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Sam Pollak

February 25, 2012

Angelo Dundee was always a good man to have in your corner

So, there I am, sitting on a bench in Miami Beach's ancient, famous and dank Fifth Street Gym, happily taking notes while Muhammad Ali is screaming at me.

"I could throw your ass right out of this gym," he shouted, flailing his arms above me.

I thought the language a bit odd for a Muslim minister, but he was Muhammad Ali, and there was no doubt he was more than capable of ejecting any body part of mine he might choose out of the place.

It was the late 1960s, and Ali's conversion to Islam scared and bothered a lot of the white establishment. For his part, the former Cassius Clay was usually happy to say incendiary things without much prodding.

I was a teenage sports writer for the local paper, and I had arranged with my friend, Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, to interview the great boxer, who trained at the gym when he was in town.

There we were:

"¢ Me, who had established even at that early age a talent for annoying people that has not only endured but blossomed through the long decades.

"¢ Ali, who was going through a 3 ½-year suspension from boxing because he refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he had said in 1966. "... No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."

"¢ Dundee, one of the finest and classiest trainers ever in a sport not known for producing many folks you would trust to hold your wallet for 10 minutes.

Ali is furious because I asked him some inflammatory questions based on his statement that "all white people are the devil."

It wasn't long before Ali started yelling and threatening while I took notes as quickly as I could.

And there was Angelo Dundee, getting between us and imploring this boxer he had trained to become a champion.

"Cassius! (Angelo was the only person I knew who could still call him that.) Cassius! He's good people! He's good people!"

If Angelo said I was "good people," that was enough for Ali, who calmed down a bit. Angelo was relieved. And I, who had come to the gym in search of a story, wound up with a series that ran for three days in my newspaper.

What brought all this to mind was learning a few weeks ago that Angelo Dundee, who also trained Sugar Ray Leonard and many other champions, had died at the age of 90. I hadn't seen him for a long time. He was a sweet man, a gentleman, and so knowledgeable about boxing that he was the guy you wanted holding your coat when you were getting ready to fight.

That happened once with me.

The managing editor at my paper mentioned that it would be a splendid idea for me to spar a round or two with Ali for a story.

Being young and stupid, I had no objections, and I was scheduled to spar one round with Ali. However, he was called out of town for some reason, and Angelo substituted another of his boxers, a guy named Stamford Harris, billed as the heavyweight champion of the West Indies.

At least I got to wear a pair of Ali's boxing shoes, they being the only size 13s Angelo could find.

With several of the boxers I had covered curious enough to watch at the gym, I stood in my corner of the ring.

In the other corner was Mr. Harris, who was not a tall man, but _ I was quick to notice _ had arms like legs. Angelo was in his face, shouting at him over and over.

"Don't hurt him! Don't hurt him! Don't hurt him."

The bell rings. I see an opening, and hit Mr. Harris with absolutely my best Sunday punch, a right hand that lands right on his chin.

I doubt there are many more terrifying feelings in this world than hitting a fellow with your best punch ... and he hardly notices. Mr. Harris just shrugs and moves confidently toward me while I flee backwards like a performing dolphin at the Miami Seaquarium.

A few seconds later, I'm tiring rapidly, and Mr. Harris is sizing me up. He starts to throw a right hand at my face ... then Angelo's words must have sunk in.

"Don't hurt him!"

At the last moment, Mr. Harris adjusts his punch from my face to my chest. I fly back about a yard ... but Mr. Harris allows me to survive the round.

Later, Angelo shows up in the dressing room with a contract for me to sign to join his stable of fighters. It was all for show, of course, so the newspaper's photographer could take a picture. But I appreciated the gesture, and I still have the photo somewhere.

I also have dozens of other memories about Angelo, his brother Chris, who promoted boxing and wrestling in Miami Beach, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, the Renaissance man who worked with Angelo and the bumptious Bundini Brown in Ali's corner, and all the boxers and other colorful characters who hung around the Fifth Street Gym.

It was a wonderful and heady time to be a young sports writer. I miss it sometimes.

And I already miss Angelo Dundee ... a lot.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.

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