In New York’s sports bars, boxing fans still talk about Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta and other champions of the 1940s and 1950s. TV networks keep broadcasting the old fights and some gyms even show the tapes to their clients to make them understand the difference between a real champion and a titleholder. I was at Gleason’s when a guy asked a famed trainer if the current heavyweight kings could have beaten Marciano and the answer was: “Don’t put Marciano in the same breath with those bums, wash your mouth!” What makes the old fighters so special? Maybe they were just tougher, because they fought 20 times a year and never quit. Or maybe it was the era they lived in that made them special? One of the few people who can answer these questions is Angelo Dundee. He is in the sport since 1948, has trained 15 boxers to the world title and gained a worldwide reputation as a legendary figure.
Angelo, tell us how was boxing in the 1940s.
In those days, boxing was ruled by the Irish. In fact, my brothers used the name Dundee to better fit in the boxing business. They got the idea from two Italians who also choose the name Dundee and became world champions: Samuel Lazzaro and Giuseppe Corrara. Samuel Lazzaro was known as Joe Dundee and won the welterweight title in 1927. Giuseppe Corrara decided to be called Johnny Dundee and became featherweight and super featherweight champion in the 1920s. Unfortunately, my brothers never accomplished that kind of success. I used to stay with them in the gym and during the fights, so the boxing people started saying: “Hey, that’s Angelo, the kid brother of the Dundees.” That’s how I became Angelo Dundee. In 1948, I started hanging around with Charley Goldman who was Rocky Marciano’s trainer. Charlie knew everything about boxing and I learned a lot from him. Years later, I moved to Florida and started going to Cuba every weekend. In the 1950s, Havana was like Miami: nightlife, casinos, fights and all kinds of entertainment were available. I knew how good Cuban fighters were and never missed a show. Three days after the revolution, I called the promoter Coco Condie and asked him if the scheduled event had been cancelled. His answer was no and he added that I could come with the fighters because there wasn’t anything to worry about. So, I went to Cuba and noticed Ernesto Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro at ringside. I went toward them to introduce myself and discovered that they already knew me for the articles appeared in the local newspapers. Cuban journalists considered me as one of their own. In fact, they even wrote that I was Cuban-Italian. That’s when I understood the importance of building good relationships with the press. I tried to make all my fighters understand it as well.
Explain that to us.
I told all my fighters: “Journalists must become your friend. Be respectful and answer to their questions politely.” I also advised the boxers to look into the journalists’ eyes or into the camera and try to understand if the situation was right for making jokes that would entertain the audience.
Of course, not every fighter had the verbal skills to perform well with the press. Willie Pastrano and Muhammad Ali were the best. That’s why I left the scene to them. When a journalist asked me an interview, I told him to interview Willie and Muhammad. You know, in every team there is a star. In boxing, it is the fighter. A trainer must make him feel like a star and must be sure that everybody else treats him like a star. The 1960s were the years when communication began having a major role in the promotion of a fight. Muhammad was the first heavyweight champion who talked a lot. Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano were as good as him, but they never talked. Being able to communicate is considered important today, but in the 1950s a boxer was just supposed to fight.
You mentioned Willie Pastrano. Is it true that Ali learned a lot from him?
When he was in the gym, Muhammad used to spend most of the time with Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas. Ali watched them train, asked them many questions and absorbed many good things.
If you look at the tapes of Ralph Dupas’ matches, you will understand that his footwork was an inspiration for Muhammad.
Not many fans know about Ralph Dupas.
That’s a shame because he was a great fighter, even if he held the world super welterweight title only from April 29 to September 7, 1963. Ralph compiled a record that most fighters never will: 106 wins, 23 losses and 6 draws. Can you imagine any of today’s boxers fighting 135 bouts?
Why, in the 1950s, did some boxers fight up to 20 times a year?
Because they needed the money! There weren’t any rules about staying inactive three months after a KO and nobody even considered refusing a fight. We were all making a good living, but we weren’t multimillionaires.
What about the sharks that filled the boxing world in the 1950s?
They weren’t different from today’s sharks who do the same things, but legally. When you see a promoter offering the dinner to 50 people, it’s not him who actually pays the bill. The promoter will deduct it from the fighter’s purse as a legitimate expense.
About the Ali-Foreman fight: an Italian journalist told me that he interviewed Ali thanks to you. The Zaire soldiers were in front of the dressing rooms and didn’t let anybody in, you said that the journalist was your brother and the soldiers let him in. Is this story true?
Yes, it is. I always tried to help my friends. That journalist keeps saying that he owes me a lot; he owes me nothing. I helped him because he is a good guy. That’s the same reason why I help you. After so many years touring the world, I can judge people.
What are you doing now?
I’m in Florida, where I love to spend my time at the South Florida Boxing Gyms. I still enjoy watching fighters and I always accept to attend major shows around the world.