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Todd Snyder on the Poet Laureate of Muhammad Ali’s Corner

by on October 31, 2020

Most sports fans are familiar with Drew “Bundini” Brown as the charismatic, rhyme-spouting, larger-than-life figure in the background of Muhammad Ali. In the rousing Bundini: Don’t Believe The Hype, Todd Snyder crafts a loving, three-dimensional portrait of this seminal figure on boxing history, showcasing not only Bundini’s linguistic genius and acute boxing strategy, but also the darker moments that haunted Bundini’s extraordinary life. Through rigorous research, as well as unprecedented access to Bundini’s family and friends, Snyder dives into the key moments of Bundini’s life: his childhood in Florida; his service (as a teenager) in the Merchant Marines; his complicated love story with his wife, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Brooklyn; his work with Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali; as well as his post-boxing life, which included a foray in Hollywood with the Shaft films and an appearance in The Color Purple. Critics have lavished praise on Don’t Believe the Hype. The Wall Street Journal stated, “Mr. Snyder writes lyrically, and his research appears to be impeccable: It’s hard to imagine that anyone has slipped through his interview net,” and Foreword Reviews called it, “authoritative and entertaining, Bundini comes through for boxing fans and for those interested in Black American culture.” Snyder spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on October 12th, 2020.

How did you first hear about Bundini? What drew you to Bundini as a subject?

In some ways this felt like a book that I’d been destined to write. I grew up in a small town, Cowen, in West Virginia. It’s a small little coal-mining town. My father worked in the coal mines by day, but he ran a boxing gym at night, five days a week, Monday through Friday. I sort of grew up in boxing gyms. My whole life was growing up around my dad working with fighters and going to the fights on weekends. I boxed for a couple of years when I was a teenager. I worked corners with my father. Boxing was the center of my universe growing up in West Virginia. My dad’s hero was Muhammad Ali. That was the guy who got him into boxing when he was a young man. I was raised on Ali documentaries and Ali VHS tapes as a kid. The first book I ever read cover to cover was Ali’s 1975 biography The Greatest. It was my dad’s copy that he had in junior high or high school.

I grew up knowing who Bundini was and viewing boxing through the lens of a boxing trainer. I was always fascinated by trainers and the psychological makeup of boxing. I would watch kids in my dad’s gym who were fantastic athletes lose fights even before they got into the ring. Mentally, they’d not be ready. I’ve always appreciated what a trainer could do to help a fighter get mentally ready for combat. I always had an appreciation for it because I watched my father work his magic in the gym.

I grew up an Ali scholar, essentially. If my dad had a hero in life, it was Muhammad Ali. Bundini was one of the things about Ali I liked. I was a big hip hop fan growing up in the eighties and I teach courses in hip hop culture at Siena College in Albany, New York. Bundini was the guy who came up the rhymes. He was the poet laureate of Muhammad Ali’s corner. Bundini was part of what I liked about Muhammad Ali, from my personal vantage point. I loved the rhymes they would do at the weigh-ins and the press conferences. I had no choice but to love Ali as a kid, but Bundini was part of the Muhammad Ali persona that was fascinating to me as a hip hop fan growing up.

Can you talk about how Bundini has been portrayed before in documentaries or films about Ali?

There have been a million Muhammad Ali books, and an equal amount of documentaries and movies made about him. Bundini of course, has always been in the mix in all of those books and documentaries. Sometimes you get just a little bit of him; in some of the books you get a couple of pages about Bundini or a couple of Bundini stories sprinkled throughout the text. He’s great on TV, so he shows up in those documentaries as well.  He’s very charismatic and he always has a great quote. I think either you see a minute little 25% of the picture or he gets branded a cheerleader or court jester. There have been a couple Sports Illustrated articles about him, a couple Ring magazine articles over the years.

He sometimes gets branded as a hype man and we play around with that term in the book. Hype man is a term that comes out of hip hop. In the early days of hip hop, the goal of the hype man was to keep the crowd going and keep the headlining artist motivated and hyped up for the concert. He does get labeled a cheerleader. I think that does him a tremendous disservice because he was there every day at training camp. Of course, he had worked with the great Sugar Ray Robinson for seven years as well. He knew a thing or two about boxing. You don’t work with Muhammad Ali for twenty-one years and the great Sugar Ray Robinson for seven years and not know what you’re doing. He’s more than a cheerleader, I’ll say it that way.

Can you talk about his time with Sugar Ray Robinson. How did his time with Sugar Ray Robinson prepare him for his career with Muhammad Ali?

I will admit, when he first joined Sugar Ray’s entourage, Sugar Ray befriends him and brings him on board to help him out, give him a paycheck. In the early days, he’s doing very menial work, he’s sort of an errand guy. He’s there to help out and be an extra set of hands in the gym when they need people to run errands or do whatever. He even babysat Sugar Ray’s kids in the early days. He was doing menial work with Sugar Ray, probably for that first two years. But he works his way up the entourage and the two become very close friends. By the end of that tour he’s going up to Greenwood Lake, New York, where Sugar Ray trained. He’s there supervising all the activities that go on during the training camp. Because I grew up in the boxing gym, I realized it takes a lot of people to make a training camp work. It’s not like a boxer goes and trains by himself, like in the movies, then runs and gets in the ring. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of different things. By the end of it, he understands how a training camp works. He’s there, day in, day out, an integral part of the team.

When he joins the young Muhammad Ali’s corner, Ali’s only twenty-two years-old. He’s a young professional who hasn’t been in there with top level professional talent. It’s really Bundini who knows more about what it takes to get ready for a fifteen round championship fight. You have to think, he had a heck of an apprenticeship: seven years with the greatest fighter ever maybe. Ali very much idolized Sugar Ray. I think that’s been understated in Ali research. Sugar Ray was his hero. He was the coolest, hippest, most talented Black boxer in the game at the time and Ali very much looked up to him. Bundini had been there side by side with him, so Ali was very willing to listen to him and listen to the advice that Sugar Ray had passed on.

At one point you describe Bundini as “the missing piece of the puzzle for Muhammad Ali.” Can you talk about that?

He was the last to join the entourage. Ali had the most famous entourage in the history of boxing. They were all characters in their own way, Angelo Dundee and the rest of them. Bundini was one of the last ones to join and, in some ways, I think he was the missing piece. Angelo Dundee was one of the most terrific boxing trainers in history. I interviewed his son and he said, “My dad wasn’t really much of a hype guy. He didn’t really yell at the fighters. He was more of a strategy guy, X’s and O’s, technique. He didn’t really like the hype stuff.” Ali was already that way before he met Bundini. He had already done the rhymes, the braggadocious, professional wrestling, hyper masculine ethos. He needed someone to either foster that side of him or help him contain it, shape it, and mold it. Bundini was the talker of all talkers. As Sugar Ray said, [Bundini] was the only person who could outtalk Ali. [Bundini} and Ali had similar imaginations, similar sensibilities. The same types of things motivated them. He was really able to tap into Ali and bring that poetic side into the forefront. He joins the camp and only a couple of weeks in they come up with that classic rhyme, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” Right from the jump he was making an impact into how we think of Muhammad Ali.

Can you describe what the role of the hype man is and why It is so integral to the mental aspect of a boxing match?

I’ll say this, I don’t think Bundini would have liked the term hype man, to be honest. That’s a hip hop term. We’re using that because today’s audience understands what that means. He fancied himself Muhammad Ali’s spirit coach, that he was there for the psychological side of boxing. He was there to get Ali out of bed every day to run, to motivate him, to keep him focused. To let him know when he wasn’t training hard enough, to let him know when he was cutting corners. A training camp is made up of usually six to eight weeks. It’s monotonous, doing the same thing day in and day out. He was there to keep the energy up, to keep Ali focused, happy, and motivated. Angelo Dundee said [Bundini] recharged Ali’s batteries every day. I’ll give you an example. A concept that Bundini would impart to his fighters, he called it getting the gas. He would say, when you get out of bed, you’re filling the gas tank. You’re going out and doing your five mile run at five o’clock in the morning. So the fifteenth round you’re going to have more gas in your tank than the other guy will. He would tell Ali, “How you get out of bed determines what kind of fighter you’re going to be that day. You’re going to drag your feet? You’re going to hit that snooze button and roll back over? A champion gets up and does his work, because he knows that’s where the fight’s won, five o’clock in the morning. You get up and get at it.” It’s about mindset, it’s about psychology. It’s about the way you approach hitting the speed bag. Are you going to hit it like a champion or are you just going to go through the motions? He was there to play those psychological games with the champ, to keep him motivated and in tune and feeling good, feeling like he was there to win.

It’s fascinating to see how Bundini adapts to how Muhammad Ali evolves as a fighter over the twenty-two years they’re together.

I think a lot of people who aren’t a part of boxing don’t recognize very top level trainers, like Angelo Dundee, don’t stay for your whole training camp. They usually come in about fourteen days before the fight. They’re there to watch you once you’re in shape, once you’re sharp, once you’re ready to go. Then they fine tune the game plan. Guys like him and Freddy Roach and all these top trainers, they train multiple world class fighters, that’s how they make their living. Bundini’s job was to get [Ali] to that point so when Angelo came to camp, Ali was in tip top shape and they were ready to lay down the game plan and work on the strategy. Bundini was there from day one until the bell rang, and of course in the corner with Angelo. They just did different things for the champ. Growing up in boxing gyms helped me realize that. My dad would have forty, fifty kids in the gym. He couldn’t give every kid the same amount of attention. You needed those extra eyes and ears and hands to keep fighters motivated, keep them working hard and pushing themselves. That’s very much what Bundini did for Ali and of course for Sugar Ray too.

We haven’t even talked about the other big part of Bundini’s life, his relationship with Rhoda Palestine and their very unconventional open marriage in the fifties. Can you talk about what their relationship was like? Why they were so well suited for each other during their brief time together?

That was probably my favorite part of the book, as far as the research goes. This guy married a white Jewish woman named Rhoda Palestine from Brighton Beach, New York. Her parents were Russian immigrants who had fled the anti-Semitic wave that was hitting pre-World War II. They lived as Orthodox Jews on Brighton Beach. Rhoda grew up in this,  I would say,  conservative, traditional Jewish neighborhood, in a neighborhood where the movie theater was in Yiddish. They had their own little corner of New York. Bundini comes from Florida, which has its own racial problems. The Ku Klux Klan was a seminal presence in Seminole County in his childhood. They meet in New York City, in the wild jazz joints of Harlem, at a time when Miles Davis was up there on stage doing his thing. They meet and fall in love and were, in some ways, two hurricanes who collided. The fact they got married at a time when that relationship had to be extremely taboo, had a son, and tried to make it work as a family was really fascinating to me.

It was fun getting to talk to some of the Palestine family about what it was like to have Bundini join their family and it was fun talking to the Browns about what it meant to them to get to know the Palestines. At Bundini’s son’s Bar Mitzvah, the two families are all there together, the Browns from Florida and the Palestines from New York. Those pictures are remarkable. It was one of the really unique stories I was able to tell in the book. Even though the relationship doesn’t work out, like you said, they lived a bohemian existence. It was an open marriage, not your traditional family structure for that time period. They were just wonderful friends. Even after the divorce they remained friends. Bundini couldn’t read or write very well, so when he wanted to write things, Rhoda Palestine would get out her typewriter and they would still work together. At one point he tried to write a book, he tried to write short stories and poetry. She was his typist. When he opened a night club called Bundin’s World in Manhattan, she worked for him, she helped him keep the books. After the divorce they still maintained a relationship for their son, even though it didn’t work out in their five years together as a married couple.

The pictures are so amazing, of Rhoda’s mother right next to Muhammad Ali.

And Sugar Ray Robinson as well. It’s funny, Bubbe was a very hotheaded tough Jewish lady. According to family legend, one time Bundini went out drinking and didn’t come home. So Bubbe went to the bar and yanked him out by the ear. She went to Harlem and dragged him back home. That’s pretty remarkable to picture her, four feet eleven, going into some jazz club and pulling Bundini out by the ears.

One of the things that’s so fun about the book is that Bundini is such a larger than life character but every character he attracts to his life can go toe to toe with him.

I think that’s the one thing I really wanted to get across with Rhoda. She was extremely intelligent. She read Nietzsche and loved philosophy. She was just this really interesting character as well. You could see why Bundini would have fallen in love with her. She was definitely a person who marched to the beat of her own drum just like he was. Maybe that’s why they didn’t work, because neither one would back down or acquiesce to the other.

People might be familiar with Bundini because of his appearances in a couple of the Shaft movies. Can you talk about his acting career?

I think his acting career might be even more remarkable than his career as a boxing trainer, because he couldn’t read or write very well. He had never had any acting classes. Anyone who’s ever tried [acting], even at a small theater level, knows it’s very hard to do if you’re not trained and you haven’t been taught how to do it. Gene Kilroy, Muhammad Ali’s business manager, worked for MGM for a while. They were looking for someone to play Willy [in Shaft], who’s this gangster from Harlem. They were bringing in these guys to read for the part, professional actors, and Gene Kilroy apparently said, “I’ve got the real thing over here. We’ll get Bundini to come in and do this.” Now Bundini couldn’t read the script, so he and his son had to rehearse it in their kitchen. His son was in high school at the time, and he would teach his dad the lines and they would practice it together. Bundini went in and did the part and nailed it. He was extremely charismatic on the screen.  For someone who was never raised that way and never went to school for acting, the fact that he was in six feature films is pretty impressive. He even worked with Steven Spielberg. He was just a remarkable guy. Super talented.

It was so fun to see how his natural genius applied to all of these aspects of his life is pretty amazing

He was definitely a hustler, and I mean that in the positive sense of the term. If an advantage came his way he took advantage of it. He was someone who wasn’t given a lot of privileges or perks in life. He had a very traumatic childhood, He grew up in poverty, but boy did he make the most out of every opportunity that came his way.

And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?

You got to remember, when I was a kid, I grew up in really small, working class Appalachia where we didn’t have nice public libraries. Even our school had a tiny, menial library for students. It wasn’t until I went off to Marshall University as a first generation college student that I fell in love with libraries. They were like places of magic to me. As someone who wanted to be a writer and all of a sudden I can pick any book out of here that I want? I ate it up. I was an English major so the library was where I hung out. That’s where I did my work, that’s where I read. Every university I was affiliated with, from Marshall to Ohio to Siena, where I work now, libraries became part of my life. When I was a kid, I didn’t have access to those resources. I didn’t have access to those libraries that can unlock those keys for young kids, but it definitely transformed my life when I was given the opportunity. We look for ways to improve small, rural, working class communities, building that infrastructure of public libraries so people can access a world beyond their social circumstances is one of the keys to helping turn around struggling communities. As an English major and a writer and an English professor, libraries are a big part of my life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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