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ANGELO AND ME: LEGENDARY TRAINER’S ‘KID’ REMEMBERS HIM FONDLY

03
Nov

I first met Angelo Dundee at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1973, when he brought world welterweight champion Jose Napoles to Toronto to defend his title against Canada’s Clyde Gray. Napoles won by unanimous decision. I waited about an hour after the fight just to speak with Angelo for a few minutes. He was a gentleman and very kind. For such a famous person, he was so down to earth. He asked me how I was doing in school and what I wanted to do with my life. I was walking on air when I left. Little did I know that 31 years later we would meet again and he would have a profound and lasting impact on my life.

In the Spring of 2004, I was cast by Ron Howard to play famed trainer Ray Arcel (one of Angelo’s mentors) in the film “Cinderlla Man” (about the life of former heavyweight champion James J. Braddock). Angelo was cast as a veteran trainer (aptly named Old Angelo) and we were both in Russell Crowe’s corner for the six months it took to shoot the film. Over the course of that time, Angelo went from becoming my idol to my good friend and, finally, a beloved father figure.

The very first day of rehearsal in April at Toronto Film Studios, I was talking with several local actors when I heard that unmistakeable south-Philly accent. Angelo was talking with Ron Howard as they entered the rehearsal space, which had been transformed into a boxing gym. I told the other actors to hush up. I wanted to enjoy the familiar sound of Angelo’s voice that I had grown up with on television over so many years. I let it wash over me like a warm summer breeze. His voice brought a smile to my face. I walked up to him and we spoke for a short time. I reminded him of when we first met, 31 years earlier. He said he remembered me – Angelo had a phenomenal memory – although I wasn’t sure whether he was just saying that to be nice.

During the first few weeks of rehearsal, Angelo and I sat side by side watching old black and white boxing films, dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of each fighter. Angelo knew them personally and had great stories about each of them. Max Baer, Tony Galento, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and, of course, Carmen Basilio had all been close with Angelo. I was in seventh heaven. I soaked up every word he said. I was very proud of the fact that I was able to impress him with my knowledge of boxing history.

We bonded very quickly and went for lunch together just about every day. One day over lunch, I told Angelo my father’s favorite fighter was Basilio. He smiled and said, “Your father was a smart man.”

Our call times each day were for 7 a.m., at which time you had to sign-in with the first assistant. After that, we went to our trailers and put on our wardrobe for the day, which consisted of wool pants, a wool shirt, wool socks, a wool sweater and black shoes. On one brutally hot, August day, Angelo turned to me and said, “Hot as hell today, Lou.” I nodded in agreement. He added, “This is practically winter compared to how hot it was in Manila for the third Frazier fight.”

Angelo never complained about the heat and the all-wool outfit. In fact, Angelo never complained about anything during the six months the film was shot. He was always in a great mood and unfailingly cheerful and polite to everyone. At least once a day he would look at me and say, “Remember this Lou: It don’t cost nothin’ to be nice.” That was the guiding principle of his life.

Angelo and I would go to make-up together and talk boxing. We were in our own little world. I was like a little kid again. I had the greatest trainer in boxing history as my friend! After we left make-up, I would get Angelo his morning coffee and peanut butter cookies (his favorite) and a chair to sit in.  Then for the next hour or so, before we were called to set, all of the actors would gather around and Angelo would regale us with stories about his illustrious 60-plus-year boxing career and the thousands of people he knew within boxing, as well as in politics, entertainment and other sports. It was almost a letdown when we got called to the set.

Angelo was like a great singer taking requests. Actors would ask him to tell many of the same stories over and over again and Angelo would always repeat them with the same zeal he told them for the first time. Everyone always wanted to hear the story of the first fight between Henry Cooper and Cassius Clay and how Angelo widened the rip with his index fingers in order to buy the Big Guy an extra 30 seconds to recover from a knockdown. (By the way, he rarely referred to Ali as Ali. He usually called him, “The Big Guy.”)

“Cinderella Man” writer Akiva Goldsmith included some Yiddish in the script. To everyone’s amazement, Angelo looked at the words and translated them into English. I asked, “Angelo, where did you learn Yiddish?” He said, “When I first came to New York I went to NYU to learn Yiddish.” I fell for it. I said, “Really?” He said, “Of course not silly. I worked for my brother Chris. I would hang out at Stillman’s each day and learn how to train fighters. Well, many of the other trainers were Jewish, such as Charlie Goldman, Whitey Bimstein and Ray Arcel. They spoke English but to each other they spoke Yiddish.  I asked my brother what I should do. He said sit there with your mouth closed and pay attention, which is exactly what I did.” Angelo spoke several languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian. He was always the smartest man in the room but he never let it show.

Goldman told a young Angelo to “never try to change a fighter into something he ain’t. Take what he has and add on to it. Turn his weaknesses into strengths,” which is what Goldman had done with Rocky Marciano.  Angelo never forgot that advice and used it with all of his fighters.

On the set each day, Angelo carefully showed me all the tricks of the trade he had learned in his 60-year career in boxing. In effect, what Angelo was really doing was imparting to me life lessons that would hold me in good stead. This is what he did with everyone. He was the world’s greatest teacher and his chief subject was life.

I was having marital problems during the movie shoot. I poured my heart out to Angelo. He was very kind and sympathetic to what I was going through and always took the time to speak with me every day to offer fatherly encouragement and advice. He helped me through a very rough time in my life. He was such a beautiful soul.

After each day’s shoot was done, we had to go back to our trailers and take off our costumes to give to the wardrobe lady to clean. Well, one day, Angelo was talking to his wife, Helen, while he was supposed to be taking his costume off. The wardrobe lady knocked on his door and said, “Angelo, please take your clothes off for me.”  It was a funny juxtaposition. The wardrobe lady kept asking Angelo to strip while Helen was asking him what the hell was going on. Angelo handed me the phone and I explained the situation to Helen.

I was very sad when the shoot ended because Angelo was leaving Toronto. I hugged him and told him how much I loved him and what he had done for me. We both had tears in our eyes. He told me to stay in touch. We spoke every day after he flew home. In fact, we spoke every day until he passed on Feb. 1, 2012. He was the father I had always wanted but never had. He taught me how to be a better man, husband and father.

Five months after the movie shoot ended, I suffered a massive heart attack. Angelo heard about it and flew up from his home in Florida to see me.  I remember waking up in my hospital room to find him holding my hand. I was in tears. He said, “You have to get better son. The Big Guy is making a comeback and we need you in our corner!” I smiled weakly. That summer I was Angelo’s guest at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. I even sat beside Angelo in his car in the parade. I had a blast. I went every year with him until 2011. To me it was boxing heaven. He introduced me to everyone in boxing. I was like a kid in a candy store. He always introduced me as his “kid” or his, “Canadian son.” That made me immensely proud.

I went with Angelo and his son Jimmy to the IBHOF every summer from 2004 to 2011. 2011 was a rough year for Angelo because his beloved wife of 60 years, Helen, had passed away on Dec. 23. Her passing took a lot of the steam out of Angelo but somehow his irrepressible spirit allowed him to push on. Angelo would call more often and I always felt very lucky every time I got to speak with him. When Angelo called my house, my wife would answer the phone. Angelo would never say, “Is Lou home?” He would ask my wife how her job was and how our daughter was doing. My wife would then say, “I’ll get Lou for you.”  That was Angelo, always a gentleman and a gentle man.

Angelo had developed an extensive list of boxing contacts throughout his life. When I started to cover and write about boxing, Angelo always gave me a name to call to help me get my story published. He would say, “Just tell them you’re my kid.” Then the next time we spoke, he would ask me, “Did you call that guy like I told you to?” I responded, “Angelo, I always do what you tell me to do.”  I knew how incredibly privileged I was to have Angelo in my corner looking out for me. Angelo learned how to use the internet and send emails in his 90s. He often said, “If I am not learning something new every day, then why am I alive?”

That same year, he broke his hip in his garage. It took him a while to bounce back from that. At the IBHOF that summer, he was still in pain and needed a wheelchair to get around.

I had spoken with Angelo just prior to his trip to Louisville, Kentucky in January 2012 to help celebrate Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday. Angelo was not in the best of health then but he insisted on going. I spoke with Angelo when he got back and he said he had had a great time with the Big Guy. I became increasingly worried when I spoke with Angelo then as he was having trouble breathing. On Feb.1, his son Jimmy called me with the sad news: “I’m sorry to tell you this Lou, but Dad is gone.” I started to cry. Jimmy said, “Lou, Dad lived a wonderful life and he got to do what he loved every day of his life. The whole world is in mourning. He will live on in everyone he met and whose lives he touched.”  Truer words were never spoken.

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