Angelo Dundee is considered the greatest boxing coach in America. He has guided fifteen fighters to world titles and helped Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard become stars on a global level. When Ali shocked the world knocking out the seemingly unstoppable George Foreman, Angelo was in Ali’s corner. That’s why Foreman wanted Angelo in his own corner when he faced WBA/IBF heavyweight champion Michael Moorer. That night the world was shocked one again: the 45-year-old Foreman knocked out the 28-year-old Moorer to become heavyweight champion for a second time.
Born on August 30, 1921 in Philadelphia as Angelo Mirenda (not Merena, as it is commonly believed), this legendary trainer has won so many prizes that he lost count. He is very proud of being twice named “Manager of the Year” (1968 and 1979), of being accepted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame (1994), and of the “One America Award” given to him by then-President Bill Clinton on October 28, 2000 during the National Italian-American Foundation’s gala dinner in Washington D.C. Recently, Angelo worked with Russell Crowe for his role in The Cinderella Man.
Always the gentleman, Angelo took some time off to tell us about his long time friendship with Muhammad Ali.
Tell us how you met Ali.
I was in Louisville with Willie Pastrano, to discuss with Alonzo Johnson and his manager about a possible fight (that took place one year later). It was 1958, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The receptionist called my room and said that somebody wanted to meet me. I told Willie to see this guy. Willie came back smiling, he said that a crazy boy (“nu pazzariello” Dundee said in Southern Italian slang) wanted to know me … So I met the boy and he introduced himself: I’m Cassius Marcellus Clay, I won tournaments in Louisville, Seattle, Kentucky, everywhere. I’m the best amateur in the world. I want you as trainer to become the champion of the world. I understood that he really loved boxing, that he was serious in becoming world champion, so I spent more than two hours with him. Finally, I told him to come back when he decided to turn professional, because I didn’t work with amateurs. After his first pro fight, Cassius came to my house.
Why he didn’t come before turning professional?
Because his sponsors, a group of Louisville businessmen, wanted him to work with Archie Moore. Being a former light heavyweight champion, Moore was idolized by his fighters and took advantage of it. One day, he asked Cassius to sweep the gym. Cassius told him: I don’t sweep my kitchen when my mother asks me to do it. Imagine if I sweep your gym if you order me to do it. He called his sponsors and told them he was through with Archie Moore. One of these guys called me to work with Cassius. We agreed on a meeting to be held three months later, because I was travelling a lot and Christmas was just around the corner. After about thirty minutes, he called me back saying that Cassius couldn’t wait three months and was looking for a plane ticket for the next day. When Cassius came to my gym, I asked him to prove himself and he started sparring with my boxers. There were three journalists in the gym, so I asked them what they thought about my new kid. The first journalist said Cassius was too small to face heavyweights. The second one complained that he moved around too much and threw too many jabs. According to the third journalist, Clay didn’t have enough power to knock out the big guys. My answer to them was: You are absolutely right, Cassius must improve a lot; but he wins! I’m sure he will keep on winning. That’s just to show you that first impressions don’t count. That’s why I always wanted to meet the fighters before deciding if I could work with them. Their record showed me nothing. In order to make a judgement on their chances of becoming champions, I had to look into their eyes to verify if they understood how tough a prize fighter’s life is. There’s no comparison with any other profession. If a boxer doesn’t breath boxing 24 hours a day, he should start looking for another job. Cassius’ only priority was always boxing. That’s why he became The Greatest.
Do you think he really was The Greatest?
I honestly think that Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali are on the same level. Everybody has a favorite. My choice is Muhammad.
What about the stories surrounding the two fights with Sonny Liston?
Nonsense. In the first fight, Liston couldn’t take it anymore and remained on his stool. In the second, he was knocked out by a right hand so fast that some people didn’t see it. The only suspect situation occurred in the first fight when Cassius told me that his eyes burned; I put my finger in his eye, then put it in my own eye and I felt a strong burning sensation. So I told him to run for the entire fifth round. He followed my advice. In the sixth round, he punched Liston so many times that [he] convinced him to quit.
Did you like the way Ron Silver played your role in the Ali movie?
He was great. I told him nothing because he is a professional actor and knows how to do his job. I gave many advices to Will Smith, but only because the production company hired me to do that. I explained Will how Ali moved, talked and fought. Will is another great actor. He really looked like Muhammad.
One final comment about the “Cinderella Man” movie.
It’s a great movie. Russell Crowe is a gifted athlete and a great guy. We spent a month together, in Australia. I’m proud to say that we became real friends.
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Angelo Dundee’s 15 world champions:
Carmen Basilio – welterweight and middleweight champion.
Ultiminio Ramos – featherweight champion.
Ralph Dupas – superwelterweight champion.
Jose Napoles and Luiz Rodriguez – welterweight champions.
George Scott – lightweight champion.
Micheal Nunn – middleweight and supermiddleweight champion.
Willie Pastrano and Slobodan Kacar – light heavyweight champions.
Ray Leonard – welterweight, superwelterweight and middleweight champion (he won other titles after splitting with Angelo).
Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis, Pinklon Thomas, George Foreman and Adilson Rodrigues – heavyweight champions.