At the court of a King, and Muhammad Ali is nothing less than a king, there must always be a licensed fool : a Jester ; someone who while embodying the spirit of anarchy and ridicule also knows, to preserve their life and position, when to bow the knee and when to sing the praises of their liege. A Jester, someone who is by nature a rule breaker, has to push the boundaries of taste, manners and position but not forget that there are boundaries – which sooner or later must be enforced to preserve the system as a whole.
Drew Brown, universally known as, ‘Bundini’, occupied this role for the Greatest with festive wit, finesse and wholehearted distinction from the days of youthful glory in 1963 through the ensuing stratospheric ascent, the triumphs, the comebacks and comedowns down to the last unutterably poignant fight with Trevor Berbick in 1981. Despite a five year exile from the court for flagrantly ignoring the Nation of Islam morality which held firm sway in the camp in the mid and late 1960s he emerges from all the reputable histories as a key figure in Ali’s court.
He was born in 1928 and spent his youth in Florida before, barely into his teens, joining first the US Navy and then the merchant marine. He roamed the globe and learned how to look out for himself, how to drink (he loved to drink and went on shore leave binges throughout his life) and how to mock and outmanoeuvre authority. He was a tough street poet and philosopher who figured out that God was best thought of as, ‘Shorty’ – the guy you might disregard but who knew everything about you and who you would have to reckon with some sweet day.
He shared a generous love of live and humanity, energy, ego and quick witted humour with his master. They had a deep bond and recognised the distinction in the other. Bundini was usually aware that while his own talents were far from negligible, with their skilful use an important element in preparing Ali for each battle, they were as different in scale and impact to the world at large as moonlight is to sunlight. From time to time he fell into the Jester’s trap of overestimating his own importance but an actual or metaphorical cuff around the ear soon cured that. A king may be teased but not taunted.
In partnership they lit up the world as supreme patter merchants and travelling players who performed with as much brio to an audience of one as they did to the TV audience of millions. Throughout Ali’s career they put on a kind of peripatetic medicine show selling and demonstrating a genuine elixir of life which bottled a 100 per cent proof mixture of drama, excitement, passion, skill and wonder. Together their act was eyebrow raising, heart lifting, spirit surging, smile inducing, head shakingly outrageous and entirely wonderful.
No Don Draper, million dollar Madison Avenue advertising team, could have devised more successful promotional campaigns than those devised off the cuff by Bundini and Ali. Bundini was there with the net and the honey when they marched outside Sonny Liston’s house when angling for the first title fight. He was there, boosting the hysteria at the weigh in for that fight, as they yelled over and over the immortal lines, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – Rumble young man rumble!’. Poor Sonny thought he was dealing with lunatics and got his mind thoroughly messed up.
Bundini was there to echo and amplify Ali’s preachers calls and to spur him to greater flights of oratory to win the audience for their cause. He was in the corner for the fights and while it was properly Angelo Dundee who set the strategy and was in command of the back up team it was Bundini’s voice you could hear clearest amid the maelstrom, ‘Dance Champ, Dance!’ ‘End the Show, End the Show!’.
Bundini lived every moment of every round: delighting in the Champ’s jabs and feints and the audacious brilliance of his combinations while wincing when he was tagged by his opponents. It was Bundini, in the dawning early morning light, who could risk the wrath of the sleeping giant and cajole Ali to put on the track suit and pound the roads – putting the endurance into those dancing legs. Bundini through his own largeness of life could charge Ali’s batteries. A King and his Jester who last beyond initial mirth and diversion must come to see each other in their common humanity and as they do so their bond deepens beyond place and fealty into what can only be described as love.
Bundini was the first of the original court to pass from this realm in 1987. Ali knew that he had lost a faithful friend – someone who had helped create the legend and the myths, someone who knew the price paid in sweat and pain as well as the glow of triumph on the summits.
He also knew that Allah, or call him Shorty, would be royally entertained by the tales only a Jester of genius like Bundini could tell.
Footnote: There are two further Muhammad Ali posts on the Jukebox – on his first title victory and his first Pro fight – Check them out!