Angelo Dundee: Making Boxing Fun Again

By Adam P. Short on February 2, 2012
Angelo Dundee: Making Boxing Fun Again
When I finally got to Tampa I was amazed at how well Angelo appeared (Robert Ecksel)

Dundee was a man of great compassion and integrity who made his living in a business known for its bullies, thieves and hypocrites…

Growing up as a suburban kid in Virginia in the 1970s and ‘80s, I always loved boxing. My dad and I would watch the weekly televised fights together, and I learned from him how to marvel at the speed and durability of the little guys and to make fun of the big fat guys posing as heavyweight boxers. Most of all I learned that a great fighter is a rare and fine thing and that when you see one you should take notice, and not take him for granted.

As I got older and learned more about the fight game I learned that every great fighter needs a great trainer and manager, who acts as a tactician, motivator, doctor, and friend.  When in my early 20s, ESPN Classic and the Internet came along and I gained access to films of fights from throughout the entire storied history of modern boxing.

Watching these films over time I began to notice something interesting—Angelo Dundee, the old guy I remembered from George Foreman’s corner when he improbably knocked out Michael Moorer, had trained some other guys too. I watched tape of Sugar Ray Leonard fighting Tommy Hearns, and there was Dundee screaming at Sugar Ray “You’re blowin’ it, son. You’re blowin’ it!”

The more I learned about Dundee the more interesting he seemed. But it wasn’t until December of 1998 that I really came to be obsessed with this man and the question of how he has built his incredible and unlikely career as a cornerman. In Virginia just before Christmas that year there was a terrible ice storm, and on Christmas Eve I was stuck at home in my parents’ house watching television and waiting for the big day. There was nothing to do, and nowhere to go. I settled in to watch an ESPN Classic special called “A Muhammad Ali Christmas.”

I knew the basics of Ali’s story, but I had never actually seen the first Liston fight. I was fascinated by the entire thing: Ali (then Clay, of course, at least for a few more weeks) bowing before Sugar Ray Robinson before the fight, Joe Louis offering slightly befuddled commentary at ringside, the blow-by-blow guy (I should remember his name, but Angelo’s death has crashed BoxRec and I’m helpless without it) going nuts at how fast and agile the challenger was. 

What jumped out at me the most, though, was how genuinely happy Angelo Dundee was after the fight. He wasn’t just happy his fighter had won—he was sincerely happy for the sport of boxing. “This is what boxing needs,” he said earnestly. I was touched in that moment by a feeling that he had come through a time when he wasn’t proud of what boxing was becoming, and he believed that this special fighter would allow it to become something great again. Of course, he turned out to be exactly right.

Over the years I always toyed with the idea of one day meeting Angelo, interviewing him about what he meant by that comment after the first Liston fight. Then one day I happened to read that Angelo was opening a new version of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach (the original having been torn down some years ago.) I called the gym and spoke to Angelo’s manager, the patient and generous Mark Grismer, who explained that Angelo was usually at the gym on weekends and that I should come down and see the place. 

What Mark Grismer didn’t know was that I was a rank amateur and needed to get some help if I was to shoot footage worthy of Angelo’s status as one of the all-time great boxing personalities. I started looking for sound equipment, a director of photography, building a real production crew.  I knew it would take time, but I wanted to do it right.

Then I got the call. Angelo had broken his hip and was in the hospital. A few weeks later, Angelo’s wife Helen, the love of his life and his constant companion for over fifty years, succumbed to a long illness. 

Suddenly I knew that I did not have the time I’d hoped I had—doing the interview “right” needed to take a backseat to doing the interview “right now.”

When I got to Tampa I was amazed at how well Angelo appeared. He was energetic, quick-witted, and a great storyteller. I had no idea how to conduct a good documentary film interview—this was my first—but Angelo did, having been in countless movies and TV specials stretching back longer than I’ve been alive.  I was amazed at how he fixed my confusing questions by repeating them concisely and clearly in his answer. When he was done talking he would stop, smile a compassionate smile, and wait for my next question, which I found out later upon watching the tape would always begin with “So…”

I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised at what a great interview Dundee was. What was truly surprising about Angelo, though, was his unique perspective on life. He talked extensively about how each person is an individual with a God-given right to do with his life what he wants to do with it, and what he wanted to do with his life was help other people achieve their dreams. If you want to be a trainer, he said, forget what anyone tells you it’s about. “I hate that,” he told me, not unkindly, when I asked him what a trainer’s job is. “You do what you have to do to help the fighter. That’s it. That’s what it’s all about.”

I asked him at various times to respond to critics, but he showed little interest in that. He wanted to talk about old friends from long ago, guys he looked up to. He took obvious delight in name-dropping people like Al Weill and Charlie Goldman, almost as if HE wanted to impress ME. 

Over the ensuing year I’ve struggled with what to do with the footage I shot in Tampa last January. I spent a good deal of money—mine and others’—getting it, but my inexperience was such that without the help of my Uncle Kevin, a brilliant and hardworking engineer who selflessly drove up from Orlando to help me with my equipment (and his beautiful wife Maggie who rearranged her weekend to make it possible for her husband to participate) I probably wouldn’t have been able to get anything at all. Even with my uncle’s help, the video I shot was not well-framed, and the audio is noisy and full of blemishes. 

In the end my dreams of including the footage in a full-length documentary film complete with licensed fight footage were probably unrealistic from the first. Today, as I remember Angelo Dundee and mourn his passing, I realize that it probably doesn’t matter. I have a record of meeting one of the great figures of 20th century life, a man of great compassion and integrity who made his living in a business known for its bullies, thieves and hypocrites. I enjoy it every time I look at it, and I hope others will enjoy it too. 

The most moving moment I had in the room with Angelo Dundee was when I asked him to talk about his wife. He had many wonderful stories about her, but what he said in the end summed it up very well: “It just ended. I miss her.” 

We’ll miss you too, Angelo. Thanks for making boxing fun again.

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Angelo Dundee: Making Boxing Fun Again

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  1. max hord 03:39am, 02/05/2012

    Thanks for the fine article

  2. pugknows 09:39am, 02/03/2012

    I co-sign with the Thresher.

  3. dollarbond 07:03am, 02/03/2012

    Nice job.  He was an icon.

  4. mikecasey 05:35am, 02/03/2012

    Very enjoyable, Adam. Dundee had many wonderful stories about the freewheeling Willie Pastrano. More of that at a later date!

  5. the thresher 05:27am, 02/03/2012

    Better late than never, Adam. Cherish the memories.

  6. Adam P Short 05:23am, 02/03/2012

    Thanks for reading!  It was a great experience meeting and interviewing a legend.  I only wish I had done it sooner (and that I had read Corner Men by Ronald K. Fried, as I wound up recovering a lot of ground that Fried covered in that excellent book from the 1980’s.)

  7. the thresher 05:18am, 02/03/2012

    Thanks for writing this fine piece.

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