He worked with 16 world champions but most notably Ali, the iconic heavyweight champion, whom Dundee guided from his early 1960s fights through his first-title winning performance against Sonny Liston, the three epic fights with Joe Frazier, the knockout win over George Foreman and final career bout in 1981.
Dundee became a legend in boxing for his work with Ali. The loquacious Ali 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 US 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 mould 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 the 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.
Angelo Mirena Jr. was born on August 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 an Italian boxer from the 1920s.
Dundee worked as an airplane inspector during World War II, then served in the US 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.
The brothers brought their boxing promotion and management to Miami, where they worked out of a walkup called the 5th Street Gym.
In 1957, Dundee was in Louisville for a fight when he got a call 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 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 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 key in Ali’s first title bout against Liston. After round four, Ali was struggling to see and begged his team to concede. In ”the most important single minute of Dundee’s two decades” with Ali, Remnick wrote, he 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 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 Foreman. In the ”Rumble in the Jungle,” held in Kinshasa, Zaire, Dundee was worried when Ali unveiled his ”rope-a-dope” strategy. Ali came off the ropes to knock out Foreman in round eight. In Ali’s epic third match-up with Frazier, the 1975 ”Thrilla in Manila,” Frazier’s corner gave up first.
Dundee had a son and a daughter with his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1952. She died in 2010.
Bloomberg, LA Times