It was not necessary to look like Charley Goldman to work a corner in boxing, but whenever he was not there something seemed to be missing, as if you were looking at a wall from which a favorite picture had just been removed. From the sideshow feet to the derby which crowned a head reminiscent of Van Gogh's potato eaters, Charley was right out of central casting. He was the perfect embodiment of the public image of the corner man, a wandering sect that scratched out survival with swab sticks, stopwatches, pails full of humbug, muttlike loyalty and a compulsive attention to detail.
His looks aside, old Charley was notable mainly because—all things equal—he brought an edge to a fighter. As for the others, most remained just pasty faces moving through yellow light, a parade of dead men with towels over their shoulders and worn satchels in their hands. By day, you looked for them at Stillman's, a temple of higher learning renowned for its foulness of air and the breed's inclination to despoil; by night, in the grayness of an automat, hunched behind very white coffee and a piece of arid cheesecake. Acclaim would only have confused their rigid, solitary lives.
In the old days only a few were more than parenthetical drops in news reports. Some of those who counted: Whitey Bimstein, the Hippocrates of trainers; Bill Gore, the architect of Willie Pep; avuncular Jimmy August, who worked with the late Dick Tiger; Ray Arcel, the quiet tactician who spent too much of his career picking up victims of Joe Louis. They were invaluable to their clients ( Charley Goldman gave life to the stone legs of Rocky Marciano), but their rewards were modest compared with the earning power and celebrity of the best of those who followed them.
Three trainers now stand at the top of their trade: Angelo Dundee, who has worked with Muhammad Ali from the start; Gil Clancy, who has Emile Griffith and Jerry Quarry, among others; and Eddie Futch, who handles Joe Frazier, and once salvaged the ruin that was Ken Norton. Neat, trim little men, none of them resembles or even vaguely reminds one of the old elite, most of whom would have stiffened in a restaurant that smelled of anything more than beefsteak and onions. But the new guard is generally comfortable with what currently passes as civilization, as well as the versatility required by the contemporary ring.
Today boxing demands an ample brain pan of those who handle the best. There is none of that cursory stuff of jotting figures on the backs of envelopes or sticky bar napkins. You keep an eye on the lawyers (don't even blink) and you keep an eye on the math. The trainer is often now the manager, too. The job requires caution, even with the fighters. They are not the same fellows who used to walk around with lumpy ears and thick tongues and answered to any old name ("bum," for one), and later wondered, childlike, where the money went. The new fighters have names, sensitivities, a sense of the meanness that the ring can be; they also have the money.
Clancy was once a phys-ed teacher in Brooklyn; he boxed in the service and later became a trainer for the Police Athletic League. Dundee was a street kid in South Philly; he did his internship at Stillman's, where trainers swapped theories about cuts as if they were at a convention of plastic surgeons. Futch is one of the few professional boxers ever to make it as a big-time trainer. After a heart condition ended his fighting career, he studied under the great Chappie Blackburn, who tutored Joe Louis. The common ground of Clancy, Dundee and Futch is success. They have the quality fighters, yes, but they also know how to control, to motivate, to run a corner with acumen.
Begin with Eddie Futch, the quiet, gentle ex-lightweight who is probably the least known of the three. His style is pianissimo, yet his ability to transmit knowledge that sticks is incomparable. "If I had a good one now, a young one now," said the late Jack Hurley long ago in an L.A. gym while watching Futch explain a move, "there's only one man I'd have to have, and that's Eddie Futch. The man's a master." Eddie says he doesn't think of himself as "any kind of master," only a man who has patience. If necessary, he will spend six months teaching a kid a left hook. He will break down every move in the ring as if it were a problem in long division, and if he sees it all come together only once, it is enough for him. Of all the punches, he says, the left jab is the most vital to a fighter. "There are four, five different jabs," he says, "and they all look easy. But they don't learn 'em easy."
The late Yank Durham got most of the credit for Joe Frazier, and a lot of it was deserved. Durham's strength was in the back room of negotiations. Still, Futch played a key role in making Frazier a fighter, and carefully mapped the tactics. For years he would think of ways to dismantle Muhammad Ali, who was to him a rare and fascinating bird that he wanted to cage for one long moment. It took a while, but Eddie would be the only trainer to beat Ali—first with Frazier in the most dramatic, maybe the best, title fight of this century; then again with Norton, who had been merely a worker in the fields until Eddie picked him up. The key to victory was the same: relentless and steady pursuit.
Futch ran a cool corner the night Frazier beat Ali, whose own corner seemed to be in chaos. Ali is used to it, may even prefer it that way. Yet such an atmosphere does not usually help a fighter. "If a corner gets rattled," says Eddie, "it's a cinch the fighter will, too." He says the best corners are the ones that are noticed least. "Control, that's the word," he says. "Control of the fighter. Control of yourself."
Angelo Dundee works out of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami. He is the trainer the public knows best, mainly because he has had more fighters on television than anyone else, is often hired for instant analysis between rounds and is united visually with Ali in the public mind. When left alone, that is, when he is not working with Ali, Dundee runs a sharp corner, complemented by two seconds who are the best in the business: Luis Sarrea, the wordless Cuban, and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, for whom boxing is one of many avocations.