On Feb. 18, 1964, the Beatles were in Miami Beach looking for something to do. Fresh off their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, they had already checked out the beach, such as it was. Someone suggested they visit the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, then training nearby for an upcoming bout. But Liston, a grumbling bear of a man, had no time for Beatlemania.
So the Fab Four went to see his challenger, a handsome young Olympic gold medalist then known as Cassius Clay.
And thus the Beatles joined the throngs of tourists who, from the 1950s to the 1970s, made their way to Miami Beach's fabled 5th Street Gym, run by trainer Angelo Dundee and his brother, promoter extraordinaire Chris Dundee. John, Paul, George and Ringo clowned with Clay for the photographers, but left shaking their heads, convinced the mouthy youngster would be dismantled by Liston, who was favored 9 to 1.
Clay, who would shortly change his name to Muhammad Ali, proved them all wrong. His stunning seven-round success turned his training facility into "the epicenter of the boxing world," writes physician and Tampa native Ferdie Pacheco in his new book, Tales from the 5th Street Gym.
Some epicenter. The 5th Street Gym was above a drugstore in a seedy neighborhood two blocks west of the Atlantic Ocean. To get through the door meant getting past a cigar-chomping troll named Sully who charged everyone a quarter for admission, even reporters (unless Ali was there training for a bout, and then the price quadrupled). You climbed two flights of creaky stairs and found yourself in a vast room with peeling paint and a fly-specked mirror, a place that reeked of liniment and sweat, soured hopes and fevered dreams of future glory.
Near the sparring ring sat a group of gray-faced men with nicknames like Mumblin' Sam, Evil Eye and Sell-Out Moe. They all had stories to tell about what A.J. Liebling dubbed "the Sweet Science."
Reading this aptly titled book by the fabled Fight Doctor, as Pacheco was known, is like sitting down with those gray men and hearing their yarns firsthand. The narrative lacks coherence, but makes up for it with lots of color and raucous humor.
Thanks to the Dundee brothers, "the 5th Street Gym became the University of Boxing," Pacheco writes. "A trip to the gym was necessary to know boxing. On a daily basis, world-famous champions would work out next to four-round pugs."
Fight fans will especially love this book's many candid photos. A plus is a section of full-color paintings by Pacheco, an accomplished artist, of the gym and its denizens that in some ways better convey the flavor of the place than the black-and-white photos.
Pacheco does not shy away from portraying the darker side of boxing. He writes about how Chris Dundee started off working for mobster Frankie Carbo, who along with partner Blinky Palermo controlled the boxing industry in the North and incidentally owned Liston's contract. The book tells how Dundee discovered that, by moving his operation to Miami in 1950, he could set up fights without paying off 20 behind-the-scenes fixers.
There are stories about the radio announcer who threw a prostitute out a second-story window when he learned that she was really a he; the randy puncher whose death meant Pacheco could stop buying so much penicillin; the hangers-on who leeched off the big names like Ali.
To some extent, the 5th Street Gym owed its success to Fidel Castro. After El Jefe seized power, Cuban boxers found a safe haven at the 5th Street Gym, including several future welterweight and featherweight champs. Other exiled Cubans would pack the Miami Beach Auditorium every week to watch the matches that Chris Dundee promoted, guaranteeing the brothers a steady income between title fights.
Plenty of big-name boxers jab their way through these pages — Sugar Ray Leonard, Ezzard Charles and Jake LaMotta, to name a few — but Ali is the one to whom Pacheco (and the handful of co-authors he invited to join him in spinning yarns) returns again and again. The anecdotes, when strung together, paint a heartbreaking portrait:
Here is the young Ali, turning down a ride in Pacheco's car so he can run 4 miles to the gym from the segregation-era hotel where he had to stay — and then making his return trip running backward to improve his footwork. Here is Ali the world champion, banned from boxing because of his refusal to fight in Vietnam, forced by money needs to agree to a scripted fight against retired champ Rocky Marciano, with the outcome to be determined by a computer.
And here is Ali in decline, taking his last beating in the ring at the hands of an artless nobody, despite Pacheco's warnings about what the damage would do to his nervous system.
But Ali, despite his ongoing deterioration from Parkinson's disease, nevertheless has outlasted his training ground. As with much of Florida's historical past, development plans KO'd the 5th Street Gym in 1993. There's a plaque now where Sully used to collect his quarters, but this richly illustrated book makes a more fitting memorial to its sweaty yet glorious past.
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or firstname.lastname@example.org.