Sam Donnellon: With apologies to Ali, Dundee was really 'The Greatest'

Posted: February 03, 2012

MY MOM was never a big sports fan, but there have been at least two times when she was impressed by what I did for a living. Once was when she picked up her phone and Roger Staubach - former Naval Academy quarterback, former Cowboys quarterback and above all, Roman Catholic quarterback - was on the other line asking for me.

The other time was when Angelo Dundee called.

I don't remember what he said, but I do remember he made her laugh before she handed the phone over to me. This was shortly after I landed a job with this newspaper in 1992, and Ange - that's what his friends sometimes called him - wanted to congratulate me and guide me to about two dozen fine establishments in Philadelphia, some of which no longer existed.

He was a South Philly kid long before I knew what that meant. But he is the reason that anytime someone tells me they're from South Philly, I immediately presume they are a great person until proven otherwise. Angelo Dundee, who died Wednesday night in his Tampa home at age 90, was one of the greatest people I have ever met. Greater than the man who called himself "The Greatest," his most famous friend and longtime employer, Muhammad Ali.

Angelo Dundee liked to finish descriptions of some portion of his life by saying this: "But I'm no big deal." He was, of course, whether we are talking about his associations with Ali, Ray Leonard, George Foreman or the 12 other fighters he trained into world champions. Weaned into the fight game by his older brother, Chris, a promoter, Dundee was decency in a sport otherwise defined by double-cross and debauchery.

He never ran down another fighter, another trainer, another cornerman or even a promoter. The closest he ever came was when he spoke of Don King, but it was more what was in his face than in his words. His modus operandi was to hype "my guy," as he would call his fighter, describing the attributes that would enable a victory, using the media as much as we used him, one of many motivational tools at his disposal.

He was great at that. I can't tell you how often I picked up the newspaper I was working for at the time or another one, read the headline and realized Angelo had achieved exactly what he wanted. Didn't know the headline writer, may not have known the guy who wrote the story. But the headline read as if he wrote it, as if he had some type of telepathy.

His sweetness masked his smarts. Sports is a business full of important figures and self-important ones, and the dividing line is often defined by "the smartest man in the room" test. If someone acts that way, they invariably are not, no matter what their title or tax return says. The next time Dave Montgomery acts smarter than someone will be the first time. Same with Peter Luukko.

They're two of the smartest people I know.

Angelo Dundee was in there, too. Once, after Henry Cooper decked Ali, Dundee bought "his guy" time by calling to attention a slight tear in the glove - which he allegedly had noticed before the fight. The start of the next round was delayed as a new glove was sought (but never found). Ali had time to clear his head, get off the stool and win the fight. I don't know whether he loosened the ropes in Ali's famous fight against George Foreman in Zaire (he always denied it), but it sure sounds like something he would do. I know George, whose corner Dundee worked later in life, always believed he did.

That day he called and got my mother, I had been out of work for more than a year, or more precisely, self-employed for that stretch. The National Sports Daily, which had the misfortune of just missing the advent of the laptop and the Internet, had expired in June 1991 after 17 ambitious, free-spending months. In that short window, I hung out with Mike Tyson's entourage in Tokyo, then witnessed Buster Douglas' knockout of him. I had seen Meldrick Taylor's last-second, bloody demise after dominating a 12-round bout with then undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez and George Foreman's rebirth as a 40-something heavyweight champion.

It was boxing's last great glory grasp, and everyone came out to play. Officially, Dundee was involved with only Foreman. Unofficially, there was never a day in his boxing life when he was not involved. Want an honest opinion about the upcoming fight? Dial up Angelo. He always answered. Or he always called you right back. He would talk as long as you would talk to him. And regardless of how long it had been, how important you were or were not, he always remembered something about you that made you marvel at his memory.

That day he called to congratulate me about this job? He remembered that we were expecting when The National folded. He asked whether we had the kid. I said we had. He asked his name. I told him. He said that it was a great name.

I wish I had told him that I knew one even greater. Even if he thought he was no big deal.

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