- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With his eyes burning fiercely from some caustic substance, the loudmouthed young fighter turned from braggart to coward between the fourth and fifth rounds. “Cut the gloves off!” he screamed, leaping up from the stool in his corner. “I can’t see! Cut ‘em off! Cut ‘em off!”

Trainer Angelo Dundee shoved him back onto the stool “You can’t fight without gloves!” he yelled to Cassius Clay. “This is the big one, baby! Now get out there and run!”

So Clay raced around the ring in escape until his eyes cleared. Two rounds later, it was the supposedly invincible but badly beaten Sonny Liston who wanted to quit — and did. Thus a 22-year-old author of bad poetry and brash predictions became heavyweight champion of the world.

The following day, Clay publicly announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam faith and the name Muhammad Ali. In the decades that followed, he was perhaps the world’s best-known human being, transcending his ugly and dwindling sport until the onset of Parkinson’s disease decades later diminished his own capabilities. And when Dundee died last week at 90 following a heart attack in Hollywood, Fla., it was recalled how he laid down the law to his fighter on the night of Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach.

What if Angelo had not bullied a man-child who was 20 years younger and countless pounds heavier? Then Clay/Ali might never have become champion. There might never have been his controversial refusal to be drafted into the Army, three-year legal banishment from the ring or ultimate reinstatement by the Supreme Court. There might have been no “Fight of the Century” and “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier, no “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, no shaky and heart-rending lighting of the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

There might have been no Muhammad Ali as the world came to know and love or hate him.

Dundee handled many prominent fighters in his career, including Sugar Ray Leonard, but Angelo’s association with “The Greatest” defined him more than anything else.

In his 2008 autobiography “My View From the Corner,” ghosted by noted boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar, Dundee recounted how he learned long after the Liston fight that two of Sonny’s earlier opponents, Eddie Machen and Zora Foley, had been nearly blinded by a mysterious caustic substance. The charitable explanation is that Liston’s handlers had applied such a substance to close a cut on his cheek and that accidentally it had gotten into Ali’s eyes. Considering boxing’s tradition of disingenuous skullduggery, you might as well believe in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

“I didn’t know what the problem was,” Dundee wrote in his book, “but I put my pinkie in his eye and then mine. It burned like hell. I tried to clean his eyes out, first with a sponge and then a towel, but that didn’t help. He just kept blinking, and for the first time there was a hint of fear in Cassius’s eyes.”

Then came their memorable verbal exchange, and Dundee’s lasting fame in boxing’s nefarious world was assured.

Angelo still was in Ali’s corner Oct. 2, 1980, when his fighter, far over the hill at 38, absorbed a fearsome and fearful beating from Larry Holmes. In the 10th round, it got so bad that even Holmes was asking referee Richard Greene to stop the fight.

“I knew Ali was begging somebody to save him since he couldn’t do it himself,” Dundee said. “So I wigwagged my hands to say, ‘It’s over.’ I knew I was right, and so did Muhammad, who whispered through swollen lips, ‘Thank you.’ “

Ali’s appreciation that sad night was just and proper. But his biggest expression of gratitude to Angelo Dundee should have come 16 years earlier.

c For more of the author’s columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com