There was no way Angelo Dundee was going to miss Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party.
The genial trainer got to see his old friend and reminisce about good times. It almost was as if they were together in their prime again, and what a time that was.
Dundee died in his apartment in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday night at the age of 90, and with him a part of boxing died, too.
He was surrounded by his family, said his son, Jimmy, who said the visit with Ali in Louisville, Ky., meant everything to his dad.
“It was the way he wanted to go,” Jimmy Dundee said. “He did everything he wanted to do.”
Promoter Bob Arum called Dundee a legend in the sport, someone who worked the corner for some of the greatest fights of the times.
“He was wonderful; he was the whole package,” Arum said. “Angelo was the greatest motivator of all time. No matter how bad things were, Angelo always put a positive spin on them. That’s what Ali loved so much about him.”
Arum credited Dundee with persuading Ali to continue in his third fight against Joe Frazier when Frazier was coming on strong in the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Without Dundee, Arum said, Ali might not have had the strength to come back and stop Frazier after the 14th round in what became an iconic fight.
“Angelo was an iconic figure in the sport,” Arum said. “He was the best cornerman ever. He wouldn’t b.s. his fighters. He saw it straight, and he told it that way.
“Ali was the most recognizable man in the world. And Angelo had to be the second-most recognized person because he was always next to Ali. He was a charming character, a real down-to-earth guy.”
Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s business manager, agreed with Arum on Dundee’s motivational skills with Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
“Angelo knew how to motivate his fighters. In the one minute between rounds, there was nobody better,” Kilroy said. “When Ali fought Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila and Ali wanted to quit, Angelo kept him going. When Leonard was losing the first fight he had with (Thomas) Hearns and Angelo told him, ‘You’re blowin’ it, kid,’ he was able to get to Ray, and Leonard came back and pulled it out.”
Dundee, born Angelo Mirena on Aug. 30, 1921, in south Philadelphia, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994 after a career that spanned six decades. He trained 15 world champions, including Ali, Leonard, George Foreman, Carmen Basilio and Jose Napoles.
“Angelo was boxing’s ambassador,” Kilroy said. “He was good for the sport. He was always accessible to the writers, and he loved talking boxing.”
But he always will be linked to Ali as one of the most successful fighter-trainer relationships in boxing history, helping Ali become the first to win the heavyweight title three times. The pair would travel around the world for fights to such obscure places as Ali’s October 1974 bout in Zaire against Foreman dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle” and Ali’s third fight against Frazier in the Philippines.
“I just put the reflexes in the proper direction,” Dundee said in 2005.
Their partnership began in Louisville, Ali’s hometown, in 1959. Dundee was there with light heavyweight Willie Pastrano when the young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, called their room from a hotel phone to ask if he could have five minutes. Clay, a local Golden Gloves champion, kept asking the men boxing questions in a conversation that lasted 3½ hours, according to Dundee’s autobiography, “My View From the Corner: A Life in Boxing.”
After Ali returned from Rome with a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, Dundee ran into him in Louisville and invited him to come to Miami Beach to train. Ali declined. But that December, Dundee got a call from one of Ali’s handlers, seeking to hire Dundee. After Ali won his first pro fight, Dundee accepted.
He helped Ali claim the heavyweight title for the first time on Feb. 25, 1964, when Sonny Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round during their fight in Miami Beach.
In an age of boxing when fighter-manager relationships rarely last, Dundee and Ali never split.
When Clay angered white America by joining the Black Muslims and becoming Muhammad Ali, Dundee never wavered. When Ali defied the draft at the height of the Vietnam War, losing 3½ years from the prime of his career, Dundee was there waiting for the heavyweight’s return. And when Ali would make bold projections, spewing poetry that made headlines across the world and gave him the nickname “The Louisville Lip,” Dundee never asked him to keep quiet.
“Through all those days of controversy, and the many that followed, Angelo never got involved,” Ali wrote in the foreword to Dundee’s book. “He let me be exactly who I wanted to be, and he was loyal. That is the reason I love Angelo.”
Kilroy said Dundee was planning to attend a Feb. 18 gala for Ali at the MGM Grand Garden.
“I talked to Angelo a week or so ago, and he was looking forward to coming out for Ali’s gala,” Kilroy said. “He always loved coming to Vegas, especially for the big fights. He’d gather up all his team, guys like Mel Greb, and they’d go out and eat and talk boxing for hours. He was such a regular guy; he didn’t dislike anyone.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Steve Carp contributed to this report.