You're blowing it, son."
Those words, spoken by Angelo Dundee to his fighter Sugar Ray Leonard in the corner before the 13th round of Leonard's epic 1981 welterweight showdown with Thomas Hearns, are as fine a reminder as any of the celebrated trainer's understated brilliance. Leonard, who had let an early lead slip away, went back out refocused and overwhelmed Hearns, going on to win by TKO in the 14th. "He knew precisely how to get through to me at the most pivotal times," Leonard would write in his 2011 autobiography.
Dundee, who died on Feb. 1 in Clearwater, Fla., at age 90, got through in countless such moments over his nearly 70 years in the fight game. He climbed through the ropes with champions from Carmen Basilio to Jimmy Ellis to George Foreman to Oscar De La Hoya—as well as with Leonard and, most famously, Muhammad Ali. And to Dundee, every one of the fighters he worked with was "my guy" and "this kid," the focus of the unflagging energy and enthusiasm of the compact, dapper man often called the nicest guy in boxing. Nine years after leading Leonard to the win over Hearns, Dundee found himself preparing Michael Olajide, a far less gifted fighter, to face the still formidable Hit Man. Dundee happily proclaimed himself "so enjuiced about this kid." (That kid would lose a decision.) Even Russell Crowe, whom Dundee coached for the actor's portrayal of heavyweight champ Jim Braddock in 2005's Cinderella Man, got the old trainer's juices stirring. "He's an athlete, this guy," said Dundee. "If I'd had Russell when he was a kid, I coulda made a real fighter out of him."
He got Ali as a kid, an 18-year-old gold medalist then known as Cassius Clay, who was certain that great things lay ahead of him, even as most boxing purists groused that he was too unorthodox, too undisciplined to be a champion. Dundee was an old-school boxing guy just like all those purists, having started out with his brother Chris in the 1950s, opening the 5th Street Gym in Miami. But he never doubted Ali, nor would he ever say that he made a fighter out of him. "Cassius's ability and natural stuff were great," he wrote in My View from the Corner, his 2008 autobiography. "What a fighter has naturally, you can't improve on." What Dundee did was hone those gifts while recognizing that Ali's true greatness lay in his transcendent need to do it his way. The result was a 21-year partnership unmatched in boxing history.
Barely two weeks before he died, Dundee flew to Louisville for Ali's 70th-birthday party. There, the fighter and his trainer talked once more. "We're like family," Dundee said. For all of boxing, the same was true of Dundee.