Q&A With Author Todd Snyder

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A Talk with Todd D. Snyder, Author of Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype

You could have written a biography of anyone. Why focus on Drew “Bundini” Brown? Boxing and hip-hop are the two loves of my life. Drew Bundini Brown, in some respects, has a place in both worlds. As a hip-hop scholar, one who was raised by a father who moonlighted as a boxing trainer, I have long recognized Bundini’s contribution to both sports and popular culture. He trained the great Sugar Ray Robinson for seven years. He worked with Muhammad Ali for over two decades, serving as the chief motivator for all of Ali’s important fights. Aside from boxing, Bundini acted in films by iconic filmmakers such as Gordon Parks and Stephen Spielberg. He was friends with literary giants such as James Baldwin and George Plimpton. For any writer, Bundini is an ideal subject. You couldn’t invent a Bundini if you tried. He lived an amazing American life. He was a true American original, an enigmatic figure to say the least.

How did he get the nickname “Bundini?” In 1942, at thirteen years old, Bundini lied about his age and signed up for duty at Naval Air Sanford in Florida. He was raised amid poor conditions in the Jim Crow south and was looking for his ticket out of those circumstances. As a naval steward, Bundini was part of active duty in the Pacific Islands. At one point during his tour of duty, his ship experienced a mechanical malfunction and was stationed at a port in India. Legend has it, as the ship pulled away, a group of girls hollered, “Bundini, Bundini, Bundini …” Brown told his son the word meant “lover.” A few commanding officers overhead the exchange and took to teasing him. For the rest of his time in the Navy, he was Bundini Brown.

How did Bundini come to be affiliated with Sugar Ray Robinson? After being kicked out of the Navy, due to an incident where he allegedly attacked an officer who used a racial slur, Bundini began a career with the Merchant Marines. This experience took the young country boy around the world. Eventually, Brown followed his comrade, Norman Henry, to Harlem. In many ways, it was a case of being at the right place at the right time. Bundini found an apartment in the same neighborhood as the newly renovated real estate purchased by Sugar Ray Robinson. Bundini was a frequent customer at Sugar Ray’s Golden Gloves Barber Shop, where he first met former welterweight champion Johnny “Honey Boy” Bratton. After working with Bratton in the gym, he was eventually introduced to Sugar Ray Robinson, who instantly took a liking to him.

How did Bundini come to join forces with Muhammad Ali, and what was their relationship like? Sugar Ray Robinson was one of Muhammad Ali’s boxing idols. In 1964, Robinson attended Ali’s first fight at Madison Square Garden (a bout with Doug Jones). Robinson’s brother-in-law introduced Bundini to Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, before the fight. “I finally found someone that can out-talk you,” he told Ali. In a famous exchange, Bundini accused Ali of being a “phony.” Ali was, at the time, famous for predicting the rounds in which he would knock out his opponents. By the end of the argument, a humorous back-and-forth, the two became friends. When Ali was given his shot at the seemingly unbeatable heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, a few fights later, Robinson advised Ali to bring Bundini with him to training camp. It was during this time that Bundini coined the famous phrase, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

One of the exciting aspects of this research was tracing the ups and downs of Bundini’s relationship with Ali. Bundini’s lifestyle was, in many ways, in direct opposition to the commandments of the Nation of Islam. In the early 1950s, Bundini married Rhoda Palestine, a white woman from an orthodox Jewish family from Brighton Beach, New York. Together, they had a bicultural son, Drew Brown III. This, at first, did not sit well with members of the Nation of Islam, who saw Ali as a symbol of their values. Bundini was, as has been well documented, a heavy drinker and a bit of a free thinker. He was quick to challenge Ali on the teachings of the Nation. This resulted in several temporary suspensions throughout their tenure together.

Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the Champ’s second wife, probably said it best. The two men were best buddies, “Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.”

In your book, you refer to Bundini as Ali’s “hype man.” Can you tell us what you mean by that? I’m not using the term “hype man” in the pejorative sense. Over the years, the term “hype man” has adopted several competing definitions, some with negative connotations. Bundini was not a leech or a so-called Yes Man. In fact, he was the direct opposite. Hip-hop scholars recognize the importance of the term “hype man.” This a supportive role in a headlining artist’s performance. A hype man has the duty of managing the crowd’s energy, as well as that of the headliner. I use the term because Bundini was not a boxing trainer in the traditional sense. His medium existed in the realm of energy and spirit. His job was to motivate the champion during training and in between rounds. Anyone who has ever boxed understands the importance of that role.

How did the famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” phrase come to be adopted by Ali? Bundini came up with the phrase while Ali was doing roadwork for the first Liston fight. He was talking to God, asking what the soon-to-be-champion’s nickname should be. And, as legend has it, the famous line instantly came to him. Ali’s poetic sensibilities were, of course, taken to new heights when Bundini joined his team. Bundini thought of himself as a street philosopher and poet.

What role did Judaism come to play in Bundini’s life? Bundini never officially converted to Judaism. Yet he was married to a Jewish woman for a period of time and had a son who was raised Jewish. Drew Brown III was given a Bar Mitzvah and even spent time at a Kibbutz in Israel. Bundini did, however, wear a star of David necklace around his neck as he worked in Muhammad Ali’s corner. I think readers will be surprised to find Bundini was a very spiritual man. Talking about God was his favorite thing to do. He enjoyed religious services, regardless of the religion or denomination.

What kind of a father was Bundini? This, in my opinion, might be one of the biggest surprises in the book. Bundini was a proud father. His son was a college basketball player and first-generation college graduate. After college, Drew Brown III went on to become a Navy jet pilot and later a pilot for FedEx. Bundini’s relationship with his son was fascinating to me.

In addition to his role in the sports world, Bundini dabbled in the arts. What should we know about his creative life? Bundini was a featured actor in six Hollywood movies. His most notable role came in the Blaxploitation franchise Shaft. He played Shaft’s adversary, and sometimes friend, Willy. Bundini also attempted to publish a book on his motivational philosophies. With the help of his wife Rhoda, Bundini wrote plays, poems, and even attempted a novel.

Were Bundini and Ali still close at the time of Bundini’s death? Yes. At the time of Bundini’s death, he and Ali were both living in Los Angeles. Ali was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s Disease and Bundini’s drinking problem was beginning to catch up with him. Despite all that was happening in the lives of both men, the two stuck together.

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