History

The role of Bundini in Muhammad Ali’s corner

Muhammad Ali and Bundini
The impact of Bundini on Muhammad Ali, his relationship with Angelo Dundee and the theatrics of professional sport. Read an extract from Todd Snyder's new book here

TO understand Drew Bundini Brown’s approach to motivation, one must first come to understand his views on spirituality. Bundini believed that truly great fighters were chosen by God, rather than cultivated by truly great trainers.

“Working with these champions, I know they are born, not made in a gym. If you could make ’em in a gym, they’d turn ’em out like a bakery turns out cookies,” Bundini once said. “Sugar Ray was a true champ, like [Cassius Clay] is a true champ. They don’t need no teaching. Worst thing for a fighter is to be trained by a fighter. An ex-fighter tries to make the fighter like the old fighter was. I couldn’t teach the champ to deliver a blow. No man could do that. But I can talk to him about other things.”

Considering this philosophy, it is next to impossible to imagine Angelo Dundee felt no trepidation whatsoever when asked to coexist with the new addition to Clay’s corner. By most accounts, Dundee was a relatively mild-mannered, x’s-and-o’s-style boxing trainer. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Dundee reflected on the day he found out that Bundini was joining the team: “I met [Bundini] just before our Doug Jones fight. He was talking about the planets. Like to drive me up the wall. While we were getting ready for our first fight with Liston, the Champ says, ‘Angelo, guess who’s coming down?’ I said, ‘Oh no, don’t tell me!’ But there’s no friction between Bundini and me. There’s no crossing of roles. I like him. The trick is, if you try to understand him, he’ll drive you crazy. So I don’t try.”

While Dundee now had competition for Clay’s ear space, he quickly recognized that Bundini could bring out the best in Clay with respect to energy and effort. Dundee was smart enough to recognize that whatever was good for Clay was good for business. To appease the future champion, he and Bundini would quickly learn to coexist. The degree to which Dundee and Bundini were able to do so has been the subject of much speculation.

“The funny thing was the war of space. The two of them would basically race up the ring steps. Dad wanted the stool in there immediately,” Jim Dundee, Angelo’s son, said to me. “He wanted to be up there first. Drew loved Muhammad so he wanted to be up there first. It was a race. Dad would always laugh about it. He genuinely loved Drew. I can promise you that. My dad always confided in me, throughout life, and I don’t remember him ever being mad at Drew. Sure, there were times when Dad didn’t like the crying. Dad wasn’t emotional and Drew would cry at the drop of a hat. But, let me tell you this, they became good friends. Drew took Dad to the Cotton Club one time. He was so excited that Drew did that. Going to Harlem, back in those days, was the most incredible thing to my dad.”

By Angelo’s son’s estimation, Bundini gave Ali something that his own father, despite all of his experience working with fighters such as Carmen Basilio and Willie Pastrano, could not. Dundee’s job was to cultivate Clay’s boxing IQ; heart, determination, and spiritual strength became Bundini’s territory.

“Listen, Dad was fairly emotionless,” Jim Dundee told me. “When it came to work, Dad, at that point, worked very quietly in the corner, with a few exceptions. Muhammad loved Drew’s emotion. My dad got a kick out of it too. I remember them all sitting around together, Muhammad and Drew, doing the rhymes. My dad would jump in and give it a try as well.”

Muhammad Ali

Each day began with Bundini waking the challenger for early morning roadwork, a process he referred to as “getting the gas” (filling up one’s metaphorical gas tank). For Bundini, the day was won or lost by the manner in which a fighter woke up, showed up, and paid attention. A successful day of training was based on a fighter’s ability to take responsibility of his actions and be in tune with his emotions. This component of Bundini philosophy was dubbed “the circle theory.” He firmly believed in a what-goes-around-comes-around approach to preparing one’s mind and body to do battle. The work had to be done because Shorty, the proprietor of one’s natural gifts, was watching. “Shorty is watching,” Bundini would shout. Every sit-up had to be conducted with complete focus. Each stroke of the speed bag had to be as important as the last. Bundini’s motivational approach could be defined as the gospel of total awareness. Feeling, an idea closely linked to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, was Bundini’s end goal.

“Plug in your television. Thirteen channels are here in this room, but you can’t see ’em unless you are plugged in. On the radio, 150 stations are coming in, but you can’t hear ’em unless you turn it on,” Bundini once preached, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and embracing feeling, especially fear.

“A blind man live, a deaf and dumb man live, but when you lose your feelings you’re dead,” Bundini told the young Cassius Clay.

For Bundini, fear was fuel. It could be used as a weapon to propel humans beyond their limitations. During sparring sessions, one of Bundini’s key phrases was “Be free, Champ.” To accept pain, fatigue, and fear was to be free. The ability to think clearly in uncomfortable spaces made a great fighter that much greater, Bundini figured. Be it hitting the heavy bag or skipping rope, he preached the gospel of freedom, absolute focus, the process of embracing the pain, holding it closely, acknowledging its power, and accepting it.

“You gotta get up and get the gas,” Bundini would say each morning.

“Be free, Champ . . . ain’t nothing better than free,” he would shout as he leaned over the ropes during sparring sessions.

While Clay and his new trainer were bound by their gift of gab and poetic sensibilities, the two were, in many ways, an odd couple. Clay, at this point in his life, was still shy around women. Bundini was Clay’s polar opposite in this regard. While Clay lived a completely clean life in regard to drugs and alcohol, Bundini was known as a heavy drinker and a recreational marijuana user. The primary difference between the two, however, centered on their views regarding race and religion. At the time, Clay was fully enamored with the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. All but an official member of the organization, Clay, at first, was advised by his handlers to temporarily conceal his religious beliefs, in fear that proclaiming his support for the Nation of Islam would tank his chances at being granted a title shot. A converted Jew, but only in the loose sense of the term, Bundini had learned a thing or two about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad during his time in Harlem. To put it mildly, Bundini was not a fan. By all accounts, he did not coddle his new boss in this regard. He was aware that Elijah Muhammad was teaching that the “White Man” was the devil, a message that touched a nerve with Bundini because of the bicultural makeup of his own son.

“That mean my son is half devil?” he would ponder to Clay.

Bundini was aware that Clay had instantly taken a liking to his son.

Thus, Drew III would serve as Bundini’s primary evidence in his repeated attempts to debunk the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

In Ali: A Life, Jonathan Eig reminds readers of the ideological disparities between Clay and Bundini: “The men seemed mismatched in many ways . . . [Bundini] talked about a God who encompassed all religions, and he described race as a misguided human concept, not a heavenly or natural one. . . . Brown challenged Clay like no one else, telling him Elijah Muhammad was wrong, that white people were not devils, that God didn’t care a thing about a person’s color.”

As the training camp progressed, Bundini relayed his philosophies on both boxing and life to the young contender. Clay did not accept all of Bundini’s viewpoints with open arms. When the subject turned to the topic of race, arguments often ensued, neither man giving a rhetorical inch.

“When you can appreciate a human being and respect him for his good and try to help him for his wrongness, you’ve found God’s law,” Bundini lectured.

The two would argue, laugh, and often argue some more.

“Trouble is, people become robots, mechanical, puppets. But that’s not the real thing,” Bundini preached. “Life ain’t for robots. Life is a feeling,” he would argue.

Despite their differing worldviews, a strong bond quickly formed. Clay was attracted to Bundini’s street vocabulary, his verbal gymnastics, inspired by the idea of an omnipresent God from which human beings can gain strength.

Aside from the motivational speeches and religious debates, “Brown served another, more specific role in the Clay camp: he helped boost and improve the boxer’s poetic output, which to that point had been confined to short lyrics ending in the numbers one through ten,” Jonathan Eig writes.

Muhammad Ali

Early into their time together, the two began rehearsing the “butterfly” routine that would soon become famous. One week before the fight, CBS sports broadcaster Bob Halloran and a group of local and national media visited the 5th Street Gym to profile the loquacious underdog’s training camp, providing the duo with the perfect opportunity to unveil their new battle cry to the sports world. When the camera crews arrived, Clay’s notorious bravado, inspired by professional wrestler Gorgeous George, was on full display. Visibly amused by Clay’s antics but still searching for actual sports content, Halloran made several unsuccessful attempts at steering the interview back to the subject of boxing.

“You’re going around saying you’re not going to reveal your strategy. . . can’t you tell us a little bit about what you’re going to do in the fight?” Halloran pleaded, attempting to divert the conversation away from the topic of Clay’s greatness.

To this question, the young Clay rose to his feet as if Halloran had given him the cue he had been waiting for.

“You know how great I am. I don’t have to tell you about my strategy. I’ll let my trainer tell you . . . Bo-dini, come here,” Clay called, motioning Drew Bundini Brown into the camera shot.

Dressed in a nylon mesh polo shirt and matching cap, a towel draped over his shoulder, Bundini stepped into the American spotlight.

“Bo-dini,” Clay shouted, “Tell ’em what we are gonna do.”

In perfect rhythmic timing, Bundini launched into the routine that would make him famous the world over.

“We’re gonna float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” Bundini called, followed by a collective “Ahhhhh . . . Ahhhhh, Rumble, young man, rumble.”

“That’s what we’re gonna do, you heard it, that’s my trainer, he’ll tell ya,” Clay insisted. The performance, which would be picked up by newspapers and sports broadcasts around the country, foreshadowed a new chapter in boxing history. The theatrics of professional sports would never be the same.

This is an extract from Todd Snyder’s new book Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype, published 27th August 2020, Hamilcar Publications, £21.99, available here: https://hamilcarpubs.com/books/bundini-dont-believe-the-hype/

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