For all the righteous and rightful media on the death of Muhammad Ali, there has been hardly a word about Drew “Bundini” Brown. Okay, I know, he was just an assistant trainer and not a major figure in Ali’s eventful and furious odyssey. But according to Ali, Brown was a great motivator, an inspirational corner man and an indispensable foil in the fighter’s public antics.
In “King of the World,” author David Remnick captures the moment when Brown and Ali met and forged their relationship. One day, Remnick wrote, Brown arrived at Ali’s hotel room. This meeting must have been in 1963, when Ali was still Cassius Marcellus Clay. He reproached the fighter for predicting the round in which he would knock out his opponent. Brown told him he had never heard of anybody predicting the ends of his fights. “Tell me the truth,” Brown insisted. Ali answered, “You know what the truth is? The truth is, every time I go into the ring I’m scared to death.”
Brown cried when he heard this admission. “I knew Shorty was with you,” he said, referring to God. Ali told him, “Now that’s a fact that only you and me know.”
Over the course of their years together, Brown would learn countless facts, a long list of private matters they shared as they plotted victories and joked with each other. He was Ali’s prime motivator, his court jester, his ring adviser and comedy partner.
Born Drew Brown March 21, 1928, in Midway, Fla., he was allegedly on his own and paying his own rent at the age of 10. On more than one occasion he told reporters that he was 13 when he joined the Navy as a mess boy. Given Brown’s tendency to elaborate—and sometimes prevaricate—we have to take his accounts with a grain of salt, though the basic truth is at the core. For example, rather than the Navy he may have been in the Merchant Marine, according to at least one biography. It was never explained how and why he got the nickname Bundini.
A worldly wise man with a gift of gab, Brown spent many years around boxers before he joined Ali’s camp, including nearly a decade traveling with Sugar Ray Robinson. In Ali’s autobiography, there’s a scene in which Brown recounts an incident when he is apparently sleeping in bed with Robinson, at the behest of the fighter’s wife. Again, don’t put away the salt shaker.
There may be some credence to Ali’s fear factor and the remedy of spouting or screaming at an opponent. At the weigh-in for Ali’s fight against Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Hall, Ali arrived wearing a blue denim jacket with the words “Bear Huntin” embroidered on it in red. As folks slowly arrived for the ceremony, Brown and Ali began to exorcise the demons of fear with the chant “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”
The two of them cavorted like this right into the press conference, upsetting trainer Angelo Dundee, Robinson, and other attendees in Ali’s entourage. Their behavior also unsettled Liston who didn’t know what to make of the yelling and Ali’s attempts to unsettle him.
Brown and Ali would employ similar tactics in future bouts, which, according to several pundits, helped calm Ali down and give him the confidence he needed to take on his adversary.
Brown is given credit for creating the chant, to which different endings were added depending on the match and the opponent. In the documentary “When We Were Kings,” the two can be seen trading riffs on the expression in preparation for the fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.
Although, the relationship between the two was smooth for the most part, there were some rough moments. Once, while they were traveling through Sanford, Fla., Brown’s hometown, the trainer thought he had a free pass on Jim Crow laws. He was wrong. After he was told to go to the back door of the restaurant, Ali taunted him, called him “Jackie Robinson” and an “Uncle Tom” for trying to integrate the restaurant. For several minutes he berated and ridiculed Brown, even hitting him with a pillow. Several hours later they were back on good terms.
In an earlier incident, Ali chastised Brown as they prepared for the rematch against Liston in Maine. Apparently Brown was in his Holiday Inn room playing with his gun when it went off. The shot sent a shock wave through the hotel because of the concern they had about possible attacks on them from white hate groups. Ali chewed Brown out unmercifully, but later they were again mugging and chatting.
Another dispute between them resulted from Ali’s concern about Brown’s drinking habit and his preference for white women. (Later Brown would marry a white Jewish woman named Rhoda Palestine). Moreover, Brown was in trouble with Ali after admitting that he had pawned Ali’s championship belt. He would not return to Ali’s corner until after Ali had served his suspension in 1971. From that date until Ali’s final fight with Trevor Berbick, Brown would be ringside and elsewhere with his friend.
Having earned a reputation as an entertainer, Brown was sought out as an actor. He appeared in several films, including “Shaft” and “The Color Purple.” He appeared in three documentaries, and Jamie Foxx portrayed him in the film “Ali.”
His son, Drew Brown III, distinguished himself as a Navy pilot and authored a bestseller, “You Gotta Believe.”
At one point Brown was seriously injured in a car accident. A pinched nerve to his spine caused him great discomfort and a subsequent fall at home exacerbated a condition from which he never fully recovered.
In 1987, he was hospitalized in Los Angeles, where he was visited by Ali. He died September 24, 1987. Brown was 57 or 59.