"How's it going?" asked Angelo.
"Everything cool," Bundini said.
Then he went farther down the hall to his own room and began dressing for a prefight party. Bundini hadn't intended to go to the party, but he found he was too nervous to stay in his room. He put on a pair of red pants with flared bottoms, a red vest, white silk shirt with balloon sleeves and red and black boots. With the heavy hip-pocket comb that he keeps ready in case the champ needs to straighten up for a TV interview, Bundini scraped at his hair. But his mood was melancholy, his temper disturbed, emotions rising.
"I get sick before a fight," he said. "I feel like a pregnant woman. I give the champ all my strength. He throw a punch, I throw a punch. He get hit, it hurt me. I can't explain it, but sometimes I know what he's gonna do before he even knows it. Some of my duties with the champ, anybody could do—use the watch, carry stuff, all like that. Other things couldn't nobody else do because I don't even know how I do them myself."
Except for a desolate interlude of seven fights beginning with the defense against Floyd Patterson, Drew Brown has been a conspicuous figure in Muhammad Ali's camp and corner since those weird, exuberant days in Miami Beach in early 1964 when the young, beautiful heavyweight, who had just changed his name from Cassius Clay, was training to destroy Sonny Liston with psychic aid from such slogans as: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Bundini thought up that one and now wears it lettered on the back of a T shirt. ("The ropes are the champ's worst enemy," reasoned Bundini. "He got to move fast, but not so fast he won't hit with power. But he the boss, so if you gonna tell him something you got to have a memorable and pleasing way to put it.")
Bundini came to Miami for the first Liston fight and he lived in a house where he grew roses. "He has a green thumb, actually," says his friend, George Plimpton. "He's a strangely gentle man in the midst of all that violence." In Miami, Bundini was close to his origins. He was born poor, on rich land around Sanford, Fla. 42 years ago. His father was a hunter. "I was what I call a pillar-to-post baby. You know, born on a doorstep with a note on your chest that says, 'Do the best you can for him,' " Bundini says. "Self-experience is one of the great things in the world, but I wouldn't say all people should live like me. Of 10 born like me two will make it and only one really make it. It's an exciting life. You meet all kinds and learn to know the truth, not just from words in a book. There's man's truth, and there's God's truth. I live by God's truth."
At the age of 11, during the Depression, Drew Brown shined shoes and carried water for Civilian Conservation Corps crews building bridges in the Florida swamps. They called him Baby Gator. When he was 13, three months after World War II broke out, he joined the U.S. Navy and served aboard three ships in three Pacific island invasions, as an ammunition loader locked between decks during battles and as a messboy dishing out soup and biscuits to officers in more peaceable times. Bundini says he got a bad-conduct discharge for attacking an officer with a cleaver. "He was the ignorantest man I ever met. I used to breathe hard over him. If I was as ignorant as he was I'd of spit in his coffee and put glass in his food. I was just a nigger to him. I didn't understand the word then or I'd of laughed and kept going. A nigger is a ignorant man, not a color, and he was the nigger. I'm a defender, not a fighter, and I waited for him to make a big move. Finally I went for the cleaver to chop his head off. But Shorty—that's what I call God—Shorty didn't want me to kill him. Shorty wanted me to stick to my mission. They tied me up before I got to the stairs. The officer made it to the deck and jumped overboard. Any man would jump overboard when he is facing sure death.
"Worst punishment about the discharge was they wouldn't let me keep my uniform. Little girls like uniforms, and I was only 15." Neglecting to mention his Navy record, Bundini signed up with the Merchant Marine, where he was to spend 12 years and travel around the world, he says, 27 times. "I loved the sea. Fell in love with it. That's not hard. It's peaceful, and the world becomes so small."
When his ship was laid up in Beirut after a screw had got bent in a torpedo net Drew Brown met a Lebanese family. He says the parents loved him as much as the daughter did, and on the day his ship pulled out again the family stood on the dock in the rain crying, "Bundini! Bundini!" That was the name they had given him. (He pronounces it BO-dini.) "I don't know what the name mean," he says. "Just like I have my eyes I have the name. People try to give it mystery. Say it mean lover or witch doctor. But a name don't mean much now. It's only the claim behind the name that's important."
Between voyages Bundini hung out in Philadelphia and New York. He had money off and on; he had clothes and jewelry. The former Baby Gator was now frequently called the Black Prince. "I was on top of the world," he says. "New York was a play toy to me, like Paris and London. Japan was just another seaport. I was a pirate. When a man is a traveler the world is his house and the sky is his roof, and where he hang his hat is his home and all people are his family. I was truly the Black Prince because I was free. I didn't get angry or frown much. Nowadays your problem is my problem, but in those days my interest was in strictly minding my own personal business."