.

"One guy said, 'Gee, the book, there's a lot about Muhammad,'" exclaimed Dundee, disbelievingly. "Why shouldn't there be a lot about Muhammad? He was a great fighter. He changed the whole essence of boxing. For years, people thought I was mute. Nobody talked to me. They were too worn out after talking to Muhammad. Let me tell you: a great human being; an introvert, not an extrovert, I made him into an extrovert. He got glib on account of you guys talking to him. You made him sharp. He got to be a good talker on the TV. Every time you put a camera on him, he'd light up. Every time you'd talk to him, he'd light up. He's a great man. A great, great man."

Theirs was a relationship that was founded on strong mutual respect that morphed into a deep and abiding friendship, forming ties that proved resistant to occasional efforts by outsiders to break them.

"Muhammad always respected me and I respected him," Dundee said. "In other words, we had mutual admiration, and we were always looking out for each other. A lot of guys during his career, they were looking to slip me out and everything else, and he would say, 'Leave Angelo alone.' And I would say, 'Leave Muhammad alone.' We're still friends, but we had respect for each other's talents."

Physically, Ali is a shell of the young man who burst excitedly into Dundee's hotel room 40 years ago.

"I thought he would beat Parkinson's, though, but … too tough. Too, too tough," Dundee lamented.

Ali's spirit, however, remains vibrant, and he and his former trainer speak and see each other frequently: two men whose first impromptu encounter led to a relationship that has endured for four decades and will be forever recounted in boxing history, now and long into the future.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.