Put a headdress and beads on Bundini and you’d have a witch doctor. And I don’t mean that in any negative sense. There’s good witch doctors, you know… — Chris Dundee
Drew “Bundini” Brown is the greatest hype man in boxing history. No one else comes close. I can watch the end of the “Rumble in the Jungle” twenty times more and still get chills, in particular because of Bundini, wrestling his way to Ali, hailing him through tears of joy.
He got the name “Bundini” in the Navy when he was leaving the port of Beirut and a Lebanese family, whose daughter he’d taken up with, and who loved him too, called out the word from the dock as the ship pulled away (he’d always pronounce it “Bodini,” as did Ali). He settled in Harlem after his discharge and struck up a friendship with a local fighter named Johnny Bratton, and worked the counter at a friend’s place called Shelton’s Rib House. Shelton’s was two doors down from Ray Robinson’s bar, “Sugar Ray’s.”
Ray entered Shelton’s one night and paid an old woman’s bill. “Champ, they’ll be falling in the ring,” Bundini said, “and you won’t know why they falling.” Ray replied, “You’re a strange n*****, Bundini, very strange.” “From then on,” Bundini said, “I was not one among many to him, I was just me.” Robinson later asked him to go to training camp.
After seven years with Robinson, Brown joined Ali before his 1963 fight with Doug Jones. He’d met the young champion through Ray’s brother-in-law. “I saw Muhammad reciting poetry on television in Greenwich Village—that was no way to train for a fight,” Ray said. “The next day I told Muhammad he needed somebody to watch over him, somebody to keep him happy and relaxed. I had just the guy for him. His name was Drew Brown, but he called himself ‘Bundini.’”
Bundini’s time with Ali is well known to many boxing fans. Except for a brief exile instigated by the Nation of Islam—in part because of his fondness for white women and liquor—he remained in Ali’s corner throughout his career. Standing tall by the ring apron, sporting his singular landing-strip bald spot, holding up his fingers in the “V-for-Victory” sign, he’d call out over the crowd, “Float, champ, float,” and “Cook, champ, cook,” and of course, “Rumble, young man, rumble.”
Boxing is like jazz and hip-hop—improvised art never repeated the same way—but it’s more like hip-hop. The patter, the swagger, its urban core. The parallels run deep, and run straight back to Ali. “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,” Chuck D said in an interview last year. “His boldness is hip-hop. It’s like he was saying, ‘First and foremost, I’m gonna overshadow everything in my path so that you won’t forget me ever. And I’m gonna throw some rhyme on top of it.’ It’s total hip-hop.”
And if Ali is hip-hop, so is Bundini. The street philosopher-poet at once the hype man and the emcee. Author of “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Ubiquitous in the gym and at press conferences, amping up his man, and then holding court himself, delighting reporters and whoever else with his unrivaled jive and total dedication to Ali. This footage from the “Thrilla in Manila” press conference captures him at his best:
The bond between the two men is unmistakable. Bundini’s hands on Ali’s shoulders while Ali works himself into his wrestling-promo mode. Bundini standing right behind him as Ali trades barbs with Frazier. “Didn’t beat nobody for it,” Bundini says flatly, “Didn’t beat nobody for it.” Finally, Ali breaks down laughing, falls out, and then it’s Bundini versus Frazier. “He’s like a seagull,” says Frazier, his voice barely audible. Bundini looms and repeats, “Didn’t beat nobody for it.” Joe mocks Bundini’s blue leisure suit. Ali jumps back in and mocks Frazier’s suspenders. “You can take the boy out the country,” Bundini says, “but you can’t take the country out the boy.” “We didn’t know you was a geechee. We didn’t know you was a geechee,” he adds, “A geechee is stubborn ain’tcha… That’s why we’re gonna have to knock you out. We know you a geechee now.” Toward the end, Bundini erupts. Ali says, “Keep talking, you got him going.”
Bundini’s charisma was rare. Make no mistake, Ali was the star, the king presiding over his court, according to the worn metaphor writers use to describe the people that surround elite boxers, and especially ones like Ali. Ray Robinson, who apparently brought the word entourage back from Europe, had thirteen in his, including a midget, a golf instructor, and a barber. But Bundini was much more than a court jester, or a valet, or any other type of hanger-on. This is especially true if you look at some “hype men” we’ve seen in boxing recently. Floyd Mayweather walked to the ring by Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and Triple H. Floyd hiring an absurd hustler called “Hypeman Repo Ric” for motivation at one point—apparently. Other fighters like Danny Garcia or Robert Guerrero relying on half-crazy fathers to get them going. I could continue.
People talk about today’s boxers not measuring up to yesterday’s, and that may be true. One thing is certain, though. There won’t be another Ali. And never another Ray Robinson. And the man both men had in common, Drew “Bundini” Brown? There probably won’t be another like him, either.