FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. NOT SO LONG ago, boxing had a happy home, a place to call its own.
It was Miami Beach, the South Beach of Gleason and Godfrey and the Auditorium and the Fontainebleau. Of Clay and Liston and the 5th Street Gym. Of Ollie Burgers before the fights, coffee and drinks after.
It was the Miami Beach of trainer Angelo Dundee and his circle of champions, present and future. And it was the Miami Beach of promoter Chris Dundee and his formidable stable of fighters -- once a thousand deep, some old-timers say.
"When the last bout of the night was over, the announcer would climb in the ring and announce next week's card, and you listened, because you knew you'd be there," says trainer Larry Kent, whose list of devotees included Sugar Ray Robinson. "Twenty-five years ago, there was a show every week. No matter what came up, you'd say, 'Sorry, that's my boxing night.'
"Where would football or baseball be if they put it on once a month? That's the secret to sports. Every week, it has to be there. Just plain common sense, really. Chris Dundee understood that."
To promote fights in the Miami Beach of the '50s and '60s was a wonderful life, like Rick slinging gin in wartime Morocco or George Bailey happily granting unsecured home loans in Bedford Falls.
For greatness, a locale was needed, a special town that offered the eternal devotion of its citizens.
Chris Dundee understood.
For that, he was undisputed king, commander of all things boxing on the long island of big bands and warm breezes.
"Without doubt," Kent says of Chris Dundee, "he is the greatest promoter in history."
Today, Chris Dundee is 83 and can no longer walk, largely confined to his Miami Beach home of 40 years.
He is looked after by his younger brother Angelo, a unique force who has maintained his gentle ways despite a life in the ring.
Chris Dundee battled throat cancer for a decade, even beat it 12 years ago. His voice raspy but health revived, Dundee climbed back to the top, promoting everything he could find.
He promoted professional wrestling and boxing matches on a barge. Even combined the two and put wrestlers on a barge. That idea sank when Dusty Rhodes, who couldn't swim, had to be fished out of Biscayne Bay.
Then the comeback was stopped, suddenly and decisively, 11 months ago.
It was a Sunday, late January. Chris Dundee had spent the day promoting bouts only three days away. The fights, set for the Diplomat in Hollywood, were to benefit striking Eastern Airlines employees.
As always, Dundee worked tirelessly to ensure a successful fight night. It nearly cost him his life.
"My brother Chris was a hustler of the highest order," says Angelo, 15 years younger. "He got this stroke from hustling. He spent the day at Bayside, walking the picket lines with Eastern workers, and was on his way to a dinner engagement on Miami Beach. The massive stroke hit, and he drove his car right off the road."
The stroke ravaged the left side of Dundee's brain, affecting his right arm and leg.
Except for a close ring of family and friends, Dundee's condition remained a mystery. Even local boxing greats knew only that Dundee was sick. Some said he was dying. No one seemed to know for sure.
So listen to Angelo.
"We want the world to know brother Chris is alive and well," Dundee says. "I was speaking to Bob Arum the other day, and I told him: 'You better look out. Chris Dundee is coming back, and he's going to bury all you guys.'
When Philomena and Angelo Mirenda brought Angelo Jr. into the world 68 years ago in South Philadelphia, brother Chris had already left home.
Joe, the eldest of five brothers, had begun boxing. Angelo Sr. didn't approve, so Joe took the surname of his boxing hero, Johnny Dundee.
Chris, the next eldest brother, left home when he was 13. He became a hawker, selling anything he could find from anywhere he could find to stand and holler. Train, street corner, boxing gym.
The fourth and fifth Mirenda brothers -- Jimmy and Angelo Jr. -- went to war together. The military tried to keep the brothers apart by giving them separate stations in France.
The military didn't know the Mirendas.
"I was in St. Quentin, and my brother Jimmy was in Amiens," Angelo says. "I didn't know how to drive, but I stole a Jeep, put it in second gear and went all the way to Amiens. I went AWOL
because I missed my brother."
When Jimmy and Angelo returned home in the mid '40s, they joined Chris in the fight game at the Capital Hotel in New York.
Chris moved to Florida in 1950. After four years in New York, Angelo followed.
But, as Angelo followed one brother to war and another to Florida, so did hard times.
Philomena Mirenda had nine children. Two died in infancy.
While Jimmy and Angelo were at war, Mama Mirenda and a niece were struck by a car.
Philomena died a month later. "Her heart just stopped," Angelo says.
Jimmy and Angelo got a week off from duties but couldn't leave the war. They remained an ocean away from their mother's funeral.
"If she were alive," Angelo says, "I may never have left Philly."
Dundee pauses. As always, he finds the good.
"Then again, if that were the case, I would never have gone to New York and I would never have met my wife."
Father Angelo died in 1961. Cancer claimed brother Joe. Brother Jimmy was next, falling to cancer on Valentine's Day 1982.
"My best friend," Angelo says, "was my brother Jim. I miss him something terrible."
Dundee stumbles across a picture of the youngest Mirenda sibling, Josephine. In the snapshot, Josie is surrounded by her family and friends, her glowing, smiling face leaping off the photo. But Josie's arm is in a sling, and she didn't last long after the photo was taken. Josephine died of cancer on Dec. 28, 1987.
"My sister was an angel," Angelo says. "All the while, she was still smiling. My kid sister should have been a patron saint."
Like the other Mirendas of South Philly, Chris is strong and fighting.
He goes to therapy three times a week, reads books and clippings, and hasn't forgotten friends and family.
Angelo calls Chris on the phone every day and asks whether he wants company. He goes to Chris' house and reads Christmas cards from all over the world. The youngest Mirenda boy quietly removes a few at a time so he can answer them for his brother.
It is another Christmas for the Dundees, and it's another tough one. Chris is sick. Hard times are knocking people out of work. War seems near. People are edgy.
Through it all, Angelo Dundee is upbeat. He carries Jimmy's and Josie's funeral cards in his address book but still smiles. He's happy, always moving, talking, working.
"Listen," Angelo says, "as long as you got your health, you're in action. You gotta be happy to be alive. Sure you keep the faith. What else is there to do?"