Angelo Dundee, considered by many to be the best trainer in history, once explained to me a few secrets about his relationship with Muhammad Ali.
A few years have gone by, but I remember it like it was yesterday -- because being face to face with Angelo Dundee meant more than the pleasure of listening to a great man. It was a great life experience, as well.
Dundee's given last name is Mirena. He is the son of Italian immigrants who arrived on the shores of the U.S. in a steamer while clinging to the classic aspirations of "making it big" in America. The family soon settled in Philadelphia, but in time both Angelo and his older brother Chris moved to New York. And then they conquered Miami.
The brothers adopted their new Irish surname when they began in boxing because it "sold" more than the Italian name. Chris was a great promoter, and Angelo started to learn the technical nuances of the game.
How did you meet Muhammad Alí?
Let's not rush. First, I had to train great fighters like Luis Manuel Rodriguez, for example. And then I had a great world champion like Willie Pastrano.
So you had a certain reputation already.
Exactly. I remember very precisely the date in which Ali arrived in my life. Do you know why?
Because we were with Willie in Louisville, Kent. On the next day, Pastrano was fighting John Holman, whom he beat. So the day before, on Feb. 19, 1957, we were in our hotel room when the phone rang: "I am Mr. Cassius Clay, and I will be the heavyweight champion of the world. I would like to talk to you." I covered the phone with my hand and told Willie, "There's a madman who wants to talk to me. Should I invite him up?" Willie, who was very laconic, said, "Sure, we have nothing better to do."
So, did you realize right then that you were in front of a future star?
No, buddy, don't exaggerate. I found a charming, extroverted talker, full of life, who wanted to talk about boxing, and above all about himself…
Which means that
I had forgotten that conversation on the very next day!
Angelo Dundee was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994. On Aug. 30 of last year, on his 90th birthday, he got back to the legendary 5th Street Gym, where some great fighters have trained and where Ali prepared for the majority of his most important fights.
Ali was extraordinary. He came to me after winning the Olympic Games in Rome, in 1964, and obviously -- no joking this time -- I remembered him very well.
I assume you probably taught him a lot of things?
Don't get me wrong. Clay, and then Ali, were two similar fighters but not the same guy. But he did it all by himself. I don't want to get credit for something I didn't do. I always knew how to encourage him, obviously.
If I saw that he was using his jab inappropriately or too little, for example, I told him, "Your jab is coming out really nice," and then he would go out and practice until he really got it working.
Was it hard to earn his confidence? You and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco were the only white members of the team.
There was no problem with that because I was always very honest with him. And him with me. When he started to go crazy, predicting the round in which he would score a knockout and all that, I realized that I had not only a great champ on my hands but also a fighter who was going to change history.
Can you define the differences you mention between Clay and Ali?
Due to his beliefs, he was robbed of the best years of his life -- that's a subject that we must not forget, ever. Clay was speed, harmony in motion, an extraordinary sight to see. It seemed impossible to hit him. Ali, the guy that came back after his inactivity, was more flat-footed; he had to go in and fight and take more punishment. And nevertheless, he was so great that he still was the best among all of his opponents, which is something that must be taken into account when talking about Ali: He was robbed of his best years, his prime years.
What was your best moment with him?
All of them. But that first title, when he beat [Sonny] Liston in Miami, to me, it was something extraordinary. Nobody believed in him.
How about the worst moment?
When we lost in Las Vegas against Larry Holmes, when I told the referee that Ali would not continue fighting. It was very painful to me, but even though I didn't want him to continue boxing, I couldn't let him do it alone.
You say "he beat" and then "we lost." It's funny
When a fighter wins, it's him who wins, but in defeat, I have to be next to him, no matter what.
The night Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third and final time, outlasting Smokin' Joe in the Thrilla in Manila, Dundee played an essential role by asking Ali to at least stand up when the last round was about to begin.
I've always looked at the opposite corner because I already know the strengths and weaknesses of my fighter and I have to be aware of what's going on in the other corner. Eddie Futch, a great trainer, knew that Joe was hurt. That's why I felt something could be happening, and that's why I asked Ali to stand up. And I was right, because Futch didn't let Joe continue, just as I did several years later with Ali when he faced Larry Holmes.
Can you compare Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, another of your great fighters?
Leonard went to see Ali before a fight. I was there. Muhammad said: "If you ever become a professional, you should work with this guy, he's the best." And that's how it happened. I don't know whether I am the best or not, but I love what I do. I worked with Leonard on his strategy for most of his fights, although he was trained by [Dave] Jacobs and [Janks] Morton.
Everyone remembers his fight with Thomas Hearns, when he was behind in the scorecards and you called him out: "You're blowing it, son!"
There are moments in which a trainer or cornerman has to make a decision. But there are moments in which the corner has to take charge, push the man beyond his limits. But don't be fooled: You need a great fighter in order to do that. Sugar was just that. He was a true fighter, and he showed it that night. It was all his personal merit.
Where can we find the merit of your work, then, especially in the career of Muhammad Ali?
I simply feel the need to thank God every day for putting me in Ali's path. He was "The Greatest," he was the best, the No. 1, and he continues to be. I simply dedicated myself to accompanying him, offering him everything I know about this sport and being by his side at all times. What more can I say?
Carlos Irusta is an ESPNdeportes.com boxing columnist and one of Argentina's most respected boxing reporters. He's the host of Ring Side LIVE on 910 AM La Red and the voice of "Noche de Combates" on ESPN TV. Follow him on Twiiter: @carlosirusta.