On or around the roaring ’20s and continuing through the dawn of television, boxing was one of the biggest sports in America. You had the Pabst Blue Ribbon “Friday Night at the Fights” (as seen in the movie Raging Bull shown in the linked clip) for many, many years (I think they ended after the televised death of Bennie the Kid Paret, but that predates me) and after that you had the Superfights of the 1970s and 1980s.
Those Superfights, when they happened, were like Super Bowls. Just like the Super Bowl, the Superfights would have weeks of build up that would lead to nationwide mass gatherings to watch the event play out. Unlike the Super Bowl, though, these gatherings were not parties — well, they weren’t private parties, I should say. Superfights could only be seen in theatres across the country over what was called “Closed Circuit Television“. So they were always public gatherings, which somehow seemed to heighten the drama behind them to an even higher level (Closed Circuit Boxing telecasts were made obsolete in the 1990s by the advent of pay-per-view cable. That is a shame because I saw two fights this way — Hagler-Mugabi and Leonard-Hearns II, and both events were unlike any other sporting event I’ve ever been to before or since. You sit around through the boring undercard fights, and the older men would get tanked up. Then would come the main event. The suspense, the dark theatre, the large movie screen, and the testosterone fueled nature of the sport all combined to create a sort of sweaty, barbaric, Roman Colisseum-like intensity for each broadcast that is difficult to describe and will never be recaptured again. It was like you were ringside.).
The Superfight Era was driven by two star performers — Muhammad Ali and then Sugar Ray Leonard. Common to both of those fighters was the legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee. This week we lost Mr. Dundee, and in tribute to his unique greatness, I delve into the world of boxing to give you in reverse order “The Five Greatest Hits of Angelo Dundee”
5. Ali-Holmes, February 1980 (“the ball game’s over!”):
I always felt like this was Dundee’s greatest and most tragic moment. He and Ali had rode the magic carpet ride together to the top of the boxing world, and Dundee had to be the one to tell the Great Ali, “the ride is over”. It must have broke his heart. After the 10th round of a one-sided beating, Dundee would not let Ali go out for another round. Many criticize Dundee for stopping the fight far too late, but he was in a difficult position. Ali always called the shots, and he wanted to go out for some more punishment. But over the protests of the slightly demented Drew “Bundini” Brown (originator of the phrase “Rumble, young man, rumble!”), Dundee mercifully refused to let Ali rise for the 11th round, telling the referee “I’m the chief second, the ballgame’s over!!” He may have saved Ali’s life.
4. Basilio-Robinson I, September 1957
Many forget that Angelo Dundee also trained the little Italian brawler Carmen Basilio. In 1957, the little Basilio relentlessly badgered and pummeled the taller, longer, aging master Sugar Ray Robinson (in a foreshadowing of the tactics the smaller Sugar Ray Leonard would use late in the Leonard-Hearns I fight described below) and won a razor thin split decision upset victory to capture the World Middleweight Championship. Many consider it one of the best fights in Middleweight history, and many credit Dundee as the master mind behind it. This success led to the opening of a gigantic door…
3. Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston I, February 25th, 1964 (the liniment incident)
This fight is considered one of the great upsets of all time and many will argue THIS fight was Dundee’s greatest masterpiece because of his reaction to an incident that occurred during the fight. Going into the fight, Liston was considered invincible. He destroyed every opponent and it was generally considered that he would also destroy the mouthy Cassius Clay. Never happened. Instead, Clay came out like a whirlwind, danced and moved and battered Liston with jabs and right crosses. He was like a vapor trail. Every time Liston swung he was gone. Clay completely dominated the fight. But he almost lost. In the fourth round, what Dundee believed to be liniment (essentially “BenGay”) from Liston’s shoulder had gotten into Clay’s eyes. It blinded Clay and burned his eyes something fierce (sort of like the time I accidentally transferred a tiny bit of red pepper juice from my contact to my eye). Clay wanted to quit. How history would have changed if he had! “I can’t see! Cut my gloves off!” Clay demanded. Dundee wouldn’t allow it. “Cut the bullshit! You gotta go out there and run!!” Clay did. He got on his bicycle, survived the round and then his eyes cleared and eventually Liston quit on his stool and there was a new heavyweight “Champ of the World”. Sports history changed on that night.
2. Muhammad Ali- George Foreman, October 1974 (the loose ropes)
In what was essentially a replay of Clay-Liston, Muhammad Ali and his trainer Angelo Dundee challenged a seemingly invincible and greatly feared heavyweight champion of the world who had been knocking out every fighter they put in front of him. This time the champion’s name was George Foreman, and this time the challenger was not a brash, young and athletic Cassius Clay, but rather an aging, crafty Muhammad Ali. This was the famous “rope-a-dope” fight. After coming out fast in the opening round, the tiring Ali decided to spend most of the subsequent rounds laying on the ropes with his gloves at the side of his head. Foreman responded by banging away wildly at Ali’s arms and kidneys. Then, at the end of each round, Ali would bound off the ropes and land stinging combinations. As the rounds went by, you could see Foreman — who was used to going only two or three rounds a fight — wilting and wilting. It was a great fight, however. If you have Time Warner Cable, it is currently playing on the Sports on Demand channel. Anyway, what was Dundee’s role? Well, Ali’s entire strategy was predicated on the unusually loose ropes being used in Zaire. Why they were so loose, I have no idea, but they were extremely loose. But the incredible looseness allowed Ali to lean wayyyyyy back and avoid most of Foreman’s really charged blows. (in fact on at least two occasions Ali leaned back, and Foreman swung so hard and missed he almost fell!). Well Foreman’s trainers noticed the ropes and tried to have them tightened. Dundee, no dummy, screamed his head off at the ring manager and prevented that from happening, thus allowing Ali to continue with his clever tactic. In the seventh round, it all paid off, as Foreman punched himself out, and Ali suddenly, like a cobra, came off the ropes and landed a vicious seven punch combination that sent the large Foreman sprawling in a clumsy circle that culminated with him crashing to the canvas. Seven years after being deposed of the heavyweight crown for political reasons, suddenly… shockingly… in the flash of an instant Muhammad Ali rose back up to being Heavyweight Champion of the World. It had to be one of the great moments in sports history, and Angelo Dundee was integral in making it happen.
1. Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, September 19, 1981 (“You’re blowin it, son… you’re blowin it!”)
Near the end of his career as a first level boxing manager, Angelo Dundee had his iconic moment. Near the end of Muhammad Ali’s career, Olympic Gold Medalist, and Ali wanna-be, Sugar Ray Leonard, hired Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Dundee went on to guide Leonard to the WBC Welterweight Championship twice, the first time in a 1979 win over Wilfred Benitez, the second time in a 1980 rematch win over Roberto Duran. Now, in the fall of 1981, the entire sporting world stood still for the epic matchup between Leonard and the WBA Welterweight Champion Thomas Hearns that would unify the Welterweight Title. Most people were familiar with Leonard because Howard Cosell and ABC made him a superstar during the Montreal Olympics (he was the charismatic guy who wore his girlfriends picture in his sock). But many were only vaguely familiar with Hearns. Nevertheless, the freakish Hearns may have been one of the deadliest welterweights of all time. He was so lanky and thin, and yet incredibly spidery muscular. As a result, he held incredible height and reach advantages over his opponents. He punched with incredible leverage. Watch this video of him nearly taking then WBA champion Pipino Cuevas’s head off. Anyway, Leonard was a boxer. But he was shorter and had a shorter reach than Hearns. That is not conducive to a boxing, especially against a fearsome puncher like Hearns. Thus, for the first five rounds of the fight, Leonard sort of darted in and out of range, kind of lunging at Hearns. He was very ineffective. Meanwhile, Hearns peppered him with lefts and rights. Then in the sixth round, Leonard landed a left hook to the body that almost ended the fight. It certainly changed the fight completely. After that, Leonard stopped using his athleticism, and just started trying to pin Hearns on the ropes so he could level big punches. However, Hearns was very versatile. He changed his strategy, too. He got up on his toes and boxed Leonard masterfully. He peppered Leonard so many times that by the end of the twelfth round Leonard’s eye was swollen shut, and Leonard was way behind in the fight. Enter Dundee’s Knute Rockne moment that few boxing fans will ever forget. Immediately after Leonard sat down at the end of the 12th, Dundee got right in his face. He was literally an inch from Leonard’s ear screaming his iconic words “You got nine minutes!! You’re blowin it son!! You’re blowin it!! You’re not doin enough! You’re standing around! You gotta be quicker, you gotta take it away from him!!” (How many frustrated sports fans have since wished their team had Dundee on its sidelines to scream those words when their team was playing lethargically and letting a golden opportunity get away??)
What absolutely made Dundee’s words famous was what occurred next. Leonard rifled off his chair like a panther on the prowl. At the 1:29 mark of the 13th round he landed a looping right hand that buckled Hearns knees and changed the fight completely. From that point on, Leonard rained punches on the defenseless Hearns until the referee stopped the fight midway through the 14th round. In the postfight recaps, boxing writers looked for a narrative and turned to Dundee’s speech as the dramatic turning point. It probably got way too much credit, but it did seem to have a cause-and-effect relationship with a turning point in what was a tremendous fight.