Big pond, little pond. Two champs

(Originally published 2/2/12)

Angelo Dundee died yesterday. The legendary trainer for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard was 90.

When Angelo Mirena got his start in boxing during the 1940’s, he changed his name to Dundee – just as two of his brothers had done – to hide their work in boxing from their parents. Today, all these years later, tributes are pouring in from all over the country. A part of boxing died with Dundee, they all say.

Dundee’s death brings to mind another longtime boxing trainer that I once knew, long since gone. He didn’t swim in the same world-class waters as Dundee, but he left his own long-lasting impression nonetheless.

Tony Orlando Sr. operated the gym in the basement of Kirk Center in Elizabeth, N.J. He trained fighters for five decades and worked well into his 80s. Anyone would be hard-pressed to meet a nicer man and gentler soul in such a violent world than Orlando.

My nights at Kirk Center during the late-1970s and 1980s involved mostly basketball upstairs, but I liked to arrive early sometimes to watch the guys train downstairs. Poppy  Rolon from Elizabeth and Ricky Meyers from Woodbridge come to mind. Two young fighters with bright futures in the ring.

But there were plenty of others who had dreams of fighting in the Golden Gloves or just wanted to mix it up in the ring. Orlando gave them a chance, too. He watched over them, put them in the best possible position for success, and tried to see that they didn’t get hurt.

Joe Renna was in college when he decided to give boxing a whirl. He had wrestled in high school, played soccer and baseball, and even tried fencing. Boxing? No problem.

Orlando trained Renna at Kirk Center and got him a few local fights. Joe’s technique was still in the developmental stage, but he had a big right hand that gave him a puncher’s chance on most nights.

One time, before a fight in nearby Roselle Park, Renna’s trainer came up to him for a quick talk. As usual, Orlando had arrived early to make sure everything was as it was supposed to be. What he found had disturbed him.

“Joe.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re in college, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t wanna fight today.”

“Huh?”

“You don’t wanna fight today.”

He shook his head. Put his arm around his fighter and walked him away. He repeated his mantra.

“You don’t wanna fight today.”

He took Renna off the card. It turns out that although both fighters had three bouts apiece, Renna’s would-be opponent’s short boxing career was interrupted by a six-year stint in prison.

“Dis guy’s had nuttin’ to do but train for da last six years,” Orlando explained. “Joe … he’ll kill ya. He’ll kill ya.”

That’s what a trainer can do for you.

He can make you a champion … He can save your life.

Ali and Leonard were glad to have Dundee with them. Renna and many more like him through five decades of hard work were just as glad to have Orlando in their corner.

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