Arguably the best boxing trainer of all time, the hunger in his belly is still ambition. Dundee wants a new ascending star to add to the constellation of great 20th-century fighters he has trained -- Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, and Carmen Basilio, to cite a few. World champion number 16, he says. Number 16, repeats his secretary of 35 years, Betty Mitchell, eager to take one more ride to the big time with him. Number 16, echoes his protégé, the Swedish trainer and former fighter Luis Lagerman.
The compulsion carries Dundee into a Hollywood gym on a warm December afternoon in the 78th year of his life, where he studies the ingredients of greatness in a cadre of young professional fighters working around him. "The next one could be right here," he murmurs to himself, repeating a standard Dundee refrain aimed at no one in particular.
As two men exchange fast flurries of punches in the gym's single ring, Dundee's round brown head swivels like a gun turret, following the action.
"Get off your heels, get on the toes," he calls to one fighter, who has rocked back on his heels for an instant before throwing a hook, which misses the chin of his sparring partner.
The instruction is delivered with a smile, a required etiquette in Dundee's gym, where "a frown on your puss will get you thrown out of here," he warns. Merry in demeanor and round of belly, his working uniform for the afternoon includes a neat black T-shirt and the signature polyester trousers that dominate the over-70 fashion scene in South Florida.
Dundee has not trained 15 previous world champions by missing the telltale signs of greatness -- "speed, power, endurance, desire, all the adjectives," he says. His fighters are carefully selected, some culled from the steady march of applicants to his door, and some spotted years earlier in amateur or beginning professional bouts and followed by Dundee and his partners. Every one of them could become a world champion, but only carefully managed time will tell -- time and the emergence of courage and toughness that garnish the physical talents of some men but not others, he says.
These days Dundee's fighters come from a talent pool he has not previously tapped. His newest picks to extend his successful career into the next century are Swedes, a Finn, an African, a Canadian. Only one American. A united nation of fighters trained by Dundee, Lagerman, and fellow trainer Herman Caicedo. Each fighter has won all of his professional fights so far -- victories measured in numbers ranging from seven to fifteen fights per man.
Although Dundee appears unhurried, his efforts to stay in the fight game are energetic, especially for a man approaching age 80. He comes to the gym -- a converted warehouse in a Hollywood industrial park -- as often as five times a week. Many hours a day he works promotions and deals from his Hollywood office a couple of miles across town where he is assisted by Betty and surrounded by photos of his great fighters. Although Lagerman and Caicedo do most of the hands-on training these days, Dundee oversees the work and travels to the big fights -- the career-makers. And he travels, sometimes overseas, to study fighters firsthand.
For all of those who rely on his cachet of experience and reputation -- fighters, trainers, and sponsors -- success can mean glory and wealth.
"You see him?" asks Lagerman recently, pointing at African heavyweight Andre Purlett, a 6-foot-2-inch model of muscle and speed who weighs 215 pounds. "He has a long way to go, but he could be my next house, my next car, whatever."
And for Dundee, who refers to Purlett as "the Bricklayer," the 25-year-old could be another champion who proves that the old man can still pick them, teach them, and motivate them. Eyeing Purlett, Dundee's smile becomes elfin, his brown eyes dance left and right to follow the fighter's swinging choreography. "I call him the bricklayer because when he hits you on the chin, you're going down," Dundee explains cheerfully. "Like a brick."
Dundee's fighters nowadays are not what many observers expect -- they're not tough kids from the ghetto, they're not even Americans. And the Swedes among them are not even the blond-haired, blue-eyed Viking models. They're black Swedes.
The old trainer scoffs at the notion that origin and environment matter. "You think it takes a ghetto to make a fighter?" he asks. "No." In this case it takes a business partner in Dundee's Royalty Management Co., Swedish restaurateur Gary Trevatt, who looks for talent overseas and brings in Dundee and Lagerman to confirm it.
That's how the trio found Attila Levin, an imposing, 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound Stockholm native whose mother encouraged him to box in an amateur gym when he turned 15. Now Levin is 23 years old, a former Olympian with 13 wins in 13 professional fights, and one of the most promising heavyweights in the gym, Dundee says.
Training Levin has proved to be hard work for everybody, and not just the physical aspect. Early last year former lightweight champion George Scott, a European who fought with Dundee and Lagerman in his corner, offered Levin, Lagerman and three other Royalty Gym fighters "a lot of money, just a lot of stuff to go with him," Levin says. "I did, and it was a big mistake, a bad mistake. I was naive. I didn't know. I shouldn't have done it."
Three other fighters under salaried contract with Dundee's company, Royalty Management, joined Levin to fight for Scott in Europe. Ultimately an American judge ordered them back to Royalty rather than giving them the go-ahead to fight in the United States under other sponsors.
Scott's move was widely criticized in fight circles, and Lagerman insists that's why he didn't join Scott. That and loyalty to Dundee. "It wouldn't have been right," Lagerman says. "I think in fighting sometimes the more dishonest you are the more money you can make. Some trainers take on fighters who are too old, for example. But Angelo and me, we turn them away. I say, 'Hey guy, don't do this, OK? You could get hurt.'"
That's one way to stay honest. Another reason Dundee has avoided the scandal boxing sometimes spawns has to do with the company he chooses.
"We don't work with Don King," Lagerman explains. "I'm not saying King is corrupt -- I don't know what he's up to. But we don't work with him."
Dundee puts it differently. It comes in a quick shot of advice calculated to help his fighters maintain the often solitary, Spartan existence required to succeed. And it comes punctuated with the profanity Dundee occasionally uses to make his points. "If you walk with a fuck-up, you're a fuck-up," he says.
Dundee's greatest fighters have not fallen into that category while under his tutelage. For their toughness and courage, for their monkish discipline and their victories, all are beloved to him, he says. But none -- not even Ali, recently named Time magazine's athlete of the century -- is enough for the man from South Philadelphia.
Only the idea of the next great fighter is enough, he says, that and the music. "There's music in a gym, and I love it," Dundee exclaims boyishly. He pauses and cocks his head, urging a visitor to listen to it: the machine-gun rhythm of the speed bag, the artillerylike thump of the heavy bag, the quick intake of breath wrenched suddenly from the air and released in small explosions, the high-top shoes squeaking sharply as men spin and dance on the canvas. Like a conductor Dundee shapes the music, too. When a fighter sparring with Levin begins to grunt each time he throws a punch, telegraphing his moves, Dundee adds his broad South Philly patois to the fight-gym symphony: "Tell that man not to grunt," he instructs.
Fighters are encouraged to share what they know and see as other fighters spar, with only this rule: no yelling in the gym because it embarrasses people, Dundee believes. "Move around him, move your feet," calls Ismael Kone, a promising Swedish heavyweight who remains close friends with Levin.
The advice elicits a smile from Dundee -- all part of what compels him to lean eagerly into the work. He drops his smile only once at the tasteless mention of the word retirement.
"Retire? That's goofy," he says explosively, as if the thought suggests a grave that remains another lifetime away. "As long as I got young guys to teach, no." He glances around at the young guys for reassurance and notices Levin, the heavyweight from Stockholm.
"Eight months or a year to his first big one, maybe," Dundee muses, like a man with all the time in the world. "Maybe a little longer. You can't rush it."
Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address: [email protected]