Angelo Dundee understood the game of boxing perhaps more than any trainer the sport has ever known.
He trained Muhammad Ali and “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and his influence on their careers was significant. Dundee died Thursday night after complications from blood clots at the age of 90.
There is no doubt that Ali was among the most talented fighters in the history of boxing, but he was different than most great heavyweights. He had lightning speed and quickness and he used his ability to motor around the ring as if he were a lightweight or a welterweight.
Dundee began training Ali, who was then still known as Cassius Clay, shortly after he won the Olympic gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. A trainer who did not have Angelo’s foresight would have immediately tried to change Ali’s style and take the movement out of the equation. Instead, Dundee embraced Ali’s athleticism and his ability to move around the ring.
“Why would I have ever changed that,” Dundee asked during a 1989 interview. “There were a lot of old timers who would say that’s not how a heavyweight is supposed to fight and that he only moved around so much because he wasn’t a real puncher. They didn’t have a clue about my guy. He was great from the time he started and all they wanted to do was criticize him.”
Dundee almost always referred to Ali as ‘my guy.’”
The sentiment was mutual.
Ali had great respect for Dundee’s uncanny ability to help thoroughly prepare him for his most important fights and he also enjoyed working with the respected trainer throughout the training process. Ali said that whenever he was in the middle of a fight and he would come back to the corner at the end of a round, he knew Dundee would give him effective and concise advice.
“You come back to the corner and he’ll say, ‘The guy’s open for a hook.’ If he tells you something during a fight, you can believe it,” Ali told the New York Times back in 1981. “As a cornerman, Angelo is the best in the world.”
(Video courtesy of SportsandTorts)
Although Dundee, who was born Angelo Mirena, is best known for guiding the careers of Ali and Leonard, he first came to prominence in the 1950s when he trained welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio. He also trained champions Willie Pastrano (light heavyweight), Jimmy Ellis (heavyweight) and Luis Rodriguez (welterweight).
He also advised George Foreman when he mounted a comeback in 1987 following a 10-year ring absence and he helped the former heavyweight champ re-invent both his boxing style and his personality. Prior to his resurgence, Foreman had been among the most intimidating athletes of all-time with his baleful stare and threatening language. When he came back, Foreman was seemingly America’s favorite uncle. Much of that was due to Dundee’s influence.
Dundee understood that much of boxing’s appeal came from a fighter’s ability to reach the ticket-buying and television-watching public.
“That’s what this game is all about,” Dundee explained. “If you have ability and nobody’s watching, who cares? You have to find your people and you have to reach out to them.”
Ali and Leonard clearly knew how to do this and Foreman got the message in his second incarnation. Dundee helped drive this lesson home to all of his fighters every time he had the chance.
In addition to doling out the proper in-fight strategy to his fighters, Dundee had a gift for finding the proper inspirational language throughout a fight. When “Sugar” Ray fought Thomas Hearns in a highly anticipated showdown for the welterweight championship in 1981, Leonard had used his speed, quickness and outstanding left jab to build up a lead in the early and middle rounds of the fight. However, the formidable Hearns reversed the flow of the fight and had started to take over as the fight approached the later rounds.
Dundee knew that Leonard was starting to give the fight away and he was not about to blow smoke up Leonard’s butt by telling him he was doing fine. Instead, Dundee leaned in and put his hand on Leonard’s shoulder before telling him that he was about to lose the fight. “You’re blowing it, son, you’re blowing it,” Dundee said.
That bit of clarity got Leonard back into the attack mode. Despite having a badly swollen left eye, Leonard let loose with a two-fisted attack in the 13th round and knocked Hearns down. The following round, Leonard continued his attack and Hearns was not able to defend himself. The fight was stopped and Leonard won on a technical knockout.
Dundee had everything a great trainer needed and it earned him a spot in the boxing Hall of Fame. He generally loved his business and relating to his fighters. He got along with them and those associated with the sport. He taught his fighters and he inspired them. He brought more to the sport than nearly any other trainer.
Even more importantly, in a sport often associated with louts who take advantage of their vulnerable clients, Dundee had no such black mark on his resume. He was a man of honor in a sport that too often has very little.