“You’re blowing it, son.”
In four crisp words Angelo Dundee, who passed away February 1 at the age of 90, branded a legendary moment in boxing history and secured his place in the pantheon of sport.
It was 1981, a bygone era when championship fights were still fifteen rounds and Dundee’s charge, Sugar Ray Leonard, had just given away rounds nine through twelve to the undefeated Thomas Hearns. It was “The Showdown” for the lineal welterweight title and as he headed back to his corner, his left eye grotesquely swollen, Leonard was confronted by his trainer.
Dundee’s message was both economic and brilliant, for it challenged and touched his fighter’s heart. Within minutes Sugar Ray Leonard was World Champion, his fortunes reversed, his adversary TKO’d and defenseless on the ropes.
Angelo Dundee was an old-school trainer and master of his craft. He was an iconic, bespectacled figure in a white short-sleeved shirt, accessorized with a towel draped on his shoulder. He knew when to goad, when to protect, and when to get out of the way.
When he inherited the improvisational talents of young Cassius Clay, he recognized that conventional wisdom is not always wise. With a deft touch Dundee refined his prodigy rather than reshaping him, modestly claiming, “I just put the reflexes in the proper direction.”
He did much more than that.
In 1963, when Clay found himself dazed on his stool between rounds, his ascendant rise in jeopardy following a knockdown at the hands of Henry Cooper, Dundee bought him time by craftily enlarging a slice on one of his gloves. After working his finger into the slit and tearing it open, Dundee turned to the referee with faux-innocence and asked for assistance, lest Mr. Cooper be exposed to an unfair advantage. There being no spare gloves available, the fight resumed and a recovered Clay TKO’d Cooper on cuts in less than three minutes.
It would not be the last time Dundee would play a key role in The Greatest’s legacy. Whether it was shoving him back into the ring against Sonny Liston when a reluctant and frightened Clay was temporarily blinded, secretly tightening the ropes in Zaire to optimize Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics, or throwing in the towel to terminate an unnecessary and brutal battering at the hands of Larry Holmes, Angelo Dundee knew how to work the corner, as well as the edge.