Ali and the Fifth Street Gym

By Harvey Frommer, Contributor
June 7, 2016 6:52 am Last Updated: June 7, 2016 3:24 pm

(Adapted from “It Happened in Miami, the Magic City: An Oral History” by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer)

With the passing of one of our all-time favorites, with affection for Muhammad Ali and his memory, we proudly present this excerpt.

Cassius Clay was born in Louisville. But Muhammad Ali was born in Miami.”—Ferdie Pacheco

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.

Muhammad Ali punches the heavy bag in one of his daily workouts at Miami on Jan. 10, 1964. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali punches the heavy bag in one of his daily workouts at Miami on Jan. 10, 1964. (AP Photo)

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.

Once I was with Moe in the Convention Center. We go to the bathroom. He’s standing next to me in from of the latrine. Before anything starts, he looks down and he says “Son of a bitch, you died before I did.” That was Moe Fleisher.

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.

Cassius Clay is seen posing in Boston on Nov. 9, 1964. (AP Photo)
Cassius Clay is seen posing in Boston on Nov. 9, 1964. (AP Photo)

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.

RED HELLER:  Maybe the most dramatic moment in my time with Ali was Feb. 25, 1964, at the Convention Hall in Miami. It was Cassius Clay versus Sonny Liston—the heavyweight championship of the world on the line. It was a pure boxing match. Nobody, they said, could beat Sonny Liston. Nobody. He was considered totally indestructible. Huge, muscular, murderous, a murderous man.

In the opening seconds at the weigh-in, Clay called Liston “a big ugly bear.” The champ was stunned. His eyes burned with anger at this young pup of a challenger. Clay was a 22-year-old, still like a high school kid, as innocent as could be. He had learned from the people in the gym that the people in the penitentiary were scared of only one kind of person, a crazy person. Sonny Liston was the only kind of person who could kill you inside the gym, inside the ring, inside the penitentiary.

There was no one outside of Angelo Dundee and me around who thought Clay would win. There were 46 writers who covered the fight; 43 predicted Liston would be the winner. He was a 7–1 favorite. But once you saw the way the young man trained, you knew he was going to beat Liston.

No one was faster or stronger. Never was there a heavyweight champion built by God like Muhammad Ali. Not many remember that his record was 19–0. That is what earned him his shot against the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston.

A 1965 image of Boxer Muhammad Ali in the USA, with his first wife Sonji Roi. (AP Photo/Str)
A 1965 image of Boxer Muhammad Ali in the USA, with his first wife Sonji Roi. (AP Photo/Str)

BERNIE ROSEN: I will tell you a story. I was at the Liston-Ali fight. We had a camera set up in Sonny Liston’s post interview room. Everyone had a camera in there. There was no thought that Cassius Clay could win. He was the underdog of underdogs.  But just in case, I had a second camera set up in Clay’s interview room.

FERDIE PACHECO: Liston was a two-step fighter. He shuffled two steps forward and then jabbed. But once the fight started and Liston did the two step, Ali timed it and saw he was able to handle it. Liston was used to hitting people once and knocking them down. He was hitting Clay, but Clay wasn’t budging, and Liston wasn’t hurting him. “I felt good ’cause I knew I could survive,” Ali said.

BERNIE ROSEN:  Liston had a substance on his glove. Back then they were not that active in checking everything.

FERDIE PACHECO: In the fourth round, Liston rubbed some substance into Ali’s eyes. The round ended. Ali came back to the corner. “My eyes burn,” he said. “They put something in my eye. I can’t see. Cut off my gloves, Angelo, cut off the gloves. I want to prove to the world there’s dirty work afoot. I want to end the fight now.”

Angelo calmed him down. I got the sponge and poured water into his eyes trying to cleanse whatever was there. Angelo put his pinkie in his eye and then put his pinkie into my eye. It burned like hell.

It turned out that Clay’s eyes were rubbed with a substance from Liston’s gloves. Angelo expertly threw more water in Clay’s eyes and yelled— “Run, run, run,” until his eyes cleared.

As Clay went out for the next round, Dundee told him “Just run, run. Keep away as much as you can.”

Clay did run and shuffle. He landed shots as the rounds moved along and his eyes cleared. Liston went on the defensive. He did not answer the bell for the start of the seventh round leaving Cassius Clay a TKO and the world championship. “I shook up the world,” Ali said afterwards. “I shook up the world.”

Dr. Harvey Frommer, a professor at Dartmouth College in the MALS program, is in his 40th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, he is 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,as well as his acclaimed Remembering Yankee Stadium and best-selling Remembering Fenway Park. His highly praised When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl was published last fall.

His Frommer Baseball Classic—Remembering Yankee Stadium (Second Edition) is his newest sports effort. A link to purchase autographed copies of Frommer Sports Books is at: FrommerBooks.com

The prolific author is at work on “The Ultimate Yankee Book” (2017).