Lest you think Dundee was merely a stagehand, a lucky accomplice, somebody fortunate enough to latch onto a rising star, consider the rest of his career. Having taken Ali to the top, in the middle of that ruckus for 21 years, he then joined another Olympic phenom, Sugar Ray Leonard, and helped pilot him to multiple championships. Once more, Dundee adapted himself to the fighter’s natural abilities, allowing Leonard’s stardom to develop. But in at least one fight, just as he had with Ali, it was Dundee who may have saved the day. With Leonard flagging in his back-and-forth fight with Tommy Hearns, Dundee got in Leonard’s face after the 12th round and, in no uncertain terms, called him out. “You’re blowing it, son.” Leonard famously rallied.
There were others as well: De La Hoya for a while, and even George Foreman when the big man regained his heavyweight title in his comeback. There was always somebody, though. Dundee was a boxing man, destined to carry a bucket, happiest when he was swabbing cuts or taping hands. Long after the line of champions had ended, he was still in his gym, his bubbling optimism creating contenders out of anybody who walked through his doors. He was training until the end.
But it was those years with Ali, that incandescent time when boxing was last important, that we remember him for. What a time. What a pair! They would have been an odd couple in any case, the young fighter’s flamboyance and braggadocio in outlandish contrast to Dundee’s puckish demeanor. But they were more simpatico than most would have guessed, sharing their love of boxing, but also a capacity for hijinks. Ali recognized in Dundee a kindred spirit, after all, and was not above rigging the hotel curtains with a long rope, pulling them back and forth in a spectral fashion, until the little trainer exploded from his room in fright. They were a pair.
Would Ali have been The Greatest without Dundee? Maybe, though probably not. Would he have been as much fun without Dundee, certainly an enabler, if not quite a co-conspirator? Absolutely not. Ali’s tendency toward meanness, his inexcusable treatment of men like Floyd Patterson or Frazier, was an innate and probably important part of his personality. But that meanness was alloyed by Dundee’s presence, had to have been. Dundee’s influence, his unabashed sweetness, was its own kind of smelling salt in Ali’s career, the sort of freshener that cleared his head from time to time, restored his goodness, if not his greatness.