Todd Snyder: ‘But Bundini Was What I Liked About Ali’
By Chris Akers
The focus in part four of my interview with Todd Snyder is solely on ‘Bundini’ Brown, a man who was able to carve his own personality and presence despite being part of the careers of two of the greatest boxers in history.
Snyder’s next book centres on Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, a man who played a pivotal role in the latter part of Sugar Ray Robinson’s career and almost all of the career of Muhammad Ali.
Both of those legendary fighters were extravagant in many ways. Both had bold personalities and transcended the sport at the peak of their careers. Yet despite this, Bundini was still able to stand out as a personality in his own right despite the dominating personas of the two aforementioned boxers.
“One of the mysteries of this book for me was how does a guy, who grew up in very tough circumstances in rural country in Sanford, Florida. Citrus growth Florida, where all the people in the area work in farms. Hard, out in the hot sun. Had a really tough childhood. Never boxed. How does a guy that comes from that, help train maybe the two greatest fighters in history, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammed Ali?” He was with Sugar Ray for seven years, Ali for well over 20 years. So for me that was the mystery. How in the world does he get there?”
So how did Bundini get from country, citrus growth Florida to be in the company of the greatest fighters of all time?
“For me, I had to really dig into his philosophies and his weapon was the English language. He was one heck of a talker,” explains Snyder. “He was a hustler in the positive sense of the term. Anytime an opportunity came his way, he took advantage of it. He was street smart.
“When he came into Sugar Ray Robinson’s good graces, at first, he didn’t have a very glamorous role in the entourage. In fact, one of the things that he did, is he would babysit Robinson’s kids while Sugar Ray was running round with women. He would tell his wife ‘I’m going to take the kids to the park.’ He would drop them off at Bundini’s apartment and he would go chasing women. That’s how he started, as a member of the gang.
“Sugar Ray loved him from the start. He hung around at Sugar Ray’s Golden Gloves barber shop in Harlem. And that how he got to know some of the people around Sugar Ray. The person who really got him into boxing was a welterweight champion called Johnny ‘Honeyboy’ Bratton. He became part of Bratton’s entourage and that got him to Sugar Ray. It took him seven years to work his way up into a prominent space within Sugar Ray’s entourage.”
Sugar Ray had the ultimate entourage. Amongst many members, he had a golf instructor. A hair stylist that would fix his hair in the corner. All while travelling in his pink Cadillac.
“Bundini was just one of his guys that would keep him happy, do odd jobs for him, take care of things for him. But a couple of years into that relationship, he’s going to training camp with Sugar Ray, waking him up to run. Motivating him, getting on him while he’s on the bag. Work while he’s hitting the speed bag, while he’s hitting the hand pads. Bundini becomes his shadow. He follows him through everything he does for seven years.
“Now Bundini never worked his corner. He was there ringside for all the fights. But his role was more of a go to guy in training camp. Sugar Ray dubbed him his motivator. Now Bundini could read people like you and I could read books. He could seize you up in two seconds. He would realise what he had to say to get you to move. He could tell what worked and what didn’t. That relationship goes on to the second half of Sugar Ray’s career.”
This then leads to the weigh in to one of the most significant fights early in Ali’s career.
“When Ali has a fight against Doug Jones in New York City, Sugar Ray comes to the weigh in and they have a side conversation. Ali idolised Sugar Ray. One of the things that will be interesting when you read the book, I didn’t realise the depth that Ali loved Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Didn’t he want Robinson to be his manager?
“He wanted him to be his trainer at first,” said Snyder. “Sugar Ray was fighting and said to Ali, ‘I can’t train you.’ I don’t think Sugar Ray liked Ali as much as Ali liked him. They were different kind of guys. But at the weigh in at that fight, Sugar Ray says to him ‘I’m going to give you my guy Bundini. He’s going to keep you on track. He’s going to keep you in line, out of trouble. Will keep you motivated. The worst thing that can happen to a fighter is you lose your edge, your fire. He’ll make sure it’s stoked.’
“Now imagine, if you wanted to be a filmmaker and Steven Spielberg came to you and said ‘Look, I’m not going to work with you on this film, but I’m going to give you my go to guy, who’s been with me through all of my great films. I want you to use all his knowledge that I’ve given you,’ you would definitely do that. So one of the reasons Ali took on Bundini is one, they were both alike. They both had a big mouth, they both liked to jive talk, they both liked to rap. But one of the reasons Ali took him on, was that Sugar Ray basically said that Bundini kept him going during the second half of his career and to use him in training.
“Bundini was not going to work Ali’s corner originally. He was just going to go camp with him. Ali loves him so much, that he kicks his brother Rahman out of the corner and puts Bundini in, for the Sonny Liston fight. Those two were so similar in their personalities. Their imaginations were very similar. They were very different as far as their religious views and their views on some other views too. But they were so similar in the things that they thought were funny. The type of ways that Bundini was able to motivate Ali had a tremendous impact on his career.”
Although Bundini is primarily associated with Ali and Robinson, those were the only boxers he was involved with during his career.
“He trained James ‘Quick’ Tillis. He did work with George Chuvalo for one fight and some lower level heavyweights who I mention in the book. But the bulk of his career was spent with Ali. He worked every Ali fight from the first Liston fight. There was a little period where him and Ali had a tiff and Ali kicked him out. But almost every significant fight of Ali’s career, Bundini was there at training camp.”
What isn’t in doubt is how dedicated Bundini was towards Ali.
“I interviewed Gene Kilroy, who was Muhammed Ali’s business manager and organised that Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania. Bundini was there for every second of it, whereas Angelo (Dundee), because he had other top-level fighters, sometimes was there the last two weeks before the fight. So Bundini was his full time guy.
“Ali’s brother Rahman said if it wasn’t for Bundini, Ali would have probably had three or four more losses in his career in his record. He died at a pretty young age. He was still relatively young; he was 57 when he passed away. So he still had a lot of life ahead of him.
“Working on this book, I worked with Bundini’s son, Drew Brown the 3rd. Fourteen months every day on the phone. Every day I was in Atlanta, going through his dad’s stuff. Really intimate photographs, letters and all that stuff. One of the things his son said to me is ‘Imagine if my daddy could have become a commentator like Ferdie Pacheco or Teddy Atlas.’ He would have been so hilarious on the microphone because he had all these great phrases. He was real charismatic and witty. It’s a shame that he didn’t get a shot at that. Bundini did some movies too.”
He was not just in any movies. High profile films like Shaft and the Color Purple had Bundini amongst their cast of actors
“He was doing that in L.A when he died. It’s sad, because I think he could have had a great life after boxing.”
Returning to Ali’s brother Rahman saying that without Bundini, Ali would have had three or four more losses, one of those potential losses would surely have been The Thriller in Manilla.
“I talked to James ‘Quick’ Tillis, who Bundini trained later after Ali. And Tillis said that Bundini said to him, that he thought that was his greatest work, as Ali was ready to quit at a couple of points in that fight. If you watch the fight, Ali wins but then he collapses. Frazier’s up getting work on but Ali can’t even stand up. He was very close to quitting those last couple of rounds. Ali was spent, he had nothing left. I do believe, partly because I’ve watched my dad do this in the ring, a trainer can keep you in the fight. Some trainers take it too far and let guys get hurt. But I do believe that was one of Bundini’s greatest jobs, keeping Ali afloat in the Thrilla in Manilla.”
Boxing is full of characters, whose lives would be deemed overdramatic or unrealistic if depicted on screen. So why chose Bundini to write about?
“He was one of my favourite things about Ali to be honest. My first love in life was hip hop. Hip hop was everything in the world to me. It made poetry cool. It made writing cool. I was born in 1981, so I came up in that golden era of hip hop in America. Hip hop was my whole life. It was everything I cared about. I loved Bundini as much as I loved Ali. I loved the rhymes. I like the talking, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I always loved that side of Ali first. It was the part that made it cool. In some ways, Ali was hip hop before there was such a thing.
“There was a documentary that came out of ESPN a couple of years ago called Ali Rap. Chuck D from Public Enemy is the narrator of the documentary. And I teach a hip-hop class at my university and Chuck D was a guest at the university. I got to meet Chuck D and he got to meet my students. My students asked him if he thought Ali was the first rapper. He said, ‘Yeah and I think float like a butterfly, sting like a bee is the first rap lyric ever.’ So I said ‘Well that makes Bundini the first hype man. He was the Flava Flav to his Chuck D.’ So I just always thought Bundini was cool. I always liked him.
“My dad had an assistant trainer in his gym whose name was Jeff Dean. We used to call him Bundini Dean. He was our hype man, he was our talker, he was our guy. He’d keep the kids motivated. He always brought a little spice to the equation. So I grew up idolising Ali because he was my dad’s hero.
“But Bundini was what I liked about Ali. That was the side that attracted me most. I couldn’t believe all these years, no one hasn’t wanted to dig into his life story as it’s amazing. He lived a crazy life. In some ways he was brilliant. In some ways he’s tragic. In some ways he’s inspirational. Some ways he’s contradictory. As a writer, you couldn’t have a better protagonist. He’s such a complex character. When I got the opportunity to do it, I didn’t think twice, because I’ve always been in love with that side of Ali’s personality.”
The final part of this interview will look at how boxing intertwines with hip hop and politics, plus how boxing can get back to the sporting forefront in the United States in a way it hasn’t done in a while.