I first met Angelo Dundee in 1977. I last saw him in Florida the day before Thanksgiving. I drove my wife and daughter to Clearwater to meet Angelo and a friend. The five of us had breakfast.
Angelo was a man who filled my soul with all good things. We laughed for ninety minutes, swapping stories and teasing each other. He was impossible to be around and not grow to love.
My daughter called me early this morning with the news that Angelo had died. I was saddened but not surprised. He was beset by medical challenges in the three years since his beloved wife Helen passed away but lived his life with passion and joy. I last heard from him a month ago via email. He was proud to be 90 and emailing. I got a kick out of that, too.
Our first meeting came the year after I graduated from college. I had no clue what to do and was knocking around living paycheck to paycheck in the newspaper business, working for a small daily in Annapolis, Maryland. I covered several of Sugar Ray Leonard’s early pro fights, and it was there — in the dressing room before a fight broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports — that I met Ray, Angelo, and Howard Cosell. Cosell was bigger than life, a legendary figure in American broadcasting. He was imposing, intimidating, and brilliant at what he did. Ray was the main event but make no mistake: Howard was the show.
The fights were my favorite sport to cover — there are a thousand stories at every fight, all you have to do is pick one — but I soon grew tired of being broke and spun out of the newspaper business. I moved back to Florida, got a corporate job, and traded printer’s ink for neckties.
It was there, in south Florida in the late 1980s, that I was making sales calls in a nondescript office building when a door opened and Angelo blew by. I recognized him instantly and greeted him by name.
Without breaking stride in an obvious hurry he called out, “Meet me in my office!” Then he disappeared inside the men’s room.
The door he’d emerged from had his name on it, so I walked inside. Betty Mitchell, his longtime assistant, greeted me warmly, even though Betty and I had never met. Good to his word, Angelo soon returned. For the next three hours we talked about anything and everything. The time flew and we covered a lot, some of it fight related but a lot of it not. Because of that chance meeting, Angelo soon became a vital part of my life.
He didn’t remember me from the last I’d seen him a decade before but pretended he did. Memories flooded back when I spoke of covering Ray’s early fights against tomato cans like short-armed Rocky Ramon and New York house painter Hector “Chinito” Diaz. Angelo laughed. He remembered those early fights, as well he should. He handpicked Ray’s opponents.
I walked into Angelo’s office that afternoon as a young man harboring too much anger. I left overloaded with things to think about. If you’re going to be lectured by someone, I thought on the way home, it might as well be someone famous. But why is he pounding on me about being nice — not just some of the time, but all the time?
From that day on we stayed in touch. I’d visit from time to time, meeting fighters and watching workouts at the gym. He didn’t like boomboxes and he didn’t like entourages. If you wanted to work with Angelo Dundee, you showed up on time and ready to work. He had rules those were some but so was being nice. When you left, you were expected to be nice. Nice was his brand; you did not compromise the brand.
Through the hours, the visits, the letters, phone calls, and years we spent as friends, and especially thanks to the non-boxing talks we had, I was able to jettison my anger and grow into a better man. It was not an easy adaptation; my anger was deep-rooted. It couldn’t be pulled out, it had to be dug out.
Through the decades I thanked Angelo often for his patience coaching me through a tough and troubled time. He’d wave off the plaudits but I think he appreciated hearing how deeply I took his guidance to heart. He helped a guy outside the ring become a better person, just as he stressed to his fighters. Because of that, I was one of his boys. And as one of his boys, I tried to make him proud.
Angelo had a unique gift in that he could make champions inside the ring and better people outside it. It would take forever to explain all the reasons why, but I saw it so often I came to realize that what he had done for me was not an accident. He knew what to do and how to cut through. His communication style was simple and straightforward. He could cheerlead his way directly to your heart and soul.
It is no secret how much Angelo loved Muhammad Ali — theirs is one of the great American “bromances” of all time. “At the core of Muhammad,” Angelo often said, “is kindness.”
Every time we talked Angelo reminded me to be nice, that being nice was free. Even when I popped a cork, I’d quickly feel bad about it because I heard instant echoes chiding me. Being nice was a choice that didn’t cost a dime. All of us, he said, can afford it.
In 1999 Angelo got his own trading card, #76 in the Brown’s Boxing Series. The card celebrated Angelo’s fifty years in boxing. He loved being on a trading card and would mail me one from time to time inscribed to remind me he was still out there. Two are in plastic sleeves held by magnets on my filing cabinet, a foot or so from my office computer.
One is inscribed, “Thanks for being nice!”
Another is his advice on how to stay positive through the sometimes cross-eyed tribulations of middle age. It reads simply, “Keep slipping punches.”
I saved his letters throughout the years because whenever I re-read one I can hear his distinctive south Philadelphia voice flow from his pen, whether he is telling stories of champions past or working with Russell Crowe on Russell’s farm in Australia to prep for Ron Howard’s movie “Cinderella Man” or helping Will Smith get ready to star in Michael Mann’s $100 million biopic “Ali.”
“Cinderella Man” is my favorite for a simple, selfish reason. At the end of the film’s final fight scene, “RC” (as Angelo called Crowe) goes off script. In the hectic action teeming around James J. Braddock’s victorious corner, RC grabs Angelo and kisses him on top of the head. To me it’s the best scene is a wonderful film. The gesture was Crowe’s thank you to Angelo, a shot that director Ron Howard kept in the final cut.
Many of us did that, at spurious times for similar reasons — hugged this wonderful man and kissed him on top of his balding head — and many of us will miss being able to do it again. I am in RC’s fraternity; I kissed Angelo at Thanksgiving as we hugged goodbye.
I live and teach by an unyielding mantra, one that entered my life after Angelo helped point me toward true north and I found myself ready, willing, and able to embrace it: None of our lives means anything, except for the impact it has on others.
Angelo was like a surrogate grandfather. I miss him already and guess I always will.
Stuart Mcgeady saysFebruary 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm
Thanks for introducing me to your friend, Angelo Dundee! What a gift he was to boxing and the world. Because of your story, I feel like I have spent some time in his office talking about whatever was on our minds. That’s a gift, too.
Ocean Palmer saysFebruary 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm
Thank you for your note, Stuart. Angelo was an airplane mechanic
coming out of World War II and got into boxing sort of by
accident. He was a great salesman and student of people. He grew
up in a poor part of south Philly, immersed in an integrated
neighborhood and grew up as colorblind as any man could hope of
being. Way ahead of his time in judging men by the content of their
character rather than color or bank account. I knew enough about
boxing to talk about it, but most of the time we talked of other
things. Thanks for the note.
Bill Beck saysFebruary 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm
Great story about Angelo Dundee. I remember when you took me to Pembroke Pines to meet him in the mid 90’s. He was easy to talk to and seemed enthused when I brought the business of lifting weights. He was against any kind of pumping iron and would not work with a heavyweight who wanted to do so. It was all about speed and quickness. I will never forget the one hour of time spent with him some 17 or 18 years ago.