Chris Dundee walks his dog Red Top every morning, down to the country club and around the block and back home again. Some days they'll turn off on roads neither has traveled before, just for a diversion, but Red Top always leads him back to 2031 North Bay Road. Red Top is pretty smart for a dog only four years in this world. They'll walk for an hour and not say a word, but communicate just the same.
"Red Top's my best friend," Dundee likes to say. "He takes me, I don't take him. You'd be surprised, a little thing like him, how he pulls you. You have no idea!"
One thing about Dundee, you'll never catch him talking to a little Yorkshire terrier the way he does a human being. Miami Beach is sad that way. All the old people, sitting in clover-back lawn chairs on the porches of rent-a-week hotels, tapping their canes on the macadam, they'll give a stray cur their life story in a minute and wait for a reply. Dundee won't even give you his age.
"Too many sick people out here living in the past," he says with a huff. "How much of yesterday does anybody need? I say not much. When I first got here, there was no air conditioning in this town. Look how far we've come."
Dundee is plenty busy these days, constantly hustling a fight or putting together a wrestling card for the Miami Convention Center. He says he's now a "boxer's representative," but what he does is book fighters for British promoter Frank Warren. In the old days, Dundee ran the boxing show in Miami Beach, a show that withered and died with the emergence of Las Vegas and Atlantic City as great fight towns, casino towns, made for the action. Dundee once stood tallest in the cool dusty glow of neons, first with the glad hand, clear of the see-gar smoke, and there was a brawl with his name behind it every Tuesday night.
He promoted the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston heavyweight title bout in Miami Beach in 1964, and his name made the fight card, stripped across the top in bright red letters. It also made the nation's sports pages, next to Jake LaMotta and Joe Louis, Midget Wolgast and Kid Gavilan. You saw him toasting glory at the Cotton Club in New York with Ken Overlin, the tough middleweight champion, watching the pretty ladies sing and dance on a gilded stage. Or in Cuba, in the years before Castro came into power, hanging out at a Havana bistro or piano bar, surrounded by the best of the fight game, with people, he'll tell you, who are "dead and soon forgotten."
So every day before noon, out of loyalty to a dear memory, and because he can't break the habit, Dundee goes down to the Fifth Street Gym in lower Miami Beach, which he opened back in 1951, and sits on one of the old red velvet chairs along the wall that takes the morning sun. He lets Red Top sit next to him and delights in the dog's unwavering interest. Even with the riot of sirens out in the streets, Red Top watches the fighters bump and spin across the ring as if he were preparing to take score. "A little thing like him," Dundee says, "with a little brain. But you'd be surprised how intelligent he is. You have no idea!"
When the action slows, Dundee lends an ear to the verbal peregrinations of Dr. Cool, the fellow who took over the gym when Dundee sold out three years ago. And he swaps stories with Beau Jack, the former lightweight champion from Georgia who walks around with a wipe rag in his back pocket and shoe polish under his nails. Beau Jack wears a camouflage cap with Aries stenciled across the crown, as if he figures the future's easy, written up for him every day in the local paper, back in the astrology chart.
"You needin' a shine, Mr. Chris?"
"How're you doing, Beau Jack? You're looking good."
"Feelin' good, Mr. Chris. But you needin' a shine."
It's been this way forever, seems like. Every road leads to the gym, and rightly so. For better or worse, a different set of rules applies here. One says a man like Chris Dundee cannot get lowdown over a man like Beau Jack, even knowing what he ended up doing with his life. Beau Jack made it all the way to the Boxing Hall of Fame, was inducted in 1972. But you can talk to him most any time at the Konover Hotel here, where he shines shoes in the lobby, whistling, waiting for the paper to come out and tell him what to look for tomorrow.
Beau Jack's manager once said, "The kid loves to fight. If he didn't get no pay for it, he'd still wanna fight just to relieve the monotony."
But Dundee knew better. "One thing I'm not is a fool," he said, and took Beau Jack, now 63, and 29 others to the DiLido Hotel for dinner on Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Both times, he picked up the tab and said, "No problem," and paid for it all, paid for a little happiness on days that might have gone bad.
Moe Fleischer was there. "If Chris Dundee had a buck in his pocket," he said, "he'd ask you out to dinner." And old Sell-Out Moe, who's going on 84 and lives in a hotel room, said it was crazy to think they used to say, "Chris Dundee throws nickels around like they were manhole covers."
Dundee never forgot the people he loved. And he loved a lot of people. When Fleischer's wife died, Dundee called him in New York and invited him down. "You won't make a mistake coming," Dundee told him, but Fleischer was sick with loneliness. He'd given up his work as a fight promoter and spent his days sulking, talking about what was, what went away, why.
"I missed my wife," Fleischer said the other day. "I was depressed, disgusted with everything and everybody. Then Chris brought me here, and he gave me a new life. It took three trips to convince me, but he gave me 10 more years. And I love him for it."
In 1975, Dundee withstood 36 cobalt treatments for throat cancer. Maybe endured is a better word. Dundee endured trips to the hospital that would have broken the heart of a weaker man, put him six feet deep and with a gravestone that read, He died a hard death, trying. But Dundee lived, and with a throat like an open sore. He lived long enough to hate talking about age, and now he speaks in a gutteral whisper that comes only with great difficulty. Every word sounds as if summoned from the ugly pit of pain, and it turns your flesh in a pimply rush.
"You have a cold?" a stranger asked him one day, a stranger with bad good sense. "Why do you talk that way anyway? You sick or something?"
"It was cancer, it wasn't no cold."
"You had cancer?"
Dundee nodded, that tight skull pinched even tighter, his eyes drawing wide. You could see his lips lined purple, and there was a trembling of the jaw, like a fighter after he's been hit and slammed against a canvas floor. "If the cobalt hadn't worked they were going to cut me," he told the man. "I was scared. You know what I did? I thought about my brother Joe, dead. Cancer killed him. I thought about my brother Jimmy, dead. Cancer killed him. When somebody dies in America, they stick a name on him. Cancer."
One brother, Angelo, lives in Miami and has a big office in a bank building. He enjoyed many seasons of fame working with world champions such as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, and he's made big money, driving a four-door BMW and wearing fancy rings and a thin gold chain around his neck. Another brother, Frankie, lives in New Jersey, "somewhere out there," Chris says, shrugging at the distance that has drawn them apart.
Born Cristofo Mirena, Dundee grew up in South Philadelphia and dropped out of grade school to work as a butcher boy, peddling saltwater taffy and playing cards and newspapers on the Reading Railroad. "I'd come home and there was no food on the table. Who went to school? The Depression was too mean."
His brother Joe started fighting at Jimmy Coster's gym at 11th and Annin streets, and Chris carried his bags and learned how to massage and work a corner. Their old man thought all fighters belonged in some rotten pool hall or bowling alley, enjoying the slow death of the soul. They were all bums, he told the boys. But Joe was hauling ashes for a living, and who could doubt he needed a release from such a dismal travail?
Chris took to calling his brother "The Fighting Ashman," sometime after Joe decided to change his name to Dundee, after Johnny Dundee, the former world featherweight champion. "The name Dundee meant something in boxing," Chris said later. "Nobody knew any Mirenas, but Dundee was big. Joe never changed his name legally. Only Angelo and me bothered to do that. I never really knew if it bothered Papa, what we did. He wouldn't really know, I don't think, that his sons gave up their name. He was from Italy, an immigrant, you know, and he couldn't stop thinking about his old home and going back. A thing like a name wouldn't hurt him. Not with all he was thinking."
There is a picture of Angelo Mirena Sr. in Dundee's office, lost somewhere in the preponderance of sepia-toned images that crowd the paneled walls. Dundee looks at the picture on occasion and comments, There is Papa, and accepts him as well as his memory allows, clearer than a photograph could ever tell, robust and smiling and even breathing, with a smell all his own. There is Papa, standing there, stuck in a picture.
He looks at another photo, on a wall in a back room crowded with cardboard boxes and paper bags stuffed with old magazines: There is Georgie Abrams, a Washington, D.C., fighter, after the first fight he ever lost. He got so sick with losing, he was miserable, he couldn't stand it.
And there is Pete Herman, who went blind. Pete was the bantamweight champion of the world, a fine fellow, and all of us are out at a club on Broadway. And somebody came up with a camera, and took a picture. And Pete kept saying, 'You'll get over it, Georgie. Everybody's got to lose. You'll get over it . . .' But Georgie never got over it. Georgie hated to lose. And Pete lived in the darkness. Blind.
And another, slightly askew, straightening it, then swallowing and allowing his eyes to draw widely apart again, begging for light. He bends closely to bring a sharper focus to the picture, which is very large and framed modestly, in black plastic: All these people are dead. All but me, Chris Dundee. The referee's dead, the trainers are dead. That was May 23, 1940, Madison Square Garden, a great night. And now Ceferino Garcia's dead, a tough fighter who lost to Ken Overlin, who was my boy. And who is also dead.
I found him on a ship docked for repairs at Norfolk, Va., in the 1930s. I promised him I'd make him a champion and they found him one morning in a room. In Revo, Nev., I think. He'd gotten to be a bad drinker. It's a shame what can happen to a man's life. He became a champion, anyway, a champion of the world. Then he turned up dead like nothing ever counted.
They buried Overlin in a potter's field. He had been a taxi driver, confused by too much drink. And maybe there had been too much for one fighting man to live up to. So Chris Dundee had his body disintered and reburied in a better plot of ground. That's the story his friends tell in Miami Beach. They say Dundee had a nice stone placed at the head of the grave. Overlin was a champion, after all, and Dundee his manager. Here is another rule that applies: You look out for your own till the end.
And in the middle, too. And always in the beginning.
There is another story, one about the break Chris gave Angelo. Chris had an office at 80th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City, right across from the old Garden in the old Capitol Hotel, when Angelo joined the burgeoning operation. Angelo slept in the office at night, on a settee hardly big enough to accommodate a poodle.
"Chris was always making something out of nothing," Angelo said. "He was the master promoter, always a step up on the game . . . Always looking to help people the best he could."
You get a picture of the old man who is Chris Dundee, and he is walking across a field in the hard bristly dark, walking just a step behind a little red dog who seems to be saying: We are going no place in particular, for there is no place in particular to go. But they are friends, these two, content with each other and happily obligated to live this day in middle December 1984, to endure the 80-degree heat and the humidity.
The picture you see shows the old man and his dog walking away from the rows of flocked evergreens standing in windows on the streets of the city. They are walking faster now and do not seem to hear the old people on the porches of Collins Avenue, talking about the winter they vacationed in Florida, on Miami Beach, as if it were a place they visited long ago or read about once in the pages of a travel magazine.
Chris Dundee is walking away from all this. He is walking his dog, and they are talking without saying a word.