Angelo Dundee, the boxing trainer who ran Muhammad Ali’s corner from his professional debut as Cassius Clay through the epic bouts that made him a three-time heavyweight champion, has died. He was 90.
“It was the way he wanted to go,” his son, Jimmy Dundee, told the AP. “He did everything he wanted to do.”
Though he trained more than a dozen title-holders, including middleweight Sugar Ray Leonard, Dundee became a legend in boxing for his work with Ali. The loquacious Ali -- ravaged to the point of muteness in his later years by Parkinson’s syndrome -- often praised Dundee, who was of Italian descent, as “half-colored” for the easy way the two men related.
“He never bosses me, tells me when to run, how much to box,” Ali told biographer Jose Torres. “I do what I want to do. I’m free. I go where I want to go.”
The key to the Dundee-Ali relationship -- which remained strong even as Ali joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name and was stripped of his title for refusing induction into the U.S. Army -- was the trainer’s willingness to let his boxer be his showman self, David Remnick wrote in “King of the World,” his 1998 biography of Ali.
Dundee told Remnick, “You couldn’t actually direct him to do something. You had to sort of mold him. He resented direct orders. He wanted to feel that he was always the innovator, and so I encouraged that.”
Ali signed with Dundee in 1960 after culminating his amateur career with the light-heavyweight gold medal at that year’s Olympic Games in Rome. Four years later, Ali became the second-youngest heavyweight champion by beating Sonny Liston.
Dundee was Ali’s trainer and corner man through declarations of retirement and ill-conceived comebacks, including his 1980 return to fight heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner of Ali. Dundee said it “broke my heart” to concede that fight on Ali’s behalf after 10 bruising rounds. He said Ali, through swollen lips, mouthed the words “Thank you.”
Angelo Mirena Jr. was born on Aug. 30, 1921 -- he gave the year as 1923 in his 2007 memoir, “My View from the Corner,” then revised it to 1921 for the paperback edition -- in Philadelphia, one of seven children of immigrants from Calabria in southern Italy. He and two brothers took the name Dundee from Joe Dundee, an Italian boxer from the 1920s.
Dundee worked as an airplane inspector during World War II, then served in the U.S. Navy. In 1948, he moved to New York, where one of his brothers, Chris Dundee, had become a manager “well connected in the shadowy boxing world of that era,” Remnick wrote.
5th Street Gym
In 1957, Dundee was in Louisville, Kentucky, for a fight when he got a call in his hotel room from 15-year-old Cassius Clay.
“Cassius said, word for word, ‘I’m Cassius Marcellus Clay and I’m the Golden Gloves champion, I’ve won this and won that,’” Dundee recalled. “Then he told me he was going to win the Olympics.”
Some quick thinking by Dundee helped Ali (then Clay) survive a 1963 fight that set the stage for his first title bid.
After Henry Cooper knocked down Ali at the end of the fourth round, Dundee bought his fighter needed recovery time by furtively enlarging a small split he had noticed on a seam of one glove, then alerting the referee to it. A fruitless search for a replacement glove gave Ali extra time to regain his wits. He went out and pummeled Cooper, and the referee stopped the fight in round five.
Dundee’s corner work was also key in Ali’s first title bout, in 1964 against Liston. After round four, Ali was struggling to see, due to a burning sensation in his eyes, and begged his team to concede.
In “the most important single minute of Dundee’s two decades” with Ali, Remnick wrote, the corner man kept his cool, used his sponge to get clean water into Ali’s eyes and pushed the boxer to fight through the pain. Ali did, and he won the title when Liston didn’t answer the bell for round seven.
Dundee, in a 2011 online chat, called that Liston fight Ali’s greatest victory. “No one picked him to win, except me, and Muhammad,” Dundee said. “Muhammad always thought he was going to win. He thought he was going to a party every fight. He was the calmest and most confident guy ever. ”
Dundee recalled hearing Ali softly say of himself, “The Greatest is gone,” after he lost his title challenge to Joe Frazier in the 1971 “Fight of the Century.”
Ali beat Frazier in a 1974 rematch that set up his title challenge to George Foreman. In the “Rumble in the Jungle,” held in Kinshasa, Zaire, Dundee was surprised and worried when Ali unveiled his defensive “rope-a-dope” strategy. Ali came off the ropes to knock out an arm-weary Foreman in round eight.
In Ali’s epic third matchup with Frazier, the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila,” both fighters were exhausted after round 14. Frazier’s corner gave up first.
“As we tried to raise a bone-weary Ali off his stool to accept the plaudits of the crowd, he collapsed, his legs giving way to fatigue, his body to pain, totally drained,” Dundee wrote. “It was a question whether he would have gone another round.”
Dundee had a son and a daughter with his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1952. She died in 2010.
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