Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's Trainer, Dies at 90

The legendary figure also willed Sugar Ray Leonard to victory in his biggest bout

Thursday, Feb 2, 2012  |  Updated 7:49 AM PDT
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Angelo Dundee tends to George Foreman during his heavyweight title defense against Axel Schulz in Las Vegas, April 22, 1995.

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There was no way Angelo Dundee was going to miss Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday party.

The genial trainer got to see his old friend, and reminisce about good times. It was almost as if they were together in their prime again, and what a time that was.

Dundee died in his apartment in Tampa, Fla., Wednesday night at the age of 90, and with him a part of boxing died, too.

He was surrounded by his family, said his son, Jimmy, who said the visit with Ali in Louisville, Ky., meant everything to his Dad.

"It was the way he wanted to go," the son said. "He did everything he wanted to do."

Jimmy Dundee said his father was hospitalized for a blood clot last week and was briefly in a rehabilitation facility before returning to his apartment.

"He was coming along good yesterday and then he started to have breathing problems. My wife was with him at the time, thank God, and called and said he can't breathe. We all got over there. All the grandkids were there. He didn't want to go slowly," the son said.

Dundee was the brilliant motivator who worked the corner for Ali in his greatest fights, willed Sugar Ray Leonard to victory in his biggest bout, and coached hundreds of young men in the art of a left jab and an overhand right.

More than that, he was a figure of integrity in a sport that often lacked it.

"To me, he was the greatest ambassador for boxing, the greatest goodwill ambassador in a sport where there's so much animosity and enemies," said Bruce Trampler, the longtime matchmaker who first went to work for Dundee in 1971. "The guy didn't have an enemy in the world."

How could he, when his favorite line was, "It doesn't cost anything more to be nice."

Dundee was best known for being in Ali's corner for almost his entire career, urging him on in his first fight against Sonny Liston through the legendary fights with Joe Frazier and beyond. He was a cornerman, but he was much more, serving as a motivator for fighters not so great and for The Greatest.

Promoter Bob Arum said he had been planning to bring Dundee to Las Vegas for a Feb. 18 charity gala headlined by Ali.

"He was wonderful. He was the whole package," Arum said. "Angelo was the greatest motivator of all time. No matter how bad things were, Angelo always put a positive spin on them. That's what Ali loved so much about him."

Arum credited Dundee with persuading Ali to continue in his third fight against Joe Frazier when Frazier was coming on strong in the "Thrilla in Manilla." Without Dundee, Arum said, Ali may not have had the strength to come back and stop Frazier after the 14th round in what became an iconic fight.

Dundee also worked the corner for Leonard, famously shouting, "You're blowing it, son. You're blowing it" when Leonard fell behind in his 1981 fight with Tommy Hearns — a fight he would rally to win by knockout.

A master motivator and clever corner man, Dundee was regarded as one of the sport's great ambassadors. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994 after a career that spanned six decades, training 15 world champions, including Leonard, George Foreman, Carmen Basilio and Jose Napoles.

"He had a ball. He lived his life and had a great time," Jimmy Dundee said. "He was still working with an amateur kid, a possible Olympic kid, down here. When he walked into a boxing room he still had the brain for it."

Dundee will always be linked to Ali as one of the most successful fighter-trainer relationships in boxing history, helping Ali become the first to win the heavyweight title three times. The pair would travel around the world for fights to such obscure places as Ali's October 1974 bout in Zaire against Foreman dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle," and Ali's third fight against Frazier in the Philippines.

"I just put the reflexes in the proper direction," Dundee said in a 2005 interview with The Associated Press.

He did much more than that, said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali's business manager for much of his career.

"There were people who tried to push him out, and Ali would never let it happen," Kilroy said. "Ali knew he kept everyone in harmony, kept everything in check. More than that, he found good in everybody. We used to joke that he could find something good in Charles Manson. He was just that way with everyone."

The partnership with Ali began in Louisville, Ali's hometown, in 1959. Dundee was there with light heavyweight Willie Pastrano when the young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, called their room from a hotel phone to ask if he could have five minutes. Clay, a local Golden Gloves champion, kept asking the men boxing questions in a conversation that lasted 3½ hours, according to Dundee's autobiography, "My View From the Corner: A Life in Boxing."

After Ali returned from Rome with a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, Dundee ran into him in Louisville and invited him to come to Miami Beach to train. Ali declined. But that December, Dundee got a call from one of Ali's handlers, seeking to hire Dundee. After Ali won his first pro fight, Dundee accepted.

He helped Ali claim the heavyweight title for the first time on Feb. 25, 1964, when Sonny Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round during their fight in Miami Beach.

In an age of boxing when fighter-manager relationships rarely last, Dundee and Ali would never split.

When Cassius Clay angered white America by joining the Black Muslims and become Muhammad Ali, Dundee never wavered. When Ali defied the draft at the height of the Vietnam war, losing 3 1/2 years from the prime of his career, Dundee was there waiting for the heavyweight's return. And when Ali would make bold projections, spewing poetry that made headlines across the world and gave him the nickname "The Louisville Lip," Dundee never asked him to keep quiet.

"Through all those days of controversy, and the many that followed, Angelo never got involved," Ali wrote in the foreword to Dundee's book. "He let me be exactly who I wanted to be, and he was loyal. That is the reason I love Angelo."

Born Angelo Mirena on Aug. 30, 1921, in south Philadelphia, Dundee's boxing career was propelled largely by his older brother, Chris, a promoter. After returning from World War II — "We won, but not because of anything I did" — he joined Chris in the boxing game in New York, serving as his "go-fer" and getting the tag "Chris' kid brother." Angelo and Chris followed another brother Joe, who was a fighter, in changing their surname to Dundee so their parents wouldn't know they worked in boxing.

He learned to tape hands and handle cuts as a corner man in the late 1940s, building his knowledge by watching and learning as a "bucket boy" in New York for trainers like Chickie Ferrara, Charlie Goldman and Ray Arcel, among others. Word of Dundee's expertise spread, and seasoned fighters lined up to have him in their corner.

He worked major boxing scenes with Chris, with stops at the famed Stillman's Gym in New York and Miami Beach's 5th Street Gym. Dundee's fun-loving attitude, combined with his powerful Philly accent, made him a joy to be around. His lifelong love and respect for the sport earned him praise from those across the boxing world.

"He is the only man in boxing to whom I would entrust my own son," the late sportscaster Howard Cosell once said of Dundee.

In the late 1970s, with Ali nearing retirement, Dundee quickly jumped into the corner for an emerging star named Sugar Ray Leonard, whom Dundee called "a smaller Ali." Dundee trained Leonard for many of his biggest fights — including bouts against Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns — and helped him become one of the most recognized welterweight champions in history.

Dundee later teamed with Foreman in 1994 to help him become the oldest heavyweight champion at age 45 when he beat Michael Moorer. In one last attempt to help a big fighter win a big fight, Dundee helped train Oscar De La Hoya for his Dec. 6, 2008, fight with pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao. Dundee did not work the corner on fight night; perhaps the 35-year-old "Golden Boy" could have used him. De La Hoya declined to answer the bell for the ninth round.

Always a slick strategist and fierce competitor, Dundee developed countless tricks to help his fighters win.

If he thought a referee might stop a fight because of a gash on his fighter, Dundee would stretch his butt so the referee couldn't peek into the corner, allowing him to conceal the wound before the bell. If a fighter was tired, Dundee would do anything he could to buy time, once untying a boxer's shoes after every round only to slowly retie the laces each time.

Dundee also went well beyond the usual tricks of smelling salts to revive fighters.

If his man was dazed, Dundee would often drop ice down the fighter's shorts to take their attention off injuries. During Ali's 1963 fight against Henry Cooper, Dundee pulled off a stunt that took him decades to publicly acknowledge.

After Cooper dropped Ali and left him dizzy at the end of the fourth round, Dundee alerted the referee to a small rip on Ali's gloves — a split Dundee would later admit he noticed before the fight — and the search for replacement gloves that never came gave Ali a few extra seconds to recover. Ali pounded Cooper's cuts in the fifth and the fight was stopped, keeping Ali's title shot alive. Many boxing commissions would soon require extra gloves to be kept at every fight.

Dundee never held back the one-liners in the corner, either, saying anything he could to get his fighters charged.

Dundee also loved to tell the story of the night he was in the corner for a little-known heavyweight named Johnny Holman. Remembering that Holman's dream was to buy a house, Dundee tried to motivate Holman when he said, "This guy's taking away your house from you. He's taking away those shutters from you. He's taking away that television set from you." Holman would come back to win — and get that house.

After living in the Miami area for decades, Dundee moved to the Tampa suburb of Oldsmar in 2007 to be closer to his two children after his wife of more than 50 years, Helen, fell ill. She died three years later.

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