How Angelo Dundee got boxers to be their best

A young Cassius Clay is seen with his trainer Angelo Dundee at City Parks Gym in New York, Feb. 8, 1962.
AP Photo/Dan Grossi

Confidence man.

That's how Angelo Dundee -- best known as Muhammad Ali's trainer -- described his job, writes Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times.

Dundee, who died last week at the age of 90, had the uncanny gift of connecting with boxers in ways that bolstered their confidence. That was less necessary with a gifted heavyweight like Ali, but much in demand for some of the "tomato cans" (to use the boxing vernacular) whom Dundee also groomed.

Angelo Dundee, Ali's cornerman, dead at 90

While the term "confidence man" is more typically used as a pejorative, as in "con man" (a.k.a. a thief), the only thing that Dundee stole from the boxers he trained was their insecurity. Not only could Dundee polish a fighter's skills, he sought to get under their skins to make them feel invincible -- at least while they were in the ring.

Leaders also need to be people of confidence. Not only must they possess it, they need to spread it throughout their organizations. Dundee's legacy is especially apt for our times of uncertainty. When things are not going well, it is easy to get sucked into negative thinking, which is a form of downward-spiral thinking that leads to defeatism.

To do that, a leader must connect with an individual on a personal level. He needs to speak in terms that are relevant and meaningful. Take the case of Johnny Holman, one of Dundee's fighters. He had a so-so career, but Dundee learned that what Holman really wanted in life was a house with shutters. So what did Dundee do? According to Robert Lipsyte, when Holman was in the ring getting pummeled Dundee, shouted from his ringside corner, "That man is stealing your house, taking the shutters off." Holman won the fight in a technical knockout.

People need to know the leader has their backs. Among the leaders I know who are skilled at boosting confidence is Red Berenson, the long-time hockey coach at the University of Michigan. Red, who played at Michigan as well as played and coached in the NHL, has a wonderful way of reaching his players one on one.

If a player is experiencing a scoring slump, Red will pull the player aside during practice and suggest that the player adjust the way he holds his stick. The specific instructions may not be as important as the manner in which Red coaches: heart to heart. It makes the player feel good to receive instruction from a man who set the record (since tied) for most goals scored in an NHL game (six).

At the heart of confidence is belief in oneself. Some people come by it naturally; for others it must be cultivated. Harnessing the confidence or kindling it is what leaders do to help their teams succeed.

Confidence is a precious asset. "The circulation of confidence," wrote James Madison, "is better than the circulation of money." Teams with confidence win, as do individuals. Leaders who mind how they dispense it enable their organizations to survive the tough times and prosper in the good times.