Bundini Brown: the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit

Today in Sanford history, Drew “Bundini” Brown Jr., who was the motivator and confidant to two of the greatest boxing champions of all time – Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammed Ali – was born in Midway. It was March 21, 1928.

Bundini is most famous for giving Ali his signature phrase, “Float like a butterfly sting like a bee.” His contributions were much more significant, however. He holds at least a partial claim to the title “The Original Rapper,” and some would say that without Bundini the Ali that the world came to know would not have existed.

Here’s a clip of Ali and Bundini goofing around on a bus trip early in the champion’s career:

Bundini grew up dirt-poor in segregated Sanford during the depression and earned the first of many nicknames – Baby Gator – carrying water for the men building bridges in the Central Florida as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Large for his age, Bundini lied about how old he was and joined the Navy at age 13, a few months after Pearl Harbor. He was discharged from the Navy after 2 years for bad-conduct when he chased an officer with a meat cleaver, according to a 1971 Sports Illustrated article, “Bundini: Svengali In Ali’s Corner.”

Bundini didn’t share that information when he signed up with the Merchant Marine soon after. It worked out because he spent the next 12 years circling the world 27 times.

When Bundini’s ship was in port in Beirut for repairs, he met a Lebanese family who called him Bundini, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

“I don’t know what the name mean,” he told Sports Illustrated. “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.”

“Bundini: Svengali In Ali’s Corner”

After leaving the Merchant Marine, Bundini moved to Harlem and was introduced to the middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson by a boxer named Johnny Bratton according to Kyle Sarofeen’s article, “Bundini Brown: Boxing’s Greatest Hype Man.”

Like he would later do for Ali, Bundini was the guy who got Robinson’s motor running when the champ needed a mental lift.

According to that 1971 Sports Illustrated article, it was Robinson’s brother-in-law, Bob Nelson, who introduced Bundini to Ali by saying “You think you can talk, you must hear this man.”

“After listening to Bo-dini for 10 minutes, I gave up,” Ali admitted.

“Bundini: Svengali In Ali’s Corner”

Despite the spelling, Bundini pronounced his nickname “Bo-dini,” and Ali did the same.

Bundini was with Ali before the fighter, then known as Cassius Clay, “shocked the world” and beat heavyweight champion Sonny Liston fort the belt on Feb. 25, 1964.

Bundini was given the title assistant trainer. Ali’s actual trainer, Angelo Dundee, said in the Sports Illustrated article that he and Bundini never had any issues, despite the fact that Bundini wasn’t a traditional boxing trainer.

“This Bundini, he’s a strong person, very interesting. I met him just before our Doug Jones fight. He was talking about the planets. Like to drove me up the wall,” Dundee said in the Sports Illustrated article. ‘I like him. The trick is, if you try to understand him, he’ll drive you crazy. So I don’t try.”

“Bundini: Svengali In Ali’s Corner”

In the 1960s, no one knew the terms “rap” or “hip-hop,” but to watch clips from that time of Bundini and Ali bantering back and forth you recognize the art form

Public Enemy’s Chuck D told Michael Tillery of The Undefeated that Muhammad Ali was the original rapper.

“Muhammad Ali not only influenced hip-hop of course from the rhyming aspect, which is a known fact, but the brash swagger of backing it up: going into the dozens, making predictions. His boldness is hip-hop,” Chuck D said.

“Muhammad Ali: The original rapper”

Here’s a montage of Ali rhyming his quotes, as well as celebrities saying his quotes. Everything said in the video is an Ali quote:

I would argue that Bundini Brown shares at least a stake to the title of original rapper. Clearly Ali was born with the wit, intellect and charisma that put him in the international spotlight. Though Ali gets the credit, you can bet Bundini had a part in more than a few of these famous words.

You see, Bundini Brown was not some flunky serving as a straight man for Ali’s quips and bravado. Bundini was known as Ali’s assistant trainer, but that doesn’t do him justice. Bundini “was the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit,” said former heavyweight champion George Foreman. That’s according to a new book coming out in August by Todd D. Snyder, “BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype.”

Here’s what else Foreman and others close to Ali told Snyder:

“I wouldn’t even call him a trainer or corner man, he was more important than a trainer. Ali had an unmeasurable determination and he got it from Bundini.” — George Foreman (lost the heavyweight title to Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle”)

“BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype.”

“When you talk about Bundini, you are talking about the mouthpiece of Muhammad Ali, an extension of Muhammad Ali’s spirit. There would never have been a Muhammad Ali without Drew Bundini Brown.” — Khalilah Camacho-Ali (Muhammad Ali’s second wife)

“BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype.”

“Bundini gave Ali his entire heart. Bundini played a very important part in Ali’s career. He was Ali’s right hand man. He knew exactly how to motivate him. He was the one guy who could really get him up to train and get him ready to fight.” — Larry Holmes (former Ali sparring partner, longest reigning heavyweight champion in modern boxing history, and the only boxer to force Ali to quit before the fight went the distance)

“BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype.”

Most folks know Bundini through Ali’s voice, of course, but the man had no problem holding his own when the spotlight was pointed his way. Here’s a rare interview with Bundini talking to Howard Cosell about Ali’s decision not not join the U.S. Army and fight in Vietnam:

On Sept. 24, 1987, Bundini died at the age of 59 from the effects of a car crash. He pinched a nerve in his spine during the crash and later suffered a serious fall at home from which he never recovered.

Though he died way too young, Bundini lived an extraordinary life. As the confidant and alter ego of one of the most important figures of the last half of the 20th century, he had a front row seat to some of the biggest sporting, cultural and political events in American history.

And he was from Sanford. 😉