He was born Cassius Clay, later became known to the world as Muhammad Ali and represents yet another great fighter from the 1970s about whom much has been said and written.
Few people discuss where Ali acquired his fighting acumen. It is fairly well-known that while Angelo Dundee was one of the game’s greatest cornermen, he was an average technical trainer. As such, one would be hard-pressed to find a fighter Dundee built from the ground up. The two men for whom Dundee was best known were Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas. Both were built by New Orleans-based trainer Ernest “Whitey” Ensault, who churned out a number of champions from the French Quarter, including Bernard and Maxie Docusen, Freddie Little and Tony Licata. Ensault and Dundee became friends at amateur events in the Southeast, with “Whitey” sending his fighters to Dundee in Miami due its close proximity to New Orleans.
That brings us to Ali and the true history of his boxing education, which includes key figures about whom you may not have heard. It begins with Fred Stoner, a trainer at the Grace Community Center in Louisville, Kentucky. He was Ali’s first instructor and honed his skills to a point where he won Golden Gloves state titles, two Golden Gloves national championships and an American Athletic Union national championship. At some point in the late 1950s, Ali crossed paths with the first of many legendary boxing figures: cutman Vasil “Chuck” Bodak. The refinements he made took Ali to an Olympic gold medal. Still, Ali never forgot Stoner, as he brought him in to work his corner after turning pro and often credited him with his success. “He taught me all I know,” Ali said.
In reviewing some of Ali’s amateur bouts, it connected a few dots about his fighting style that I had once questioned. He was known for evasive footwork but had a distinct ability to stand his ground and throw sharp straight punches. That was primarily how he fought as an amateur, and it seems Stone and Bodak focused on increasing his toughness and getting him comfortable enough to trade with opponents when necessary. Finesse was refined later, specifically at Dundee’s gym.
Ali had interactions with another legend in Archie Moore. They were not together for long, as Ali had an aversion to being made to do chores and Moore was akin to a military drill sergeant. One of Moore’s protégés now serves as a trainer at my gym, and he compared his experiences with the former light heavyweight champion to boot camp. That was how Ali wound up with Dundee, even though he tried and failed to hire Sugar Ray Robinson as his manager.
Ali was surrounded by other high-level fighters at Dundee’s gym. He did not care for Cuban fighters like Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles and Luis Angel “El Feo” Rodriguez, as they had a style, flare and smoothness to what they did. However, by being around them, Ali met Luis Sarria, a man who has since fallen through the cracks of boxing history. Sarria, who had defected to Miami from Cuba, had trained Napoles and Rodriguez since they were amateurs. It did not matter that Sarria spoke little English; in the gym, everyone speaks boxing. Ali grew fond of Sarria and technically hired him for his expertise in another area: massage. It is my belief that Ali used this connection to keep Sarria close to him. He would not have employed a man who had trained two hall-of-fame fighters simply for his ability as a masseuse. Sarria spent significant chunks of time with Ali during his fight camps, but he was rarely credited as anything more than a “physical conditioner.”
Dundee was a lot like Ray Arcel in that overall strategy was his primary function to a fighter. Other trainers would run the day-to-day workouts. The genius minds with which Ali went to great lengths to surround himself were hardly ever mentioned. Most were happy to be there, humble men who sought no limelight. Dundee was the more boisterous character.
Another influence on Ali was Harry Wiley, one of Robinson’s trainers. Jack Blackburn is often credited -- and inaccurately so -- as Robinson’s trainer. Blackburn, who trained the legendary Joe Louis, taught Wiley to train others. Wiley’s growth led to his becoming the first black trainer for the United States Olympic program in 1932; five of the eight boxers on his team brought back medals, two of them gold. Wiley shared many of the racial perspectives for which Ali became known. Kennesaw Mountain Landis fired him from his position with the Olympic team over his arguing for fair treatment of black fighters; Landis, of course, was the same man who upheld Major League Baseball’s color line. Wiley went on to train Henry Armstrong and later met a young man named Walker Smith. He, too, began training at Wiley’s gym and went on to become known as Sugar Ray Robinson.
Ali in 1962 fought Sonny Banks, who proved to be an incredibly difficult opponent and in fact dropped him in the first round. The knockdown often goes overlooked because Ali rebounded to stop Banks in four rounds. Wiley was Banks’ trainer that night, and his abilities resonated with Ali. He remembered Wiley 10 years later, when he faced Jimmy Ellis. Dundee was Ali’s trainer, but he served as both trainer and manager for Ellis. Being in Ellis’ corner instead of Ali’s meant more money for Dundee. Ali had no hard feelings toward Dundee and hired Wiley to train him for the fight against Ellis. They were evenly matched and had split their two amateur bouts against one another. While Ali was a heavy favorite due to his popularity and the strength of his resume, Ellis stayed with him early on and made it to the 12th round before being stopped. Ali sang Wiley’s praises afterward and vowed to have him in his corner in all future fights. Sadly, Wiley only cornered Ali one more time before his death in 1972.
Indeed, Ali had many influences. It paints a picture of how important it was for him to ensure the integrity of his craft by having access to several brilliant boxing minds. That likely shaped his ability to adapt in the ring, leaving few opponents able to solve his riddle. Ali had fountains of knowledge around him, people who could lend ideas, refine techniques, break down opponents and add weapons that he had not yet used. Ali’s legendary toughness, unmatched speed and potent punching were all endearing traits. However, his commitment to craft and his desire to search out and surround himself with the right people played an undeniable but often overlooked role in his becoming the greatest heavyweight champion of the 1970s and the greatest champion of all-time in the eyes of many.
Luis Monda is currently a full-time boxing trainer at Johnny Tocco’s in Las Vegas, which is the oldest gym in Sin City. Luis has a deep knowledge of combat sports history, and has spent significant time researching lineages in boxing, specifically. He has been involved in the local-fight scene for nearly a decade: first as a potential competitor, then as the manager of Tocco’s, and now as an instructor to boxers, kickboxers and mixed martial arts fighters.
Previous Installments »
• Ken Norton
• Larry Holmes
• Joe Frazier
• George Foreman
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