IT ISN'T OFTEN that, in speaking about a 90-year-old man, you can say he left this world far too soon. But it isn't often that someone like Angelo Dundee comes along.
Dundee, the celebrated trainer of 15 world boxing champions, most notably Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, passed away in his Oldsmar, Fla., apartment on Wednesday, surrounded by his family. He had been hospitalized by a blood clot last week and was briefly in a rehabilitation facility before returning home to say his final goodbyes to his loved ones.
Had I known the seriousness of Angelo's condition and the short time he had left to live, I would have been sorely tempted to fly to Tampa to be at his side along with his son Jimmy and other relatives, even though I was no kin to him and was preoccupied in covering the death of another iconic figure, former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, and the run-up to college football's national signing day.
Oh, sure, I counted myself as a friend of Angelo's - everyone who ever met him counted themselves as friends of Angelo's - but he was far more than that to me, and I'd like to believe I was more than that to him, too. That bond was forged one late October morning in 1992, in a London coffee shop. Those 90 minutes remain the most indelible memory of my many years of covering boxing, more so even than Buster Douglas' upset of Mike Tyson in Tokyo, or Tyson's ear-chomp disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield, or Meldrick Taylor's hugely controversial technical knockout by Julio Cesar Chavez with only 2 seconds remaining in a bout Taylor had won on the scorecards.
I probably wouldn't have been on the boxing beat at all were it not for the other principal figure in this three-person tale of pugilistic camaraderie, a onetime welterweight named Bernard "Jack" Fernandez Sr. - my father. He had a storied amateur career in his hometown of New Orleans and dreamed of turning professional when a bigger fight than he'd ever been in, World War II, broke out.
Dad served on a destroyer escort in the South Pacific, where he spent 4 years as a potential victim of torpedoes, naval shellings, kamikaze pilots and typhoons. When the war ended, Dad - who had two pro bouts during his time in the Navy, on Archie Moore undercards when his ship was being refitted in San Diego - reluctantly put away his dream. Too many years had passed; he had a new wife to provide for and a baby boy on the way.
But his love of boxers and boxing never ebbed, and there were many Friday nights when he and I watched the "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports," the father explaining to the son what was happening in the ring, and why. I soaked it all up like a sponge and, as a child, I came to idolize one of Angelo's first champions, Carmen Basilio, maybe because his lyrical name and craggy countenance simply screamed "fighter."
When I succeeded Elmer Smith on the boxing beat for the Daily News in November 1987, I tried to repay my father for all he had done for me by opening whatever portals I could to the life he loved and had given up. I flew him to Las Vegas for the first Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight, where, when introduced to promoter Don King, His Hairness wrapped him in a bearhug and said, "So you are the daddy of one of the boss scribes!" I also had ring announcer Ed Derian publicly acknowledge him at a fight at the Blue Horizon on one of his visits to Philadelphia.
But none of that compared to his only trip to Europe, when we were in London for Lennox Lewis' second-round stoppage of Ruddock on Oct. 31, 1992, in Earls Court Exhibition Hall. Dad, who was in his 70s and beginning to have difficulty walking, kept apologizing because he tired easily and couldn't keep up when we visited the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Albert Hall.
"You should just leave me at the hotel and see those things yourself," Dad said.
"Don't be ridiculous," I replied. "I'm here to work, and to spend whatever time I have left with you."
Then we went down for breakfast one morning and bumped into Angelo, who was known as Angelo Mirena when he was born in Philly on Aug. 30, 1921. For the next hour and a half, they chatted each other up as only boxing lifers can. They talked about Ali and Leonard, of course, but the conversation frequently drifted to Angelo's New Orleans-born fighters, Ralph Dupas and Willie Pastrano, and the often-overlooked trainer, Whitey Esneault, who taught them the basics before turning them over to Angelo for further refinement.
Mostly, I just sat there and listened. And when our mostly untouched breakfast ended, I detected something in Dad that wasn't there on our trips to London's more popular tourist destinations. He didn't seem to be hurting anymore. His conversation with Angelo had lifted his spirits more than the crown jewels or the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace ever could.
Thereafter, whenever I ran into Angelo, he'd ask about Dad. I'd thank him profusely again, and again Angelo would say there was no reason for that; it had been his pleasure. This went on until the spring of 1994, when Angelo asked about Dad and I had to tell him he had passed away. He'd had a heart attack, but held on, refusing pain medication, until I could arrive. I was at the hospital for the final hour of his life.
"I'm not surprised," Angelo said, for once the perpetual smile gone from his face. "Your dad was a fighter."
An inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992, Angelo returned to Canastota, N.Y., each succeeding year, health permitting, drawing crowds like the Pied Piper with his contagious optimism. He had the rare gift of making everyone he met feel like a million dollars.
"It doesn't cost anything more to be nice," he told me more than once.
As I write this in my home office, I am looking at a framed photo of Angelo and another cornerman hoisting Basilio onto their shoulders after a victorious fight. The photo - which I purchased several years ago at an IBHOF silent auction - was autographed by Basilio, but I forwarded it to Angelo so he could sign it, too.
"To Bernard: Thanks for asking," he wrote, before adding his autograph.