Showing them the ropes
Movie stars want Ali's mentor in their corner when they play boxers.
BY ROBERTO SANTIAGO
Hollywood film hunk Russell Crowe didn't know a speed bag from a speedy straight right when he was cast to portray Depression-era heavyweight boxing champion Jim Braddock in the upcoming Cinderella Man.
And Will Smith didn't know a rope-a-dope from a jump rope when cast as Muhammad Ali in Ali.
Crowe and Smith not only learned to box, but were virtually transformed into those champions -- thanks to an 82-year-old Weston resident who has been an icon in the fight game for over 60 years.
''In the movie business they call me a technical advisor,'' said Angelo Dundee, who crafted the fighting styles and ring strategies of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and 13 other world champions. ``I help actors look, act, and fight like the champions they are going to portray on screen. It's easy as long as they listen.''
Jose Torres, who in 1965 knocked out Dundee's fighter, Willie Pastrano, to capture the light-heavyweight title, said Dundee is one of the best technical advisors around.
''It is all about creating the illusion that these famous actors can fight. Truth be told? In real-life they can't fight -- but on screen they look convincing,'' said Torres, who trained Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand for 1979's The Main Event.
Dundee, Torres said, is the real deal. When he talks, actors and directors listen.
Dundee was there during the boxing golden era in the '40s, working stained ring corners when New York City's Stillman's Gym sported the likes of Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, and even a retired heavyweight named Braddock.
Dundee learned his craft as an apprentice to the best trainers, in particular, Ray Arcel, Charley Goldman, Chickie Ferrara, and Jimmy August.
In 1951, he moved to South Florida and married his sweetheart, Helen, a year later. The couple, who recently celebrated 52 years of marriage, have lived in Weston for the past 10 years.
Dundee has no publicist, no agent. His unofficial office is the South Florida Boxing gym in Pembroke Pines -- ever since his beloved Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach was razed in 1993.
''I don't seek the work from these Hollywood people,'' said Dundee, speaking of Ron Howard (director of Cinderella Man) and Michael Mann (director of Ali). ``The phone rings at home and there they are. They ask me for their help. So I say, sure, just call my lawyer to work out all of the money stuff. He's the expert on making deals; what I know is boxing.''
Crowe, who resembled the New York City-born Irish boxer, learned quickly when it came to behaving and fighting like Braddock, Dundee said.
''Braddock threw a left jab without ever turning his wrist at the end, because he thought he generated more power that way. He moved slowly in the ring, hands held low,'' Dundee recalled.
Crowe's biggest challenge was learning how to hit the speed bag.
''Crowe had a speed bag at his house in Australia, but had no idea how to use it,'' said Dundee.
And Dundee downplayed an incident widely reported that had Crowe biting the ear of a man in a bar.
''That was an old friend of Russell's, and they were just horsing around. It wasn't like it was a Tyson-Holyfield thing,'' Dundee insisted.
``Speaking of ears, they had to fix Russell's ears so they would stick out. Braddock's ears weren't flat to his head.''
As for Will Smith, Dundee said the actor already had the attitude needed to talk like Ali. The challenge was teaching Smith how to jump rope and building his physique to look like ``The Greatest.''
Also important were mimicking Ali's hand speed, footwork and ring movement.
''I got so into telling Will Smith what to do that once Michael Mann had to remind me who was the director,'' Dundee said with a laugh.
Dundee also taught lesser-known actors how to act and fight like former champions Sonny Liston, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Floyd Patterson.
Besides Crowe and Smith, Dundee said, Robert (Raging Bull ) De Niro, John (Body & Soul ) Garfield and Mickey (Homeboy ) Rourke looked totally convincing as boxers on screen.
Sylvester (Rocky ) Stallone was ''OK,'' but the worst was Leon Isaac Kennedy in Penitentiary, who Dundee politely said ``tried his best.''