History hasn’t been particularly kind to Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown. A difficult man to pigeonhole with an actual job title, Bundini is best remembered for his work within Muhammad Ali’s inner circle as cornerman, speech writer and motivational speaker. Had he chosen a quieter, more publicity shy champion to work with, Drew might be better known, but Ali, ‘the Louisville Lip’ soaked up Bundini’s knowledge and expressions and made them his own. It was Bundini for example, who came up with ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’, but by the time Ali had said it a few thousand times the world had forgotten the genius behind the lines, and when Ali finally succumbed to Parkinson’s and disappeared from public life, the world in turn slowly forgot Bundini himself.
A new biography by Todd Snyder and accompanying documentary by Patrick Green looks to address this historical imbalance. The biography lands in August but the documentary is out this weekend and explores Bundini’s journey from an early life in the navy (where he earned the moniker Bundini) to Harlem and working with Sugar Ray Robinson to ultimately joining Ali in 1963 and staying with him for the rest of his career.
Director Patrick Green is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and journalist whose projects have played at over 75 film festivals worldwide.The Bundini documentary however, seems to have a special place in his heart.
What was it about the project you found so fascinating?
I love telling stories about people who aren’t in the spotlight, those that are having a huge impact but aren’t out front and centre. I love those characters. So this was such a special project, because you’ve got Ali, maybe the greatest sportsman ever, and then when you look, Bundini was there the whole time but always in the shadows.
Did you know much about him when you started?
No, I hadn’t heard much about him, other than remembering him from the Jamie Foxx portrayal (in Will Smith’s 2001 biopic, Ali), so I had to do a lot of my own research.
The Jamie Foxx portrayal wasn’t particularly flattering. Is this documentary a way of setting the record straight?
Hugely. I think that’s kind of why everyone got involved with it. I interviewed Drew, Bundini’s son, for two hours and a big part of that interview was to set the record straight, he felt that Hollywood had done his dad, as he put it, ‘dirty’. Bundini was always relegated to court jester, the guy who would do the dirty work and say iconic things, but was ultimately relegated to a comedic after-thought. But when you research him there’s so much more than that.
In what way?
He was almost what you would call today a life coach. With Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, how do you motivate people who are already so great? As Todd said when I interviewed him, how do you get Picasso to wake up in the morning and paint a picture? As you dive deeper into Drew’s story you find a guy who lived the American dream, the sharecropper’s son who grew up in poverty, found his escape in the navy, travelled the world, changed his outlook on life and took that knowledge back to Harlem and into Sugar Ray and Ali’s camp. He brought a whole lot more than you see on the surface. And of course the one thing that floored me is that he’s the one who came up with ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.
Ali is everywhere, but was it a struggle finding enough Bundini footage for the documentary?
When I was first approached to do the documentary by Hamilcar Publications they explained there wasn’t much to work with in terms of assets. Yes we have the book, but there’s not a lot of footage other than being in the fringes of Ali’s camp, shouting from the corner or tying his gloves. So we did a lot of digging. Drew, his son, had some personal photos we used but mainly my editor and I sifted through tons of Ali footage and found a little snippet of Bundini here, a little bit there, and kind of pieced it all together.
It’s a positive film, but was there another side to him?
For sure. He was his most famous saying, the butterfly and the bee. We show a little bit of it, I mean even in the movie poster there’s two faces of him within the butterfly. Here’s a guy who overcame a lot, but he did have a lot of demons. We touched on it a bit, but I didn’t want to lay a heavy hand on that. You can hear it sometimes in Drew’s voice when he’s talking about his father and what he was like as a dad and how he did have his own struggles. But where he came from and where he ended up is an amazing story. In every great life there’s a lot of grey, and I think we portray that enough in the short amount of time we had.
You didn’t know a huge amount about Bundini when you started this journey. Any big surprises along the way?
When I started I thought it was an Ali and Bundini story. When I finished it it was a Bundini and Drew, father and son story. That was an important element for me personally as I’m a new dad dealing with my own son’s first year. Listening to Drew talk about his dad, how much he loved him, how he looked up at him, even though his dad wasn’t there all the time and had problems with alcohol, it makes you want to be a better role model and mentor. It’s an interesting thing, telling someone to be the best and do something with their life, but at the same time not always being able to live up to the things you’re talking about. Bundini started out in the navy cleaning pots and shining shoes, and within one generation his son was in the top one percent of the navy, flying jets. How do you do that as a father? Is it just words? It’s got to be more. It’s got to be a spirit.
He was a big shouty man. Could his techniques work in the modern world?
He was way ahead of his time. He wasn’t a boxing trainer, he wasn’t going to tell you how to hit someone, he’s going to tell you how to sum up the courage to go out for the next round when you were losing. They would seem obvious things, but they would be things people needed to hear but would be afraid to say. He would fit so much into this world right now.
Did the global pandemic have an impact on making the film?
Luckily, when I approached the project I really wanted Bundini to tell his own story because here’s a guy who never got the spotlight. So I wanted it to feel almost like a lost home video. You hear his voice, you see his pictures, you have other people talking about him but there are no talking heads as you might find in a classic documentary. That allowed me to do interviews in more of a podcast format, calling people, recording the interview and layering that over the visuals. As Bundini would say, it was about finding the positive in the negative.
Finally, what do you hope the documentary will achieve?
That people learn the Bundini story, that they take time to acknowledge the man behind the man. As a filmmaker I’d love to turn this into a feature length documentary, but if this is what it is, I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I love the story, I love the message and I hope people feel the same way about it.
The documentary will premiere on Ring Magazine on July 24 and you can find out more information about it and the accompanying book on the official website.