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Arts & Culture

W.Va. Author Looks At Muhammad Ali “Hype” Man

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One of the greatest boxers of all time was Muhammad Ali. The man in Ali’s corner was Drew Bundini Brown, his “hype” man, the writer of many of his rhymes and the person who kept Ali motivated during training.

West Virginia native Todd Snyder recently published a biography on Brown titled “Bundini: Don't Believe the Hype.” It looks at Brown’s influence on Ali and how the boxer’s words inspired early hip-hop artists 20 years later. Snyder also looks at his own experiences, growing up in Cowen, West Virginia, in a boxing gym with his father.

Eric Douglas spoke with him to find out more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Talk to me a little bit about the book.

Snyder: This is the first-ever biography of Drew Bundini Brown. He is, in my opinion, one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of boxing. Most people know him as Muhammad Ali's hype man. He was one of his assistant trainers who went through training camps and served as the voice in the corner in between rounds of Muhammad Ali's legendary fights.

Douglas: Tell me a little bit about the connection between Bundini and the boxing and hip hop worlds.

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West Virginia author Todd Snyder.

Snyder: If you look back into the 60s and early 70s, there was no black athlete like Muhammad Ali, who was so braggadocious and so cocky, and so quick with his words. He would make up rhymes about his opponents and he would nickname his opponents in some kind of playful way.

His bravado, his stylistic identity performance became the archetype for hip hop artists when they showed up on the scene in the early 1980s. All of the early MCs were doing the same kind of thing Muhammad Ali had done. And Muhammad Ali was getting a lot of those rhymes from Drew Bundini Brown.

Douglas: In the book, you talk about your own relationship with boxing, growing up as a small-town coal camp kid in West Virginia.

Snyder: Yeah, I grew up in Cowen, West Virginia, which is in Webster County. My father was a fifth-generation coal miner. Most, if not all, of the men in my family worked in the coal industry. My dad’s dream was to be a boxer. As a kid, he was a huge fan of Muhammad Ali and Ali was very much his pugilistic muse. It was the fighter he looked up to the most.

My dad was very proud of the fact that Ali was a Kentucky boy. And our family knew the Hunsacker family. Tony Hunsaker, from Fayetteville, West Virginia, was Muhammad Ali's first professional opponent.

After I came along, my dad eventually formed a series of makeshift boxing clubs. Boxing was my universe. I grew up around my dad's club, watching him train fighters. On the weekends, we would be at tough man contests or local amateur boxing competitions. My view of boxing is through the lens of boxing trainers.

Douglas: Your own boxing career was fairly short-lived, as I understand,

Snyder: That's right. Like most kids who get into boxing, they either find their way into the sport because they're troubled kids and they're sort of steered in that direction. Or they have fathers who shepherd them into that world. My dad didn't want me to box. He discouraged me from doing it and he wouldn't let me box until I was 16. But I found out relatively quickly, that I'm a much better writer than a fighter.

Douglas: Tell me what this project meant to you as a kid from West Virginia, as a writer.

Snyder: All of my books are written from this sort of personal scholarly vantage point. My first book was titled the “Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity.” It was a book about being a first-generation college student from West Virginia. My second book, “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym” is a memoir, where I talk about my father's boxing club, and how his work as a coal miner and a boxing trainer shaped my idea of masculinity as a young Appalachian boy.

While Bundini Brown is a biography of someone who wasn't Appalachian, I still bring that sensibility to it. This is not your traditional biography. Much of it is written in first person and I allow the reader to follow me along the journey when I meet Bundini’s son, and when I meet George Foreman and Larry Holmes and all these boxing luminaries that I was able to talk to while doing this research.

I think it matters that we let kids from West Virginia know that you can be a writer, or you can make it growing up in that environment.

Douglas: What do you want people to know about the book?

Snyder: You don't really need to be a boxing fan to enjoy it. In some ways, it's a book about fathers and sons. It's about American history. It's about friendship; Bundini and Muhammad Ali had a 21-year friendship. Some people will occasionally say to me, “I love this book and I don't even like boxing.” I think that's the best compliment people can give me. It's about a man who lived an extraordinary life. He maximized every advantage that came his way

Todd Snyder is currently a professor of literature, including Appalachian literature, at Sienna College in New York. His book is available through Hamilcar Publications, a publisher of boxing-related books.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.


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