Recalling when I saw Muhammad Ali work out in the Catskills in 1976, tenderly hold his baby daughter, beat Ken Norton in a bitterly disputed decision - and then almost got mugged in Yankee Stadium
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco at Muhammad Ali's side ; Ali with wife Veronica and baby Hana
The passing of Muhammad Ali reminds me of the times I met him in his prime, especially when I covered his third ring battle with Ken Norton in New York City, and watched him train the week before in the Catskill Mountains.
From the minute Ali agreed to fight Norton - a rare boxing event at iconic Yankee Stadium - I was immediately caught up in the fever pitch of interest and excitement. It was the fall of 1976 – the bicentennial year – and i had been a featured sports columnist for a few months at The Detroit News, then the largest newspaper in Michigan. My editors were enthusiastic when I asked to cover Ali & Norton.
That was especially true when they heard that I was friends with Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, also known around the world as the Fight Doctor. He had been personal physician to Ali from his earliest days, as well as other boxers who trained with the legendary Angelo Dundee.
In the early 1970s I was Entertainment Editor and Movie Critic of The Miami News, then the number two paper (behind the Herald), seeing and reviewing hundreds of movies a year, and writing columns and features about local as well as national and international entertainment.
THE FIGHT DOCTOR MAKES A CALL
One of my most avid readers was a local physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, who took me to lunch to ask about movies while I pumped him for news about boxing and the activities at the Fifth Street Gym in the southern end of Miami Beach, not far from where I lived on Hibiscus Island.
Ferdie as everyone called him was a Cuban American from Tampa who had attended the University of Miami medical school, and then opened clinics in the poorest area of Miami, known appropriately as Little Havana. At first his rate was “$5 a visit or pay me later.” Then Medicare arrived and he began being properly reimbursed, so by the time I met him he had a large spacious home for his wife Luisita and their children, and drove a Cadillac convertible.
Two of Dr. Ferdie Pacheco's colorful paintings. Not all of his work is about boxing but these capture his style and his passion for the sport
Ferdie was a true renaissance man. Besides being a healer and his love of movies and his family, he was a wonderful artist, especially in his later years, whose work has been avidly collected around the world. He also wrote several books and even some TV and movie scripts. His books include Fight Doctor (1977), Muhammad Ali: A View From The Corner (1992) and Tales from the 5th Street Gym: Ali, the Dundee’s and Miami’s Golden Age of Boxing.
I tried to reach Ferdie when Ali died but he is quite ill now and unable to talk, so I have to rely on memory, research and some of the many interviews he gave over the years.
Thanks to Ferdie in the period from 1973 until about 1976 I was allowed to hang out at the Fifth Street Gym and watch Ali and others train, work out and try to do what Angelo Dundee and the other coaches wanted done.
I didn’t get to spend a lot of personal time with Ali but I could see he was well liked by a coterie of friends and followers, including a number of men who wore dark suits, ties and usually sun glasses, even indoors. They were members of The Nation of Islam, who had been with him since his religious conversion in 1964. Ferdie called them “the Ali circus.”
Ferdie told me that the Nation of Islam wanted to have him and Dundee dumped and replaced by members of their group, but Ali had stood up to them and refused. Ferdie said Ali told them that these were the men who had made him a champion and he was going to stick with them.
Ferdie wasn’t a fan of The Nation of Islam who he called “thugs,” but he knew how to get along and do his job as Ali’s doctor and quite often cornerman during the big fights.
In an interview with USA Today in 2010, Ferdie recalled what he saw as Ali’s reasons for becoming a Muslim: “Ali was a young (man), and he was totally lost. He didn’t know what was right what was wrong. He knew something was wrong if he couldn’t go into a place and get a hamburger. He knew that was wrong. That was the South, where he lived, where black people were used to living as second class citizens. Ali didn’t like it.”
Later in USA Today, Ferdie added further insight into Ali: “One place he’s kind and gentle…the other he could be mean-spirited, but not really mean. He was basically, a very good guy – a humanitarian. He loved children. He loved to make people laugh. He didn’t have the power to sustain being mean. If he had it, he would’ve kicked out his whole entourage because (most of them) deserved it. He had the ability to forgive sins.”
I got to see both Ali’s mean side and his love of children when I went to cover his fight with Norton.
THE GREATEST CHAMP TRAINS AT THE BIGGEST RESORT
Accompanied by my wife Jodi, an actress and also close with Ferdie and his family, we traveled from our home in the Birmingham suburb of Detroit to Kiamesha Lake, New York, to stay at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskill Mountains. Once a major tourist draw from New York City, the Catskills had declined as people began to fly to Florida, the Caribbean and Europe, among many places.
Still a few of the great resorts remained, including The Concord. It was the largest resort in the region in its day, with over 1,500 guest rooms and a dining room that could serve 3,000, located on 2,000 acres, with indoor and outdoor swimming pools. It was known for its over the top food (all Kosher) and multiple entertainment venues.
A special pavilion area had been reserved for Ali’s training in advance of the Norton fight. It would be the third time the two boxers met. It was the rubber match, as Norton had won the first and Ali the second, both by split decisions. Ali had also gotten married for a third time, had a new child.
It was the third fight that year for Ali, the defending champion, who had beaten two undistinguished opponents. He knocked out Jean-Pierre Cooperman, who was outclassed, and then got by Richard Dunn, even though his weight had balloon to about 230 pounds and looked bloated while winning a unanimous decision.
Norton, who had broken Ali’s jaw when they first met in 1973, was a much stiffer test. Norton had won his last seven bouts coming into the fight. Still, the bookies made Ali a two to one favorite to win.
Ali had arrived at the Concord later than expected, and the hotel was all abuzz about him. One the way to train, he had decided to stop for a while in Show Low, Arizona, a tiny town 6,400 feet above sea level.
Ali with baby Hana
When I got to the Concord, I joined a large corps of writers, reporters, journalists and others who wanted to watch Ali’s every move. Hardly any journalists bothered with Norton, preferring Ali, who grateful reporters called, “the quote machine.”
From his earliest days, Ali knew how to put on a show. In this case he was happy to taunt Norton, who he had beaten in their last match. He could brag, boast and spew funny poetry. Reporters said he was the original “motormouth dial-a-quote” machine.
That night we had dinner with Ferdie and talked about the intense training and sparring. Afterward, Ferdie invited us to accompany him to Ali’s suite, where a number of other pals were already gathered.
There was Ali dressed casually in slacks and a shirt, sitting with his third wife Veronica Porsche. They had been married in a secret ceremony in 1974 while he was still technically married to his last wife, but that didn’t seem to matter. They would later remarry when he actually was divorced in 1977.
By then they already had their first child together, Hana, whom Veronica carefully laid into The Champ’s outstretched arms. As brutal as he had been in the ring, so Ali was sensitive to his darling baby. He was gentle and loving and funny and sweet, and everyone in the room was eating it up.
Later that night when I was trying to write my column for The Detroit News, my wife suggested my lead. It was all about Ali’s hands. The same hands that threw powerful punches that day seemed gentle and sweet as he held his baby, one of nine children he would father.
Shortly after he married Veronica, they had Laila, who would later become a female boxer.
The marriage ended after nine years, apparently because Ali never got over been a ladies’ man and his wife couldn’t take the infidelity.
THE BATTLE BEGAN ON THE STREETS - BY THE POLICE
When Camp Concord closed down, we headed south to New York City, which was its own kind of hell that summer. Aside from the usual heat waves and political problems, the New York City Police Department decided to go on strike just in time for the September 28, 1976 boxing match.
Not only did the police do their usual level of crowd control, but outside the stadium cops marched with picket signs. Some of the police banged drums and blew their whistles just to be disruptive.
There have been only a few fights staged at the home of the Bronx Bombers. Prior to Ali-Norton, the last had been in June 1959 when Ingemar Johansson knocked out Floyd Patterson.
It was a nightmare just getting there. I was taken in a bus with other reporters several hours early.
ALI ALMOST DIDN'T GET TO THE FIGHT
Even Ali had trouble getting in. His limo was blocked by the growing mob outside who jumped on the cars bumpers and hood.
About 30,000 tickets had been sold but at least 10,000 more just stormed through the gates. Promoter Bob Arum later told the Las Vegas Sun that only eight tickets were sold to customers who walked up at the last minute. But the place was full and the energy was electric, and there were more fights in the crowd than on the canvas.
I was seated in the second row, reserved for press. I thought that was great when I had a ringside seat as Ali waved a towel and urged the crowd to join him in a repeated cry of “Norton must fall!”
I also had a great view of the match. What I didn’t expect was that when they hit each other the sweat would fly off and spray the first few rows of seats, making me wish I had brought an umbrella.
Ali started slowly – flatfooted as the sportswriters would report – but finished strong. Later on closed circuit repeats you could hear Ali taunt Norton, saying, “Is that all you got?”
When the fight ended, however, it was Norton acting triumphant. He barked at Ali like a dog yelling at the moon, and in his corner there was a celebration. Meanwhile Ali’s corner was quiet.
Most people expected it would be Norton by a wide margin. Instead, Ali was named winner in a unanimous decision, bringing hoots and shock. That has been the subject of debate ever since.
As recently as 2013, the Wall Street Journal ran a story asking, “Who really won?” Citing stats from CompuBox, Norton landed more punches than Ali and did so with fewer punches, meaning he was the more efficient boxer. Norton connected no 286 punches compared to 199 for Ali. Norton also landed more power punches and jabs.
As the fight ended, a new battle erupted. Off in the distance along the outfield wall, it looked like a World War I battle with the soldiers by the thousands sweeping over a distant barrier. However, these were not soldiers and certainly not police, who were AWOL that night. It was rioters, muggers, looters and others in a frightening mob.
THE FIGHT ENDS, THE REAL BATTLE BEGINS
There were screams as that mob reached the seated areas and people were knocked down, purses and wallets were stolen, women were assaulted and thousands sought to escape at once, causing a panic and crowds pushing against each other.
Down in front the reporters still pecking out stories on their manual Underwood’s were shocked when muggers pushed them aside and stole their typewriters and anything else not nailed down.
Frightened, I grabbed my pad and pen and raced for the door to the press area. There were wild eyed men who looked like they just escaped from Sing Sing, just up the river from The Bronx, who I did my best to avoid. I could hear the screams of men and women in the crowd as a riot ensued.
I finally got to an exit and by screaming “press” and waving my credentials, I won admission from a cautious frightened stadium attendant. I filed my column and then waited a while longer until I felt the streets around the Stadium were once again safe to traverse.
That was as close as I got to Ali.
WHY FERDIE QUIT AS ALI'S FIGHT DOCTOR
A year later a frustrated Ferdie Pacheco resigned as Ali’s physician and went on to a long career as a boxing commentator on television, where he showed his deep understanding of the game, his control of the language and his great observational wit.
In 1977, Ferdie had seen a boxing commission report on Ali’s physical condition, which said his liver was already badly damaged, and he should not continue fighting. Ferdie sent a letter begging Ali to retire immediately and including he damning report t Ali, his wife, Dundee, his manager and others, and got not reply’s or responses. He was done.
In 2002, Ferdie would meet up with Ali once more. By then Ali was suffering from debilitating Parkinson’s Disease. Ali’s words to Ferdie were short and sweet: “You were right.”
Not long after the 1976 fight, Ali dumped the Nation of Islam, converting to Sunni Muslim. He later in life embraced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam known for its poetry and spiritual tales. In 2004, in a statement made on his behalf at the University of Louisville when he met with visiting Asian Muslims, Ali said all religions have value: “Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams – they are all unique, but they all contain water, all contain truth.”
In his 2010 interview with USA Today, Ferdie said of Ali’s life after boxing: “He didn’t deserve this. I was hoping he would live a nice long life and have all the necessary accolades and plaudits he could hold while he was old.”
With his voice cracking, Ferdie added: “Let him enjoy what the nation thinks of him. He has that, but he shouldn’t have had to pay such a price. He paid for it. He chose to pay for it, that’s true. Am I sorry for him? No. He had the greatest life any human being can have. There’s no way – no way – he could have lived better.”