Back before South Beach became known for its models and bottles, and well after its initial heyday, there existed a place unlike any other on earth. Okay, there had been a few such places before – most notably Stillman’s and Gleason’s in New York – but even those hallowed facilities couldn’t boast having hosted “The Greatest.”
We speak, of course, of South Beach’s fabled 5th Street Gym, home-base of none other than Muhammad Ali. For more the three decades the 5th Street Gym was training ground central for the toughest men on the planet; not just Ali, but a whole slate of world champions, including at times Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Roberto Duran, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Robinson, in addition to a spate of Cuban exiles such as Florentino Fernandez, Douglas Vaillant, Ultiminio Ramos and Luis Manuel Rodriquez. The Gym also housed the first Cuban-American champ, Frankie Otero.
Behind Ali – and the rest of the Gym’s regulars – was Chris Dundee, a New York-born fight promoter who could sell Brooklyn back its Bridge. And in Ali’s corner throughout the most monumental fights of his life was Angelo Dundee, Luis Sarria and Ferdie Pacheco, “the Fight Doctor.”
Dr. Pacheco gathers ‘round a few good friends and recalls all the fast action in a new oral history entitled Tales of the 5th Street Gym (University Press of Florida $27.50). Among the friends are Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee, former Miami News sportswriter Edwin Pope, and Academy Award-winning writer Budd Schulberg. But most of all it’s the good fight doctor himself, who glides through the glorious stories with a keen sense of wonder and knowing.
Told in the inimitably intimate style of one who was there, and packed with enough characters to make Damon Runyon reach up and write from the grave, Tales captures one of the most remarkable eras in our city’s history – not to mention one of most momentous periods the sweet science ever experienced.
John Hood: Please tell the folks what prompted you to put together Tales from the 5th Street Gym?
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco: That’s an absolute labor of love. It was one of the most important buildings in my life. It was an absolute wonderful place, and for thirty years we turned out champion after champion – not to say the least of which was Muhammad Ali. And everyday was a pure joy to go to work and to work with a champion. So what was it? It was absolutely the top in sports that I could do in my life.
You also mentioned that Chris Dundee is a little bit forgotten. Is that correct?
He’s forgotten now. He’s the forgotten genius. If they put him in his day against Don King and Bob Arum in their day, Chris would eat both of them alive. He would have beaten them up the easiest. I mean they were easy compared to him. In his time, he was great.
It was him who was responsible for the success of the gym and the fighters primarily?
Without him you couldn’t have had a gym. He had to promote the fights, tend to developing fighters and everything, and he had to put on a fight every week. When it’s your money, that’s tough.
What do you think it was about that place in that time that made it so special?
Because it attracted all the great trainers and it attracted all the great fighters. It was a focal point. The place you had to be. If you had a fighter training to be a champion, you sent them to the 5th Street Gym. You picked up all the knowledge of Angelo Dundee and all those great old trainers there and so forth. He always said, “That’s the place to go if you want to develop a fighter that’s the place you got to go.”
Most famously, you worked the corner for Ali. What was the champ like?
He was – he still is – the most incredible human being I’ve ever been around in my life. He is a charming, beautiful, generous, kind, but an exceptionally good fighter. The guy that didn’t know how to quit. The guy that didn’t know how to say no. I mean he took on everybody. Seventeen years of taking on everybody and beating the hell out of everybody. You couldn’t do better than he did in his career – plus he is lovable.
Did you happen to be on hand when the Beatles made their famous pilgrimage to meet Ali?
Yeah, I’m still getting calls from that. John Lennon was funny. They looked like little tiny kids. They looked like nothing. You’re used to looking at them on the screen but when you saw them in person, they looked like little tiny scrawny kids running around. They looked awful. They were sunburned and they looked like absolute dogs. Ali didn’t know who they were. He was being nice to them and giving them the routine. So he says to John, “You’ve got to start with your looks.” At which point John says, “Yeah, but you are…?”
Of all Ali’s fights you worked ringside, which stands out as the most memorable?
Let me give them to you in order: The first one when he was Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston and he won the title. No question it was the biggest upset of the day. The next one was the first Frazier fight, where Frazier knocked him down and he lost the fight. But the best fight of all was the last Frazier fight [“The Thrilla in Manila”]; that went on until 4:00 in the morning. Let me tell you, it was life and death. If that fight continued, he would’ve killed Frazier with one more round. It was very, very serious and very, very dramatic.
The best of all was Julio Manuel Rodriguez. He was a welterweight champion and he taught Ali how to fight. He was just a magnificent fighter. And the Cubans were all for him. Florentino Fernandez was a devastating puncher; Willie Pastrano was the light heavyweight champion of the world. We had him also there. We must have had 20 or so people there, either champions or going to be champions or fought for the championship and lost. We had a title fight or something important going on every month. It was heaven.
Let me tell you, the best fight of all was two relatively unknowns outside of here. It was the biggest of the year. That was when little Frankie Otero from Miami fought Kenny Buchanan, then champion of the world. Now he had no business in the ring with Kenny Buchanan. I like Frankie, he was good but he was no Kenny Buchanan. Frankie got it in his mind he was going to go the whole twelve rounds with this guy. They fought up one side and down the other. Kenny had him knocked out in the 11 or 12, and they let him go. I mean he says, “I can’t knock your kid out. He fought a valiant fight. Let him go.” And you let him go to the 12th.
Outside of the first Ali/Frazier fight in New York where the tension was so high it was electric, I’ve never seen anything like this. It was here and it was all Cubans. The entire place was packed with Cubans for Frankie, their Cuban fighter born in the United States. The first one born here. The emotion was so great. People were crying after the fight. Everybody was singing “Guantanamera.” It was like something out of a movie.
Unless you have the luck to be involved in one of these things, especially to be involved and you’re in the corner, I can’t tell you the emotional steam when it’s coming out. When I got through with that I was just rolled out. I can’t explain it to you. You don’t get that kind of excitement out of life.
By the way, that’s why I got into boxing. My sense of drama and my sense involvement of being in the action, being in the center, is what made me go into boxing. I studied very hard to be a doctor, but medicine is not exciting. You save somebody’s life and that’s the end of that. You get no recognition, is what I’m saying. We’re all egomaniacs. We all like a little bit of “I, I, I, me, me, me.”