Angelo Dundee says Sugar Ray Leonard was one of the best boxers he ever trained. Photo / Jeff Julian-FightWireImages
Angelo Dundee is etched into the collective memory of every fight fan who came of age in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
The stories, images and sound bites are indelible.
The urban myth of Dundee tearing one of Cassius Clay’s gloves between rounds to buy his fighter precious recovery minutes after the brash young heavyweight contender was decked by Britain’s Henry Cooper in their 1963 fight.
Calming Clay down and keeping him in the fight against heavily favored Sonny Liston when the bold but emotional young fighter believed the mob-controlled heavyweight champ had purposely rubbed some kind of an astringent into his eyes during their 1964 title bout.
The soon-to-be Muhammad Ali wildly celebrating with Dundee in the center of the Miami Beach ring after stopping Liston to claim the biggest prize in sports.
Yelling “Careful! Careful!” at the top of his lungs whenever Ali leaned against the dangerously loose ropes of an outdoor ring in Zaire to avoid the murderous head-seeking haymakers of George Foreman just a few rounds before his veteran fighter beat the odds once again to regain the heavyweight championship of world in 1974.
Telling Sugar Ray Leonard “You’re blowin’ it son, you’re blowin’ it” when the welterweight king was trailing on points late in his 1981 showdown with fellow champ Thomas Hearns, who was stopped in the 14th round of the instant classic.
Screaming “Stick and jab! Stick and jab!” throughout Leonard’s improbable comeback victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.
The trials and tribulations that Dundee went through with his two most famous fighters hold a special place with most boxing fans.
However, the 89-year-old trainer, who recently reopened the famed 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, regards the other talented fighters he's trained during a hall-of-fame career that has spanned six decades as highly as he does Ali and Leonard.
Dundee has worked with the best of the best during his extraordinary life. He and his brother Jim worked as seconds for Joe Louis and Marcel Cerdan's USO boxing exhibitions during World War II. Dundee hooked up with his older brother Chris, a New York city-based fight manager, when he left the military in 1944. Chris introduced his eager younger brother to Stillman's Gym where Dundee watched and learned from the most respected trainers of the day, Chickie Ferrera, Ray Arcel, Charley Goldman and Freddie Brown, among others.
When Chris relocated to Miami Beach to promote fights in the late 1940s, Dundee followed and soon found himself running one of the sport's most storied gyms, the 5th Street, where he would soon train wonderfully talented Cuban boxer names Luis Rodriguez and a teenage prodigy from New Orleans named Willie Pastrano among many other future contenders and champions.
When RingTV.com recently interviewed Dundee for The best I’ve trained, a periodic feature asking the sport’s greatest trainers to rate their fighters in 10 categories, the legendary cornerman brought up Rodriguez, who held the welterweight title and was inducted into the hall of fame in 1997, and Willie Pastrano, who won the light heavyweight title in 1963, as much as he did Ali and Leonard.
Dundee worked Foreman’s corner during some of the former heavyweight champ’s comeback fights, including his title bouts against Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer, and he served as a cutman for Hall of Famer Carmen Basilio but he only included fighters for whom he served as the head trainer in this feature.
Best Overall Fighter: Muhammad Ali — Muhammad had it all: natural talent, unbelievable speed and reflexes for a big man, skills, smarts, courage, you name it, he had it. But it was the uniqueness of his style and his personality that made him special. He was the first big man that moved. He was the first super star that talked. There’s only one Ali. He changed the concept of boxing.
Best Boxer: (three-way tie) Sugar Ray Leonard, Willie Pastrano and Luis Rodriguez — It’s hard for me to pick one out of those three. I trained so many good boxers. I love boxers because they hang around the sport longer than brawlers. Ray was as complete a boxer as I ever saw. Willie was special because he didn’t have the power that my other boxers had. He was a pure boxer. He relied on footwork, timing and guts. He out-boxed a great fighter when he beat Harold Johnson to win the light heavyweight title. Nobody thought he could do it. Pastrano out-boxed heavyweights who outweighed him by 20 pounds, and he had no punch! Rodriguez, in my opinion, is one of the most-underrated boxers ever. He doesn’t get enough credit for how good he was and for who he beat. He had the misfortune of being a welterweight at the same time Emile Griffith was in that weight class. They fought four times and Luis lost three of them, all by split decision, but I thought my guy won every one of those losses. The sad thing is that the one time he beat Griffith, which was for the title, he didn’t really get any attention. Featherweight champ Davey Moore, who was knocked out by Sugar Ramos on that card in Los Angeles, fell into a coma and later died. That sad news overshadowed what should have been Luis’ shining moment. He was a magnificent fighter. He fought the toughest middleweights out there at the time and outclassed most of them. He played with (Rubin) “Hurricane” Carter. It broke my heart that Luis never got his due.
Best puncher: Florentino Fernandez — I love boxers but I’ve trained some bangers in my time. (Former heavyweight titleholder) Pinklon Thomas could whack, but nobody could punch like Fernandez. He was the best puncher out of Cuba. He was a converted southpaw so his left hook was murder. He broke Gene Fullmer’s forearm with a left hook during their middleweight title fight. He could hurt anyone with any kind of punch no matter where it landed.
Quickest hands: Rodriguez — This surprises people. Everyone thinks it’s either Ray or Muhammad, and those two were fast. Don’t get me wrong. Speed was their bread and butter. Ray had the fastest combinations of all my fighters. Muhammad had a fast one-two. But the quickest hands belonged to Luis. He could hit you over and over again with a jab that you didn’t expect to get hit with. He was fast but also nimble and graceful. And it was effortless. Sometimes that speed made things too easy for him and he would get cocky with bigger guys. He did that with Nino Benvenuti, who he fought in Italy for the middleweight title. He won 10 straight rounds, just by sticking and moving, and then he comes back to the corner after the 10th round and tells me “I’m going to knock this guy out.” I tell him “No, take it easy, keep doing what you’re doing.” But he goes out and gets hit with a perfect left hook that drops him like a sack of bricks. The referee stands over him and starts counting to 10 as fast as he can. I yelled at him: “What’s the rush!? You could count to 100 and it wouldn‘t make a difference. My guy’s out.” Poor Luis.
Quickest feet: (tie) Leonard and Pastrano. — Ray’s feet were quick in a way that he could shift position or change angles when on the inside in the blink of an eye. Most of his opponents couldn’t handle the way he moved those feet of his. Pastrano’s feet were fast in a different way. He was usually able to get in and out of range without getting hit but he also made his opponents move out of position by the way he moved his feet. He could feint you out of your jockstrap with his footwork! I’d have to say Willie had the most educated footwork of the fighters I’ve trained. He used to bounce on his toes so much I called him the pogo stick, but he didn’t have herky-jerky movement. His rhythm was good.
Best defense: (four-way tie) Rodriguez, Pastrano, Ali and Leonard — This is a tough one. All of my guys learned defense and they all had their own ways to go about protecting themselves in the ring. Rodriguez kept his hands up and he had this constant bouncy head movement that made guys miss just by an inch or two. He didn’t have to duck or move around much to make a guy miss. He also blocked punches well with his gloves. Pastrano avoided trouble with his footwork and by constantly shifting his shoulders. His upper body was always moving to one angle or the other. In their prime, Ali and Leonard had the kind of reflexes that made them untouchable. Ray could get out of the way of another guy’s punch before he let it go. Ali would lean away from punches, usually with his hands down by his waist. But when he was young, he was hardly touched.
Best chin: Ali — Muhammad took a great shot. Look at all the punchers he was in with, especially when he was older — (Joe) Frazier, Foreman, (Ernie) Shavers. I wasn’t proud of the fact that he could take a big punch because he used to be able to avoid those shots. Believe me, I liked it better when we didn’t know if he could take a punch. Of course, I had a feeling he would be the tough son of a gun he turned out to be. Part of his ability to take a shot was his heart. I knew he had that when he got caught against Sonny Banks early in his career. Sonny hit him with a left hook in the first round that was so hard and on the money that Muhammad was out cold on his way down. He woke up when he hit the canvas and got up to drop Sonny in the next round and then stop him a few rounds later. That’s when I knew I had a great fighter.
Best jab: (three-way tie) Rodriguez, Ali, Leonard — This is another tough one. I was lucky to train so many good boxers who could jab. I taught the jab as boxing’s most important punch but these three already had good jabs before they came to train with me. When I think about it, all of my guys had good jabs. It was Pastrano’s main punch. Pinklon Thomas had a good left stick. He gave Mike Tyson trouble with his jab when Tyson was at his best. But the best jabs of the guys I trained belonged to Luis, Ray and Muhammad. Ray had a great jab. Muhammad’s was a thing of beauty. Luis’ jab was smooth but tricky. These guys could dominate fights with their jabs.
Strongest: Ali — Look what Muhammad did to Liston when he was still growing! He manhandled guys who were known for their strength. Muhammad was a lot stronger than people thought. That’s how he was able to slow Frazier down, by tying him up inside. It’s how he wore Foreman down in Zaire. By the time his body fully matured in the late 1960s, there weren’t a lot of guys who could outmuscle Ali.
Smartest: no pick — They all had their smarts, every fighter I ever trained. People think I’m joking around when I say this but I‘m serious. Fighters are much smarter than people realize. I know this because as their trainer it was my job to get to know them, and I did. I got to know every one of my fighters like I was their best friend or their brother. That to me is the essence of training. You learn your kid’s thinking and you figure out how to bring out his talent and his confidence when it’s time to fight. You have to recognize the smarts in your fighter if you want to get the best out of him. I tried to do that with my fighters and I think I usually did a pretty good job. I had great times with all my fighters. They were all very special people.