Muhammad Ali tottered with help into Countryside Christian Church and sat down in the front row not 15 feet from the casket of his cornerman. • Angelo Dundee, Ali's longtime trainer, died at 90 last week in an assisted-living facility in Palm Harbor, and Ali, the best boxer ever and one of the most famous people on the planet, traveled in spite of his debilitating Parkinson's to be at the memorial service on Friday.
"We come together," pastor Steve King said, "to celebrate his life, yes?"
"Yes," about 1,000 people said softly.
Dundee was boxing's best trainer at boxing's best time. His particular expertise within the brutal craft combined the roles of mentor, father, physical therapist, sports psychologist, motivational speaker and on-call doctor. He gleaned his savvy over the course of six decades spent in grubby, rickety, working man's gyms, from his native South Philly to New York City to Miami Beach. He was known for his steady head within the sweaty fury of his chosen sport.
He turned punchers into boxers and boxers into champions and champions into icons.
On his way from "bucket boy" apprentice to a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he trained 15 fighters who won world titles, including Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman and, of course, Ali.
Ali liked to tell people he was the best there ever was. He often also said the same about Dundee.
On Friday, organized around the closed casket, there were flowers from people ranging from Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer to Hollywood director Ron Howard. There were oil paintings. Dundee with Leonard. Dundee with Ali. There was a pair of red boxing gloves set up on a stool on a stage.
In the crowd: son Jim Dundee, the Belleair Bluffs optician, and daughter Terri Dundee Coughlin; Howard Bingham, the veteran Ali photographer; and boxers David Estrada, Pinklon Thomas and Orlando's Antonio Tarver. Leonard didn't come. Neither did Foreman.
Men who fought hugged each other tight.
"There will never be a cornerman, ever, I think, like Angelo Dundee," said boxing promoter Bob Arum, one of a handful of the speakers at the service.
Said friend Mel Dick: "I truly believe God took extra pains and extra time when he created Angelo Dundee."
Said local sports radio talk-show host Ian Beckles: "You can't call too many men sweet, but Angelo Dundee was a sweet man."
Said Lonnie Ali, the wife of the champ: "I will always think about how wonderful he was, how giving he was, and to the end how much he loved Muhammad."
"Dad," added his son, "would be p- - -ed he's not here."
The things Dundee said to his fighters have universal worth and are now part of his legacy.
"It doesn't cost nothin' to be nice."
He married a model named Helen Marone and was with her for 58 years. She died some 13 months ago. This weekend would have been their 60th anniversary. "My greatest fighter," he once called her.
Last month, he went to Ali's 70th birthday party in Louisville, Ky., and got a blood clot when he got back. The end for a man who lived nine decades usually isn't considered a surprise. This was.
Ali arrived shortly before the service, thin-necked and hunched over, in a dapper black suit with dowdy black sneakers, aided by his wife, her sister and some other members of a small entourage. He sat still and mostly expressionless and listened to the pastor and the speakers.
Toward the end, people stood for a moment of silence, and 10 slow rings of a boxing bell, then Ali shuffled away before much of a curious scrum could form, out the same side door through which he had entered.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.