I remember the first time I drove around with Angelo Dundee.
I was still green, relatively new as a trainer, and I had just picked him up on the way to the gym.
Everybody who drives a lot knows that feeling when you have someone you admire riding shotgun. Your driving matters. You make it more complicated than you normally would because you want to operate the vehicle perfectly. You don’t want to speed, but you can’t drive too slowly. You’re making sure not to cut anybody off, but you can’t be passive either. And then ideally, you’re supposed to have an engaging conversation, too.
I was literally sweating bullets the entire ride, and the Miami sun wasn’t helping. Things were going well enough, though, or so I thought. That is, until we pulled up to pay the toll as we got off the highway. I rolled down my window, handed the woman some cash, and drove off. The whole thing took less than 30 seconds.
Before I could even change into the right lane, Angelo gave me a good shot in the arm. Trust me, that guy still knew how to throw punch, even in his 70s.
“What’s wrong with you?”
I did a double take. No other cars around. Reasonably smooth acceleration after the stop. And I had paid the whole toll, right? What the hell was Angelo talking about?
“You didn’t even say hello to the lady.”
I tried to recover from my surprise, but I didn’t see any women anywhere. “What lady?”
“The lady back there. That poor woman is in a tollbooth all day with people like you throwing money at her. You don’t even say hello. You don’t ask, ‘How’re you doing?’ You don’t even give her a, ‘Thank you. Have a great day.’ ”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“From now on, Matt, you gotta say hello. Say hello to everybody.”
That’s just the kind of guy Angelo was. He actually yelled at me for not asking how the tollbooth worker’s day was going. I still hear his voice in my head every single time I drive through a tollbooth to this day.
That was just one lesson of the many Angelo taught me about boxing and life, but it was an important one. Saying hello and being friendly — those things matter a lot.
He was insistent. “You always treat people nice,” he’d tell me. “It don’t cost nothin’ to be nice.” Of all the things I learned from my time with him, that simple principle has helped me the most.
I don’t know where I would be if Angelo hadn’t taken me under his wing many years ago. The truth is that before I met him, I was a damaged person, and I didn’t fully understand the importance of being a good person. It might sound ridiculous. That’s the sort of thing that you’re supposed to learn when you’re growing up. I didn’t.
I grew up in a big Italian family with a bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins, and they would always get under my skin by saying the same thing: “You’re gonna end up just like your dad.”
They said it to my face and I heard them whispering it behind my back, too. It pissed me off when they compared me to my dad. I guess I looked a lot like he did when he was growing up. I can see now that those comments weren’t meant to be a prediction for my future. They weren’t even meant to hurt my feelings.
They were a warning.
When I was a young kid, we lived in a big house in a nice neighborhood in Queens. Three stories with a finished basement. I had a bedroom to myself and my sister had her own room, too. And we had two Jaguar convertibles in our garage. It was just awesome. I had no idea what my dad really did in those early years. He would just sort of go out and then come back randomly, and that’s how it was.
And then I have this distinct memory. I was really young, it was sometime in the mid-1970s, and I’m in my grandmother’s bedroom. Everybody is hugging her, not a dry eye in sight.
Why is everybody crying?
My dad — her son — had “gone away to work,” they told me. As I would eventually learn, my dad’s new “work” was up in Connecticut.
At a federal prison.
You ever see the movie Goodfellas? Well, my dad was a two-time bank robber doing all that kind of stuff. Robbing trucks, the whole deal. Sure, it looked interesting in the movies, but I can tell you that there’s nothing glamorous about that lifestyle. It can tear a family apart.
We didn’t visit him much in Connecticut. All that time, my mom always just said that he was “away at work.”
While he was gone, the family struggled. All that stuff we had: The house, the cars, the nice furniture — it was all taken from us. My mom made ends meet and we were forced to move into a tiny apartment. We’d all have to huddle by the stove in the winter to stay warm. For weeks at a time, all there was to eat were mayonnaise sandwiches. That life we’d previously known, it went away when dad did.
I was probably seven when he got out. My family thought it was best not to tell my sister and me the truth about where he’d been. Even though I didn’t put all the pieces together at that age, I eventually started to realize that maybe things hadn’t exactly been the way they seemed.
Literally in his first week out of prison my dad bought my mom a new car. We had nothing and that was the first thing he bought. He wasn’t toning down his lifestyle. I guess more damage had to be done — to all of us — before he could stop.
Within a year, he started disappearing again, too. And when he was around, he would take me out of school to go all around Manhattan with him, from the Lower East Side up to Harlem. I didn’t suspect anything. It didn’t seem all that unusual to have a skip day here or there for some father-son bonding.
The thing is, we were on the hunt for heroin. I’d be waiting in the car in bad neighborhoods while he was trying to cop drugs. At that age, it’s so difficult to know that what you’re doing is wrong if one of your parents tells you it’s O.K. I was almost as lost as he was.
I’d be waiting in the car in bad neighborhoods while he was trying to cop drugs. At that age, it’s so difficult to know that what you’re doing is wrong if one of your parents tells you it’s O.K.
Once my father’s family found out what was going on, one of his older sisters and her husband moved us away to Florida. It all happened very quickly, and I felt so much anger towards my mother because of the move. I felt like she was taking my dad away from me again. Of course, I didn’t see the bigger picture. I didn’t think about how he had treated her and what he had put her through. I didn’t know about his affairs and the physical abuse he put her through. I just thought about myself. I started throwing fits and I refused to attend school. It all seemed pointless to me. I spent two years stewing in Florida, before my mom told me, “O.K., if you want to go back with your dad, you go back with your dad.” Just as I made plans to move back to New York, my dad surprised us by flying down to Florida to deliver some news.
He was HIV positive.
Back then, there were a lot of misconceptions about HIV. People thought ridiculous things, like you could get it just from somebody breathing on you. That isn’t an exaggeration. The public knew so little. So having a parent with HIV made me a real outcast.
Regardless, I was stubborn. I insisted that I was still heading back to New York. When I got off the plane, my soon-to-be stepmom was there to greet me.
“It’s just me. Your dad’s too sick to leave the house today.”
And for the next two years, I lived with my dad in New York. I was 14 years old at this point, and almost as soon as I got back to the city, I fell back into a familiar pattern. My dad started forcing me to skip school again to drive him around the city to grab heroin every week. Now that I was older, he’d get high in the passenger seat, and I’d have to drive him home. Some days when I came home from school, I’d find him OD’d with a needle in his arm on the floor.
At that point, I knew that I needed a way to avoid him. Just some sort of escape. So, like a lot of kids, I turned to sports. Football, track and weightlifting, to be exact. On weekends, I went to my grandmother’s house because I didn’t want to be around the mess at home.
I even got a job washing dishes at a restaurant on the nights I didn’t have football practice just so I wouldn’t have to see my dad. When it was finally time to go home, I’d always pray that he would already be asleep. I started working out more and more, because I knew I had to be ready for him if he ever snapped and went after me. It could happen at any time.
Not long after I had finished 10th grade, my dad decided we were going to move to Virginia, close to where his brother had been living. I’ll be honest, I thought he had gotten himself straightened out when we first got down there that summer. He seemed to really want to get his shit together. And I thought Virginia was perfect for him. I remember thinking, “O.K., there’s no way he can get in trouble down here. There’s absolutely nothing here.” That lasted maybe three or four months. Soon enough, he was going on weekend drives up to New York and returning home with carloads full of stuff.
A minibike, gardening tools, household appliances. “Oh,” he’d say, “I stopped at a yard sale on the way back.”
I remember we got into one huge fight when I was still a teenager. We were wrestling on the ground, and that was the first time I think we both knew I could beat his ass. I didn’t want him to bleed because of the HIV, so I sort of tossed him aside and then he went for his gun. At that point, I just gave up. I looked at him and just said, “Fight’s over, do what you wanna do.” He put me in a headlock and punched me a few times, and then he stopped. But it was an important moment. After all those years, I had finally become strong enough to stand up to my father.
I came home from school two weeks after one of his New York runs and all of the lights in the house were on and the sink was full of dirty dishes, but nobody was there.
My stepmom arrived two hours later.
After all those years, I had finally become strong enough to stand up to my father.
“All that stuff your dad had been bringing home? He stole it. The cops came here and arrested him.”
Everybody was talking about it. He had this racket where he would drive down Route 13 with a van and just steal boats that he found on trailers. It’s so rural/country along that route, and he would just hitch these trailers to his van and drive them to New York. I was so embarrassed. It was in the papers. I was being laughed at left and right at my high school. But you know what? I was glad my dad went to jail. Maybe he was finally going to be able to clean up his act.
I didn’t want to visit him while he was in prison. No way. But on Christmas Eve of my senior year of high school, I sucked it up and went with my uncle to see him. We drove to the prison and waited, but he refused to see us. Wouldn’t even come into the room. That ended up being the last time I’d ever be in the same place as my father. He died from AIDS not long after.
I was at a crossroads at that point, fatherless and with the end of high school fast approaching. I could stay in Virginia or I could go back to Florida to live with my mom.
If I stayed put, I would probably have ended up like pretty much everyone else in town, working at the chicken factory. There’s nothing wrong with that life, but I knew I wanted something more.
I got down to Florida and before I could even get settled, my mom found out that she had HIV. It was my worst nightmare. You can’t prepare for that kind of news. As you might imagine, she had been exposed to the virus at some point when she was still with my dad.
For the four years that I lived with my dad, I hadn’t really kept in touch with my mom. I knew that was my fault. I’d arrived in Florida hoping to repair my relationship with her, but she needed more than that. I found myself setting her up for appointments and driving her to see doctors. Meanwhile, others in my family were concerned about me.
I think the one good thing my dad did for me was to introduce me to the sport of boxing. He gave me a handful of fight posters when I was very young that I still have. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Durán, the first time they fought up in Montreal. Ali-Holmes in 1980. And I have this glass plate he used to love, commemorating Ali-Norton III at Yankee Stadium. Being Italian, my dad would sit me down on the couch to watch all of Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini’s fights. It was hard not to get hooked, growing up with memorabilia like that and watching the great fighters of the ’80s.
When I got to Florida, though, I had a chip on my shoulder. I guess I was mad at the world for some of the things I had witnessed as a kid. Because of my dad, I had sworn that I would never do drugs. I stuck to that, but I still got into my fair share of teenage bullshit.
My sister’s boyfriend at the time was actually a boxing trainer, and he was insistent that I get in the gym. Either that, he said, or I’d end up dead or in jail.
He was probably right.
Back then, my license plate was personalized with “2 to None,” because my favorite fighter was Michael Nunn, who was training with Angelo Dundee. One day, her boyfriend noticed my plates and his eyes lit up.
“Hey man, you know Angelo is at a gym two exits from your house, right?”
I didn’t hesitate. I hopped into my car, drove over there and walked right up to Angelo. I kid you not. Angelo was very nice when he told me, “Son, I only train professionals. No amateurs. I’m sorry.”
That was a kind way of saying no, but I didn’t take it as a no. I just kind of figured I’d fight as an amateur and then Angelo would take me on when I turned pro. Naive, right?
I was working at a car dealership at the time and trying to get in the gym as much as I could, but with my mom’s condition deteriorating rapidly, it was difficult. My mother, this vibrant and strong woman, was withering away and there was nothing that I could do. Not long after I had returned to Florida to mend our relationship, she passed away.
Once I was on my own, I knew I had to get to work. I started taking shifts on the weekend at a nightclub on Miami Beach. For five years, I worked at the car dealership during the day and at the club all night. At the same time, I tried to work toward my degree and keep up with my boxing training whenever I could.
The gym I worked out at was in Miami Beach, no more than a few blocks from Angelo’s famous 5th Street Gym. I went over there whenever I could to beg Angelo and Luis Lagerman, one of his understudies, to let me get into training with them. I knew I was too old to fight by then, but I wanted to be a trainer.
It took some real persistence. They finally let me work with them, but only as a bucket boy. I wasn’t paid and I wasn’t allowed to talk to them in the gym — and I was elated.
I was going to become a boxing trainer and Angelo Dundee was going to show me the ropes.
“This is how I learned; this is how you’re gonna learn,” Angelo told me. And for two years, that’s exactly what I did. I worked my way up, not treating any job as too small. If I was a bucket boy collecting spit, I was going to be the best damn bucket boy those guys had ever seen. In the beginning, the only time I was allowed to ask questions at all was after our sessions were completely finished. I just did my job and tried to learn all I could.
I kept working at the car dealership and the nightclub to get by, but I saw my time in the gym as a real stepping stone to a career. I’d never had anything in my life that I’d actually worked toward. It gave me so much energy to have a tangible goal in front of me. I was going to become a boxing trainer and Angelo Dundee was going to show me the ropes.
Eventually, I was allowed to ask questions and chime in while inside the gym. After that I started traveling to fights. Sometimes you hear guys talk about that one moment where they know they’ve finally made it. Well, I definitely had one of those.
It came in January 2005 in a Showtime fight between our guy, David Estrada, and Chris Smith at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. We were sitting there between the first and second rounds, and Angelo turned to me and asked, “What do you think, Matt? What should we work on?”
I kind of stared at him slack-jawed for a second. I wanted to pinch myself, for real, in that moment. Angelo Dundee had just asked me for advice. This was the guy who had been through all those epic fights with the likes of Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and so many other greats. And he wanted to know what I thought.
I chimed in with the best advice I could, and after the next round was over Angelo turned to me again, “That worked great, son. What do you think is next?” And the fight just kind of went along like that, with Angelo implementing my suggestions.
Estrada ended up winning by TKO.
On that night, I felt like I finally had a purpose. I was a real boxing trainer. I had earned that title.
The death of Muhammad Ali in June had me thinking about a funny little story Angelo told me about him. Angelo always said, “You can’t teach Muhammad anything because he thinks he knows it all.”
Ali wasn’t unique in that sense, but Angelo had a creative method for teaching him and other fighters with that mentality.
The key, for Angelo, was to make Ali think he invented things. Angelo told me about one time he was trying to get him to flick his jab and roll his thumb over, but Ali just wasn’t listening. Angelo tried to get him to do it for a whole week with no luck. Then one day during training, Angelo just yelled out, “Holy shit, where did you learn that jab? You’re flicking that wrist and rolling that thumb. That’s perfect. Who even taught you that?”
Ali threw another jab, doing exactly what Angelo wanted, and then he coolly replied, “Oh, I’ve been working on it by myself.”
I mean, how brilliant was that?
Those were the kind of things I picked up from Angelo, and I’ve carried them with me throughout the years as I’ve trained guys on my own.
Sometimes you get these top-tier athletes who are really confident, and it’s understandable. Their self-belief has gotten them a long ways. But it can also be a weakness. They don’t always respond well to being told what to do because they’re not used to it. As trainers and coaches, it’s our job to figure out the best way to communicate with them. Angelo’s methods of communication were just perfect.
He was full of mind tricks. He understood people and how to tap into their inner motivations. Before Ali, in the 1950s, he was training a guy who wound up being the light heavyweight champion of the world, Willie Pastrano. Angelo told me this story about Willie:
The week before a fight, Willie’s telling Angelo all about the house he’s gonna buy with the money from his win, and Angelo’s listening without saying much. Fast forward to the fight, and Willie’s getting it handed to him early on. A good old-fashioned ass kicking.
After the end of one of the first few rounds, Willie comes back to the corner and calm as can be, the first thing Angelo says is, “Hey Willie, there goes your door.”
And Willie looks at Angelo like, What are you talking about, my door?
“The door to your fucking house. At this rate, you’re not buying anything.”
So Willie goes back out there and he’s doing a little bit better, but he’s still losing. The next round ends and Angelo comes right back at him. “There go your fucking windows. I’m telling you, if you lose the next round, your roof is gone and you’re about to be homeless.”
Willie goes back out there and boom, he knocks the guy out. I kid you not. And Willie Pastrano was not known for knockouts.
Angelo’s understanding of the human psyche always stood out to me. Some days I go from training a professional boxer to a Pro Bowl offensive tackle to an Average Joe. And one guy might need me to treat to him differently than another, but in order to bring out the best of each, I have to recognize what makes him tick. That’s part of the reason why I love having all types of people come into my gym to work out.
It’s interesting. When I was a kid, I felt so isolated. I didn’t trust anyone. But it wasn’t until I fell in with Angelo and learned how to respect others that my life really turned around. Yes, bad things can happen to you. Things you don’t deserve — things nobody deserves. But if you stay on a healthy path, good things can happen too. Things that aren’t even in your wildest dreams.
“Would you have any interest in training LeBron?”
I’ll never forget when one of my regulars, a guy named Paul, approached me after a session and asked me that. Paul was a funny guy, and it was difficult to tell when he was serious and when he was joking. We’d been friendly since he and I had begun working together a few weeks earlier, but neither of us had ever said anything about basketball before.
“LeBron? Like … that LeBron? Yeah, sure. That would be awesome.”
“Would you have any interest in training LeBron?”
I didn’t give it too much thought. I had never trained an NBA player before, and I pretty much knew there was no way LeBron James was going to box at my gym, of all places. This was back in 2011, while the lockout was going on, and I figured he probably had a bunch of basketball workouts to go to.
“Alright, cool. I’m gonna set it up,” Paul told me. Just like that. Nonchalant, but he sounded serious.
“What do you mean set it up?”
“Oh. I guess I never mentioned what I do for a living. I’m a marketing VP for Nike. I’ve been telling LeBron about you and he wants to come in and see firsthand what your gym is all about.”
Things don’t just happen like that. Was he trying to get a reaction out of me? Was it just a prank?
Then a couple of days later, I get a call from Paul. “Hello? Matt? Do you think you’ll be able to train him two days from now?”
The thing is, I’m a practical joker so I know how far some people go to set these sorts of jokes up. I went home that evening and stared at my ceiling before I fell asleep, trying to figure out Paul’s motivations.
The next day, Paul called to let me know that LeBron had confirmed. He planned to stop by the following morning.
The big day comes, and I’m sitting at the gym just waiting for somebody to burst into the place laughing. “Paul? Oh, yeah, he was just messing with you. Here’s a pair of sneakers for your troubles.” A few minutes later, a couple of guys from Nike stroll in with a collection of others.
Towering over the whole group is LeBron James.
At this point, I wasn’t really a basketball fan. I knew LeBron was a good player, sure, but I didn’t know too much beyond that. The last guy whose career I really followed was Patrick Ewing. Anyhow, I figured LeBron would come in, do a little workout, and that would be that. That’s what Paul had told me to expect.
So I pushed LeBron for an hour, nothing too crazy, and then I figured it was time to wrap things up. “Alright, that’s a good one. Nice job today.”
We shook hands, but LeBron had one of those Huh? faces. “What do you mean? We’re done?”
“Well, yeah. The hour’s up.”
“Can’t we keep going?”
I swear, we ended up doing a three- or four-hour workout that day. Conditioning drills, hitting the bags, talking strategy. The whole deal.
I got a call from Paul after I had gone home that night. He was insistent that I check LeBron’s Twitter right then. This was before I was even on Twitter. I figured Paul was just overreacting to the whole situation.
LeBron brought in D-Wade and Chris Bosh with him. Mind you, this was the year they won their first championship together. I only had those guys in the gym a handful of times, but I think you could see the effect. Eventually, after every game I’d see D-Wade pretending to hold the mitts and LeBron boxing with him.
That’s kind of how it went down when I started working out with Matt Damon, too. Just a stroke of good luck and our personalities meshed. That was back in 2008, leading up to the filming of Invictus. Matt started coming to the gym to train for his role as a South African rugby player and by chance, he and I hit it off. At some point, Matt approached me on the side and invited me to go to South Africa for the filming of the movie.
I thought to myself, He’s not taking me. He’s just pulling my string because I played a joke on him last week.
But a few months later, I found myself who-knows-how-many-thousand miles away in a hotel room sitting between Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. I eventually started helping Matt train for his role in the Bourne movie, and even began consulting on the choreography of the fight sequences. How about that? A boy like me from Queens getting a credit in Hollywood action movies.
And here we are now, with the next Bourne movie about to premiere. It’s been a fun ride. It really has.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming. It doesn’t seem real. I think back to the journey that led me here. I wasn’t one of those dreamer types as a kid. I just wanted to get by. I never imagined I would train professional athletes and movie stars. All those years ago it was difficult for me to think about the future. I didn’t even know if I’d still be alive to see it.
For a long time, I had trouble discussing my story. The memories and the loss were all too painful. But I understand now that it’s part of who I am. My childhood will always have an impact on my current life, no matter what I’m doing. It’ll always give me motivation. I never want to eat mayonnaise sandwiches every day for weeks at a time again. I don’t want to go on welfare. But above all else, I don’t want to sleep on the floor in a cramped kitchen hoping to get a couple of uninterrupted hours of sleep at best. I think that will always drive me. Even though I know I’ll never let that happen, the fear keeps me from quitting — in the gym and everywhere else in my life.
Look, I don’t feel sorry for myself. That’s not why I’m telling my story. I want people to understand that if a kid like me can battle through adversity, you can, too. No matter what you do, no matter how bleak things seem, just keep moving forward. Set goals along the way, even if you aren’t sure where you ultimately want to end up. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart. Stay positive. Don’t be afraid of hard work.
There are plenty of terrible things that can happen that are beyond your control. But the only way to move past them is by trying to become a better version of that person who’s been broken down. It all starts with the small things. Be a nice person. Say hello to everybody. And while you’re at it, ask them how their day is.
You always treat people nice. It don’t cost nothin’ to be nice.
Matt Baiamonte works as a trainer for Matt Damon and assisted in fight coordination for the upcoming film, Jason Bourne, the fifth installment of the Bourne series. Catch it at a theater near you starting on July 29th.