Requiem for a Heavyweight

For 60 years Chris Dundee was a boxing mastermind. Last month he was laid to rest.

Chris Dundee's death on November 16 was not a surprise, but it was an event that his family, friends, and admirers fervently wished could have been postponed. Boxing professionals revered Dundee as a symbol of an era they had mourned for years: the sport's best days, when they caught its incurable virus.

Dundee's career as a manager and promoter lasted six decades. Even before he died at age 91, he had become a genuine legend in the boxing world, especially in Miami and throughout the South, where he worked for forty years. Boxing historian Hank Kaplan recalls: "You might say nobody could run a boxing show almost anywhere in the South without him."

About 200 mourners packed a flower-bedecked, softly lit chapel in West Dade for Dundee's November 20 funeral. A sympathetic Protestant preacher, who admitted that he knew nothing about boxing or Dundee, led a group reading of the 23rd Psalm that ended: "and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many years to come." A closed coffin at the front of the chapel was flanked on the right by two large display boards covered with photographs and other mementos. His body was later cremated.

One of four older brothers of famed trainer Angelo Dundee, Chris was often described as the last of a breed of fast-talking, hard-working hustlers whose first love was putting on a show. He promoted more than 1000 matches, mostly untelevised club bouts. He also made careers and managed world champions. Dundee was principal among the colorful characters who presided over the Beach's storied Fifth Street Gym. (For several years he also owned the establishment, which was razed in 1993).

Dundee worked until a 1990 stroke left him unable to speak or walk. By then Miami's fight scene and the shrinking boxing industry had become unrecognizable; television was making life almost impossible for the local boxing circuit and for boxers who didn't have big financial backing. Chris Dundee had become part of boxing lore.

There were few celebrities at his funeral other than Angelo, of course, who continues to train promising fighters at his shiny new gym in Hollywood; and analyst/ringside physician "fight doctor" Ferdie Pacheco. Also in attendance were former world champ cruiserweights Uriah Grant, whom Dundee managed for several years, and Robert "Little Joe" Daniels.

But most who gathered to remember Dundee were lesser-known actors in his grand productions. The crowd included many gum-chewing men wearing heavy gold chains that nested in their chest hairs. There were also mourners who quit the business years ago, but never stopped visiting Dundee.

Frank Otero of Hialeah, a former junior lightweight champion and local hero during the Sixties and Seventies, credits Dundee for his professional boxing success. Though Otero has worked in real estate for more than a decade, he hasn't managed to leave boxing altogether, occasionally venturing into promotion and management. He, like dozens of his former associates, continues to speak of Dundee as though he were still around, making deals.

Bernard "Macho" Barker attended the funeral in a guayabera; he may be best known as one of the Miami Cubans who broke into the Watergate Hotel in 1972, touching off the scandal that eventually sank Richard Nixon. But that came after a stint as a World War II hero and a career with the CIA. Barker also managed the great Cuban lightweight Douglas Vaillant, who appeared in bouts promoted by Dundee.

Ramiro Ortiz was there because Dundee had been one of his heros ever since he was a kid hanging out at the Fifth Street Gym. "Chris was the glue that held it all together," Ortiz declared. Ortiz was an aspiring pugilist in the Sixties who also tried his hand as a promoter. Then he got a real job and became president of SunBank. After the service he stood at the back of the chapel among a half-dozen men who were talking about fighters and fights and remembering Chris Dundee's influence.

"Being that this is Chris's last public gathering, we should charge admission -- he would want that," joked ex-matchmaker/manager Enrique Encinosa to a grinning Tommy Torino, a Miami-based promoter and Dundee disciple.

Advertising executive Murray Gaby wore a gray business suit, but a slightly flattened nose and tiny scars around his eyes belied his past as an undefeated middleweight. Gaby fought under the name Marty Kaplan in the Sixties and subsequently launched a sterling managerial career. Among his fighters was Cuban heavyweight Jose "Nino" Ribalta, best known for his resilience during a brutal beating by Mike Tyson in 1986. Gaby managed Ribalta for his first 21 professional fights. After the Cuban found another manager, Gaby reluctantly opted for the relative security of the advertising business. He also became a widely praised sculptor. "I haven't been around [boxing] for nine years now," he mused. "When Chris got sick, and when Chris wasn't around, it wasn't the same."

kathy_glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

 
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