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  • Jim Bessman

Ali's 'hype man' Drew Bundini Brown finally gets his due


If you’re a big fan of Muhammad Ali, you’re likely also a fan of his entourage, the core being trainer Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco, a.k.a. the Fight Doctor, both of whom wrote two of the scores if not hundreds of books recounting the Ali experience and era.

But there was a third and far more colorful member of Ali’s in-ring trio, who never wrote a book, and about whom one was never written—until now: assistant trainer and cornerman/confidante Drew “Bundini” Brown. Thanks to Todd D. Snyder, author of BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype (Hamilcar Publications), this noticeable gap in the Ali library has been filled.

The charismatic Brown, as BUNDINI’s publisher Kyle Sarofeen has written, was “the greatest hype man in boxing history”—a “hype man” being the onstage hip-hop cohort/motivator/emcee of a rapper who cheerleads for him and eggs him on.

“I can watch the end of the [historic Ali-George Foreman] Rumble in the Jungle 20 times more and still get chills, in particular because of Bundini, wrestling his way to Ali, hailing him through tears of joy,” said Sarofeen.

As Ali has been hailed by Public Enemy’s Chuck D for his influence on hip-hop (Chuck D hosted an ESPN production, Ali Rap), Brown can be seen as the prototype for the likes of that group’s clock-sporting hype man Flavor Flav. Best known as “Bundini,” he got the moniker when he was in the Navy and stationed in India, where as his ship pulled out, some women yelled out the word, which means “lover.”

The Florida native settled in Harlem afterwards, where he worked the counter at a restaurant near Sugar Ray Robinson’s bar Sugar Ray’s and became known in the 1950s as “Fast Black.” Also a captivating street poet/philosopher, Bundini married a white woman from an Orthodox Jewish family and converted to Judaism (he always referred to God as “Shorty”); this, along with his taste for alcohol, were among the traits that put him at odds with Ali’s Nation of Islam, but except for a brief exile, not out of Ali’s orbit. He also later acted in films including Shaft.

After meeting Robinson, he worked with him for seven years, then teamed up with Ali (then Cassius Clay) before his 1963 fight with Doug Jones. Both he and Ali pronounced “Bundini” as “Bodini,” and as Bodini, he came up with Ali’s most famous war cry, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble! Aahh!” Ali was out of the country when Brown died in 1987 at 59, but sent flowers along with a card saying, “You made me the Greatest.”

“Bundini gave Ali his entire heart,” Larry Holmes has said. “He was Ali’s right-hand man [and] was the one guy who could really get him up to train and get him ready to fight.” Boxing News lauds BUNDINI for unveiling “an exceptionally complicated man and the orchestrator of exceptionally complicated relationships” and succeeding in “resurrecting what was one of the most enduring and important relationships of Ali’s entire career.”

Certainly, Dr. Todd D. Snyder brings a unique perspective to Brown. The son of a West Virginia boxing trainer, he is an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at Siena College in Albany, N.Y. His writing reflects his life experience, with a focus on working class masculinity, having previously authored The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. He currently teaches a course at Siena in hip-hop studies, and has contributed a chapter to The Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Studies.

“It’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit,” says Sports Book Reviews.

Snyder recently spoke with centerlinenews about BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype:

Bundini’s background was remarkable, and so is yours.

I grew up in a small coal mining town—Cowen, West Virginia--in a really remote, secluded mountain part. It was originally a coal mining camp, and all the men in the family were miners and in the industry.

How did boxing fit in?

It got me out of the region! My dad had a gym that I wrote a memoir about--The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. I grew up around boxing, and boxed in high school. But I never wanted to pursue it as a profession: You grow up around the sport and see a lot of good people get hurt—“Even the greatest—Muhammad Ali,” my dad said.

So what did you do?

I wanted to be like my dad, but when I turned 18, he wanted me to give college a try—and I was the first in my family to go. The ironic part was that I’ve never stopped going: Now I’m a PhD and a professor!

And you say in the book that you wrote it at Starbucks!

My sister moved to New York and her home was next to Starbucks, and they had all these nice tables and I found that it was a nice place to write. The day I got the book contract I went there and plotted the timeline of Bundini’s life, and no one bothered me. I guess I’m a bit superstitious: Things were going really well, so I kept going back and by the end all the baristas knew what I was doing from my stack of Muhammad Ali books! Angelo Dundee’s son called me, and I had to go out on the patio and thank him for his help.

You talked to a lot of people in researching it.

Yes. This book required an extensive amount of interviews. I spoke with Bundini’s son [author and motivational speaker Drew Bundini Brown III] 58 times, and went to Atlanta and read the whole book to him word for word. I spoke with George Foreman, Larry Holmes, [Ali sparring partner and former heavyweight champion] Tim Witherspoon, [Ali’s business manager] Gene Kilroy--hundreds of interviews.

What gave you the idea to write the book?

One of the courses I teach is The History of Hip-Hop Culture, and Chuck D was on campus for a hip-hop celebration. He’s an Ali fan, and playfully places him as the original rapper. The students were all asking him Ali questions like, “Do you really think that?” And he said, “Why, sure. Why not? ‘Float like a butterfly...’” So I said, “That makes Bundini the original hype man! He built Ali up and served him in a metaphysical role as his motivator.” And Chuck D looked at me and said, “Someone should write that book [about Bundini].” It put the idea in my head: Here’s an undermined research gap in the Ali story and boxing history--since Bundini worked with Sugar Ray and [Ali sparring partner and former heavyweight champion] Jimmy Ellis, too. Usually Bundini gets only one or two paragraphs.

How did you get the book deal?

My publisher Hamilcar is boxing-based, and posted a blog about Bundini that received a lot of traffic. They were looking for a writer who knew a bit about hip-hop and boxing, because they wanted a book with hip-hop flair. I was the first one who came up because I write about both areas, and they linked me up with Bundini’s son. I went to see him in Atlanta in order to really know Bundini, and he opened up bar mitzvah books and poetry and postcards, and I got to know the man as a person--and it was really cool. Forty-five of the pictures in the book came from Drew, and they’d never been published before.

So what was Bundini like?

His story is so multi-layered: A black man who marries a white Jewish woman from Brighton Beach—which was extremely taboo! He marched to the beat of his own drummer, and was a true original thinker.

What about his marriage?

It was fun writing about that relationship. It was not a traditional marriage. But from the very start the book was, “This is Bundini Brown. I can’t give him a boring bio. If it were [1940s featherweight champion] Willie Pep, maybe. But this has to have flavor. I have to make it more action-packed and funkier than if it were for someone else.”

It’s anything but a traditional third-person bio.

I went to Atlanta and Bundini’s son picked me up in a Rolls-Royce—and it starts from there. I wanted you, the reader, to experience it all with me—to take the readers with me on my journey. You can pretend that biographies are infallible, but the reality is that they’re giving someone’s truth. So in BUNDINI, we see him through the eyes of his son: We usually only look at him as this wild, crazy sidekick of Muhammad Ali, but I give him the story from his son’s perspective.

You say at the end that part of what we loved about Muhammad Ali belonged to Drew Bundini Brown--regardless of whether we knew it or not.

I’ve never forgotten how one time in a literature course, we were watching a video of Maya Angelou, and she mentioned her friendship with Ali, and “Float like a bee....” She said, “That rhyme is just as good as any poem I’ve ever written,” and I knew it was Bundini’s line. Watching it, part of me felt a little hurt: As great as Ali was, it was Bundini’s line, and it personified him—and he should get the credit. So much of what I loved about Ali was stoked by him, because he was a natural born motivator and knew what made him tick. He brought out that side of him and accentuated it before the training camp for the first Sonny Liston fight—and it all might have been different otherwise. It’s like you can’t be a Tom Sawyer fan and not a Huck Finn fan, just as you can’t love Ali without Bundini Brown. It makes me sad when my students don’t know who Bundini is.

And you don’t shy away from his failings.

No one wants to write a biography that shows only the good side. Bundini’s son was open with me about his father’s alcoholism and how he’d blow money, and I showed that part of him, too. He was a very complex man: He could certainly frustrate you, and let you down, too.

You talk about not wanting to “redeem” Bundini’s reputation, nor “vilify him for the benefit of Ali’s legacy” as others have done.

Look at some of the films, like Ali [2001, with Will Smith], and there’s a scene where he steals a belt for heroin money—which wasn’t true. Or Don King: Only in America [1997, with Ving Rhames], where Bernie Mac plays him as sort of disloyal to Ali in teaming with Don King—which certainly was not the case. Filmmakers and documentarians refashion Ali with Bundini being a bad influence--a wild drug addict or court jester or class clown, even though he was funny. But he wasn’t a fickle turncoat, though he certainly did battle alcoholism. In filmic recreations of Ali history, he’s more of a cheerleader than motivator and more of a flunky or leach. He certainly was not a yes man: They’d argue about religion and some very serious stuff, and they had their tiffs. I didn’t want to make him into Superman or portray him unfairly, as he has been in films.

How, then, would you characterize him?

Think about it this way: Not a single person turned me down for an interview! They didn’t love just Ali, but also Bundini. I’d go to an interview and say to myself, “This will be the first one to say something negative,” but I could just hear in their voices how much they cared for him and missed him, and how much fun he was to be around. He made an indelible impact on the people he was close to, and while he wasn’t a perfect man--and I don’t make him out to be one—he was one of a kind. Tim Witherspoon said there’s never been a Bundini before, and there never will be one after—and that’s 100 percent on point.

The last chapter, which documents Bundini’s grim final years and death at 59, includes his last meeting with Ali in the hospital. It is incredibly moving and very sad. But you finish it on an upbeat note, focusing, like you did in the beginning, on Bundini’s son.

It’s one of the tricks I pull in the book. I knew it ended in a sad way: Most of us who know about Ali know that Bundini died after suffering injuries in a car accident and a fall at home, without much money--and that Ali helped take care of him. But I wanted to go “From the Root to the Fruit” [the title of the chapter] and also show how successful his son and grandchildren were—how he had such a big impact on his family, and that they went on do great things and rectify, in their way, some of the demons he couldn’t overcome.

So how would you sum Bundini up?

He was something out of a Shakespeare tragedy, or Dickens, maybe. A poor black boy who grew up in Sanford, Florida, with no expectations--and had a wild, unbelievable life, ranging from presidents and dictators to the most famous athletes, musicians and poets, spanning the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement to the Shaft era and the bubbling of hip-hop.

And BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype?

It was an unbelievable journey to shed light on Bundini’s legacy, on boxing and life. It was a wonderful book to get to write.



CENTERLINE