Ali and the Fifth Street Gym
Ali and the Fifth Street Gym
Excerpt from 'It Happened In Miami'

DAVE ROGERS: The Fifth Street Gym on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue was iconic. People came there from all walks of life. There was no air conditioning. It was musty. It smelled of sweat—boxers sweat. There was a back room with a bed and mattress, a place where the boxers would shower, towel off.

BERNIE ROSEN: There was no elevator. You had to walk up two flights of steps to the first floor. Sitting right there at a table would be Chris Dundee who ran the gym. He used to charge 25 cents to let people in to see the fighters train. If he knew you, you paid nothing.

LUISTA PACHECO: I remember one guy didn’t want to pay the quarter because, he said, he was the press.

“Press my pants,” he was told.

BERNIE ROSEN: In 1960, after Ali—the young Cassius Clay then—won the Olympic light heavyweight championship gold medal, he was managed by the people that made Seagram’s Whiskey in Louisville, Kentucky. Those people had him come down here to Miami to be trained and managed by Angelo Dundee who got him a little apartment in Overtown.

FERDIE PACHECO: That was when I met Cassius Clay. He came to my office in the ghetto in Miami at North West Second Avenue and 10th Street. I thought he was the most exceptional looking individual I had ever seen in a boxer. He was beautiful, he was shapely, all his muscles were in the right places. And he was extremely fast, fast with his mouth, talked all the time. He was not an intelligent man in the conventional sense. He was totally instinctive, just did the right thing , and he was very funny. He could charm anyone even my usually uncharmable old Baptist Church nurse, Miss Mabel Norwood, who summed him up: “That boy is either going to be the champion of the world or he’s crazy.”

Ali was a solitary figure then with nobody to keep him company, an 18-year-old, new to the big city of Miami, trying to find out what it was like. He had no guy friends. He had no girlfriends. All he had was the Fifth Street Gym and Angelo Dundee and Chris Dundee. That’s who he had. But inside of two months, he had taken over. He was a magnetic figure. The whole town was following him around. If you hung around him, you became attached to him and were under his spell.

LUISTA PACHECO: Ali was such an unassuming person. He didn’t care about getting dressed up, he would always wear black. He was so kind to everyone. He would collect antique cars, ride around in the cars, and talk with Ferdie. 

I was a dancer and dance teacher, and from my expert point of view, he was very light on his feet.

DAVE ROGERS: Sarria, a Latin guy, would massage Ali in the back room, work his muscles with the cream and all that. Once when Ali was getting his massage and workout, I tried to get into the room, and this big black Muslim guy—he was wearing one of those hats that look like yarmulkes—was standing at the door blocking my way. “Man, you can’t come in here,” he said.

But Ali overruled him. “Hey, that’s my man Jesus,” he said. That came from the time I was wearing a little beard like Mephistopheles, and the cut man, Angelo Dundee, introduced me to Ali saying: “This is my friend, Jesus Christ.” After that, and for all the years that I knew him, Ali called me Jesus.

I saw things between Angelo and Ali that most people didn’t see, didn’t know. There was such a close tie. Ali seemed to have a great love for Angelo, and Angelo for him. He would put his arm next to Angelo who was Italian and had dark skin, and he’d say, “Angelo, you a nigger; you more of a nigger than I am.” But lovingly.

BERNIE ROSEN: Angelo and his brother Chris founded the Fifth Street Gym in the early fifties. Angelo was one of the top trainers in the 20th century. Chris was a promoter of the fights in the Miami Beach auditorium, the place where Jackie Gleason would eventually put on his shows. I would go over every single Monday and do a preview of the fights, and Chris would put on shows every Tuesday night. We used to shoot one of the fights and run it back to the station to have it processed and put on the air. That was a huge thing back then.

DAVE ROGERS: We used to go to Wolfie’s after the Tuesday night fights: Angelo, Chris, Ferdie Pacheco—the fight doctor who had a medical practice in Liberty City and would regale us with all kinds of stories—and Jimmy Ellis, the fighter. They were all part of Ali’s entourage.

“Angelo, give me a couple of dollies,” Ali would say. Dollies, not dollars. Angelo would support fighters who needed money. He kept one pocket for singles and one pocket for larger bills.

Every day, I’d pick up Angelo, and we’d go to the gym. A lot of people came to the gym, guys from all walks of life. They would come off the street, up the steps, and there on the right would be this little guy sitting at a desk, always with a cigar. That was Sully Emmet, a true Damon Runyon character.

I was in the insurance business and insured a place on 23rd Street called Ollie’s. It had great steaks and hamburgers with special seasoning.

Ollie had a girlfriend, Terry. They would argue; the language was terrible. Whenever he and Terry had a fight, he’d go out in the back and smoke his cigar. He was always smoking a cigar. Sometimes the ashes would fall on the hamburgers. “Ah,” he’d say, “that’s what makes it good.”

I took Ali to Ollie’s. There was a bus outside filled with a class of kids. Ali went over to the bus and made like he was boxing, hitting the window of the bus. Then we went in. I said to him, “You’ll get only one Ollie burger. That’s all you’ll get.” (In those days they would name a burger after someone.)

Ali said, “I want another one.”

“You can’t get another one.” Then Ollie came over. “Ali, for you, there’s another one.”

Angelo brought Moe Fleisher along. He was a guy who sold boxing shows from New York and was publisher of ‘Ring Magazine’.

We’d go out for lunch, and Moe would invariably say “I have to go meet the girl.” The girl lived in the Tropics Hotel on Collins Avenue and 15th Street (I wrote the insurance for the building). He was 86 at the time; she was 84.

Another time at the Convention Center, Ali’s standing next to me. “Muhammad,” I tell him, “One of the fighters at the gym is gay.”

He says, “Who is it?”

“I can’t tell you; he’ll beat the crap out of me.”

“Tell me. No one’s gonna touch you.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Come on, you gotta tell me.”

I say, “Bend over, I’ll whisper it to you.”

He bends over. I kiss him on the cheek. He slides down the wall, hysterical.

I called Ali the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He would talk to everyone, give autographs to everyone. He was a real good guy.

LUISTA PACHECO: When Ali was at the Fifth Street Gym, chairs were lined up all around the ring. People would scream and yell as he shadow-boxed around. Other fighters were training there, but it was never packed the way it was when he was there.   

JOSEPH KRUTEL: I’d see Ali there, watch him spar, sit on his lap. The Fifth Street Gym had to be the greatest one location on Miami Beach when it came to sports. I used to go there with my father and a group of guys. We saw Sonny Liston fight there. My father would be in the huddle in the ring; he shot it on 16 mm. My father was best friends with Angelo Dundee. I saw the training that was done with Angelo. I saw Ferdie Pacheo, the most famous fight doctor ever known in sports, and his wife Luista at the gym. They were my mom’s dear friends.

FERDIE PACHECO: “The Fight Doctor” name for me was New York stuff. That was hardly all that I was. I was a scholar who gave lectures at Harvard and all over.

I liked every boxer I ever took care of. I was a hero to people because I was taking care of their heroes. There is something ennobling about taking care of people who are on their last legs, 18, 19 years old and they don’t know what to do with themselves.

The Cuban boxers were my favorites. They came to Miami completely lost. They were political exiles and had been oppressed, horribly. I took them into my house and let them sleep in the garage. I had a Cuban maid. She was a great cook, and she cooked the food they liked, lots of it. They all made money and all became champions.

I met Angelo Dundee around the time I came to Miami to live. “I like boxing and jazz,” I told him. “Any boxer that gets cut I will sew him up for nothing. I will take care of his medical needs. For the rest of your life you will never have to write out a check for me. On the other hand, I want a ticket to every fight you promote—for me and my wife and maybe more if I want to bring friends.” He got a good deal. So did I. He saved himself at least a hundred, two hundred thousand dollars. For my part, because of Ali, worlds of interest opened up to me that I had never known. I met the Queen of England, Winston Churchill, Malcolm X, the Beatles, Elvis. Through the 1960s and 1970s, everyone who was anyone was at our door. They all wanted to be with Ali.

I met Budd Schulberg. He liked being at the Fifth Street Gym. He loved boxing. He was a great writer, a perceptive writer. He wrote ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘The Harder They Fall’ among other top writings. I had written a very good novel of my growing up. It delineated the society of Tampa and Ibor City better than anybody else has ever written it. I asked him if he would read what I had written.

We agreed that he would come over to my house at ten the next morning. He asked me to have a good bottle of vodka for him. I had a case ready. He went into the backyard with the manuscript, sat under the shade tree, and began to read. He stayed with me for two days and read it straight through. He edited it for me and did not make many changes. He said he liked it a lot and if it doesn’t get published, it will be a shame. However, he couldn’t get it published for me. I couldn’t get it published either.

But Schulberg was extremely helpful to me, and I was extremely helpful to him. And that was because of Ali. Because I knew Ali, people wanted to know me, to help me.

(to be continued)

Written by acclaimed sports author and oral historian Harvey Frommer, with an intro by pro football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, When It Was Just a Game tells the fascinating story of the ground-breaking AFL–NFL World Championship Football game played on January 15, 1967: Packers vs. Chiefs. Filled with new insights, containing commentary from the unpublished memoir of Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram, featuring oral history from many who were at the game—media, players, coaches, fans—the book is mainly in the words of those who lived it and saw it go on to become the Super Bowl, the greatest sports attraction the world has ever known. Archival photographs and drawings help bring the event to life.

Dr. Harvey Frommer is in his 39th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: best-selling “New York City Baseball, 1947-1957″ and best-selling Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball, his acclaimed Remembering Yankee Stadium and best-selling Remembering Fenway Park.

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