Angelo Dundee: The man who made Ali is still packing a punch at 90

From his Fifth Street gym in Miami's South Beach, 'Angie' honed some of the world's finest fighters for 50 years – including 'The Greatest' of all. Alan Hubbard pays tribute
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Angelo Dundee is 90 on Tuesday. The man whose name is forever bracketed with the legend he helped make The Greatest is still in there punching; or rather, showing others how.

The old master's pupils may no longer be world champions such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Willie Pastrano, Jose Napoles , Carmen Basilio and the host of others – 15 in all – he schooled in his 50 years as boxing's supreme Svengali, but the squad of young hopefuls now under his inimitable tutelage receive the same care and sage advice he gave the fight game's finest.

"Thank God I'm in good health," he told me from his home in Clearwater, Florida. "I've got a new hip but otherwise I'm OK and keeping as busy as I want to be."

Back in his alma mater, the newly rebuilt Fifth Street gym in Miami's South Beach, a veritable emporium of fistiana which is again resplendent with vividly nostalgic echoes of boxing's most memorable bygone era, the Sixties and Seventies, Dundee is in his element once more.

He is now working with a "bunch of good-looking amateurs", some of whom are prospective Olympians. He also trains a female boxer. "Yeah, I got a girl fighter, Christine Swanson," says Dundee. "She's terrific. She works as a fireman and has won both her pro fights and had 30 amateur bouts. She can fight. I got no beef with women boxing. If they want to, let them do it.

"I'm loving it. Some of these amateur kids may not be ready for your Games in London, but they will be for the next Olympics. I see some 14 and 15 year-olds now with some tremendous talent."

"Angie", as the boxing world still knows him, was more than Ali's little helper. A trainer par excellence, he was also his counsellor, confidant and occasional minder, chasing away the "foxes" when Ali, always a ladies' man, eyed a spot of horizontal sparring even on the day of a fight.

Above all, he was the best cornerman in the business, from where he not only saved Ali's career, but quite possibly his life.

Theirs was a double act lasting over two decades, from the Olympic champion Cassius Clay's second pro fight against Herb Siler in Miami in December 1960 until, exactly 21 years later, the washed-up shell of ring's sublime artiste, who had turned boxing into a thing of beauty, rather than just booty, was left beaten out of sight in the Bahamas by a ho-hum heavyweight named Trevor Berbick.

Their 60-fight journey from Miami to Nassau was both exotic and exciting before its poignant conclusion, embracing the moment he literally shoved his fighter back into the fray to win the heavyweight title when Ali told him to cut the gloves off, believing he was being deliberately blinded by a burning substance on Sonny Liston's own gloves, to the titanic triumphs of the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila".

But people still ask why the little Italian-American had stayed with Ali to that sad and bitter end when the boxer's personal physician, Ferdie Pacheco, walked away after a brutal fight with Earnie Shavers in 1977.

Pacheco urged him to quit because of the punishment he was taking to the body – Ali was passing blood for days. Dundee was criticised for not quitting, too, but he explains: "I honestly felt that if Muhammad was insisting on fighting on, I had to be there to make sure he didn't get hurt real bad."

This was evident in the fast-fading Ali's penultimate fight when he was belaboured by Larry Holmes in the car park of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Even Holmes himself had beckoned to the referee to call a halt and it was left to Dundee to do so at the end of the 10th round when he defied elements in the camp apparently more interested in keeping their meal ticket going. "I am the chief second and I stop the fight," he declared.

If Dundee saved Ali's life that night, then unquestionably he had rescued his career 17 years earlier on that electric evening at Wembley when young Cassius was felled by 'Enry's 'ammer.

"I'm so upset that we don't have Henry [Sir Henry Cooper] any more and so is Muhammad," he says. "They were still great friends, you know. Muhammad had a lot of respect for him." Especially that left hook.

To this day the debate still rages as to whether Dundee craftily tore Clay's glove to give him more time to recover from that fourth-round knock-down. He chuckles as he denies it.

"Whatever people tell you, I never cut the glove, it was split right from the beginning. All I did was stick my thumb in it and call the referee's attention to get it changed."

Then there was his rope trick in Kinshasa before the George Foreman fight. We saw him in the ring an hour before, apparently loosening them, yet Dundee insists: "Honest, I was actually tightening them. But the heat loosened them again. They were 24-foot ropes and I never wanted Muhammad to lay on them and rope-a-dope [lean back into the ropes to absorb the effect of the blows].

"In fact I whacked his butt whenever he did because I was worried Foreman would hit my kid in the chest and knock him out of the ring. But Muhammad being Muhammad, he did his own thing. He always did. I just added a few wrinkles and put the reflexes in the proper direction. But I never trained Muhammad, I just directed him."

Ali himself will be 70 in January but to Dundee he remains "my kid". He stays in regular touch with him, mainly through the former champion's wife, Lonnie. "Sadly, that Parkinson's [disease] is kicking the hell out of him, but he's in good spirits and I see his son Assad regularly in Miami. He goes to college down here and is a catcher for the baseball team.

"Muhammad Ali is the greatest because of what he did for boxing. He was great outside the ring, he was great inside it. Right now there is nobody out there to turn people on; this is the disease of Muhammad Ali. With Muhammad every time we did something it was excitement. It is unfair to try and compare anybody with him because he's a once-in-a-lifetime guy. There'll never be another Muhammad Ali."

Then he confides: "Actually I've got a young heavyweight of my own, but I'm not saying anything about him yet. But you'll hear about him once I get rolling with him."

Dundee lost his wife, Helen, after a long illness in December. "She was the toughest fighter I ever had," he says. "She was my buddy. Fifty-eight years with the same chick.

"Now I want to make 90 because after Don King [who was 80 last week] I will be the oldest boxing guy around. I am forever young because I am always dealing with young people but if it's a physical endeavour, I am in trouble. When you are 89 years old, you are not that sprightly doing push-ups, but mentally I am there.

"I feel blessed and I am happy I had the life I had. We had fun, didn't we? I hope I can hang around because I think I can add a little something. You gotta have something to do, or you go goofy. I don't want to go goofy."

Haye's off his head if he retires

David Haye would be "crazy" to retire after losing to Wladimir Klitschko, according to Angelo Dundee, writes Alan Hubbard. The veteran trainer admits he was sucker-punched into believing Haye would win after watching him in his Miami gym.

"I'm the worst picker in the world but I thought he'd knock out Klitschko. I was broken-hearted for the kid. He was looking so good. He genuinely had a great shot but who knows what tricks a fighter's mind when he goes into the ring. He had the speed, the punch and the balance. I told him in the gym, when the guy raids on you, slide, get under the jab and throw the hook. He knew what to do, so why the hell didn't he do it? He shoulda given it his best shot. You can't look back and say, hey, I never tried it.

"I hear he is talking about quitting but that's the dumbest thing he could do. He's gotta be out of his mind – one loss does not make a bad fighter. There's nothing wrong in getting beat – look at Muhammad. Haye can still lick a lot of fighters. I am not saying he would beat Wladimir in a return and I'd tell him to keep away from the bigger guy [Vitali Klitschko].

"My God, he's a terror. He'd give him an even worse time. I feel sorry for anyone who meets him. He'd have given Muhammad an ugly fight, though he would have stopped the younger guy real quick."