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Fight Doctor's last round

MIAMI

In his studio, Ferdie Pacheco stares at the canvas and picks up his brush. Another friend from his youth has passed away. Time to summon a memory.

Ferdie dips the brush, applies a dab of paint to old No. 35. It seems impossible to him that Rick Casares is gone. Casares, the pride of Ferdie's old neighborhood in Ybor City and the legendary Chicago Bears running back, was young and powerful and immortal. And then suddenly — it seems like it happened suddenly to Ferdie — his boyhood pal was an old man, chronically ill, with no chance of getting better.

Once Ferdie could sprint across Seventh Avenue weighed down by school books and float like a butterfly onto a passing Ybor City street car. As a middle-aged man he could slip through boxing ring ropes as smoothly as the most graceful dancer. Now he walks with difficulty.

Ferdie, which is what everybody calls him, grew up precocious and wild in Tampa but ended up in Miami, where he became a doctor and writer and painter and a notorious ladies' man. Of course he can tell you stories about his most famous patient. He was Muhammad Ali's boxing doctor and friend.

Stories? He's got a million.

"Here's just a little one,'' he says from his couch in the beautiful home he shares with his third wife, Luisita.

A charming lie. Ferdie has never told a short story in his life. They are long, humorous and risque. More often these days they are tinged with sadness.

As he paints his famous portraits, as he tells his colorful stories, he weeps for friends who have died and abandoned him. His own three strokes have left him wondering about his own mortality.

He is 85 now and shuffling into the ring for what sometimes seems to him his final round.

• • •

In his mind, of course, he is still the smartest kid in Ybor, the adored son of Consuela and J.D. Pacheco. It's the Depression, though his parents are doing okay. And so, for that matter, is Ybor, the Hillsborough County city founded in the late 19th century by Spanish, Italian and Cuban immigrants. Factory workers still make cigars by hand. The fish mongers sell red snapper for Christmas Eve suppers. The smell of roasting coffee wafts on the breeze.

His grandfather, Gustavo Jimenez, is still alive. He is elegant, artistic, a former consul. An indifferent father to his own children, he has tried to make up for it by instilling greatness in his grandson. He makes the boy listen to opera on the radio on Saturday. Grandfather takes the boy to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, sits him before a painting and asks "What do you see?'' The boy, who likes to draw, sees a pretty picture. Not good enough! What else? Well, the boy's eye is drawn to a circle of off-center light. Yes! Grandfather is pleased. It's all about the light, Ferdie.

He eats candy. Plays baseball. Goes to school. Teases girls. Gets into the usual kid-stuff trouble. Helps his dad, a pharmacist, at his drugstore. Gets a job waiting tables at the famous Columbia. Sometimes the streetcar stops outside so the conductor can rush in and gulp coffee — from a saucer.

Why don't they drink from a cup?

"Because the coffee cools quickly in a saucer,'' the headwaiter explains. "The conductor doesn't want to burn his tongue.''

• • •

Ferdie's hair is white now. Sometimes he can't get up from the couch without help. Yet whenever Luisita serves him a cup of coffee and he notices the saucer he is transported back in time.

It's 1944.

Ferdie is remembering about how he lost his virginity after spilling hot Spanish bean soup onto a mobster's lap.

The mobster was Santo Trafficante Jr., the mafia boss who was a regular at the Columbia in Ybor. Trafficante had killed people for lesser offensives than spilled soup. But he liked Ferdie because he respected Ferdie's dad, who owned the pharmacy La Economica and provided medicine without charge for the poor. Ferdie's dad also was known as "the philosopher'' for reasons that included his success at mediating disputes between violent criminals.

"Hey, kid. What are you up to?'' Trafficante asked the boy one day.

Ferdie, about 16, shared his ambitions for the coming evening. He had a hot date lined up. Maybe he would get lucky.

"Kid,'' Trafficante whispered, "why don't you borrow my car?''

It was as if the emperor had offered to loan the royal chariot to a young plebeian. On date night the shiny Buick with leather seats turned out to be more seductive than a boudoir with silken sheets and a dozen raw oysters.

The next day Trafficante happened to mention the car loan to Ferdie's dad. Figured that dad might be amused. Dad turned pale, though not because his beloved boy had lost his innocence.

"Please, never loan my son your car again,'' he said to the famous criminal. "I don't want him to get shot.''

The mobster, a marked man with many enemies, got the point. The kid could get knocked off by accident.

• • •

"Ferdie, enough stories about old girlfriends,'' Luisita calls from the kitchen.

They have been married 41 years. She was a flamenco dancer. Girlish at 71, she still likes to strut her dance floor stuff if given the opportunity. He broke an engagement to marry her. "I only dated beautiful women,'' Ferdie always says. "Why would you want a Ford when you can have a Cadillac? She was the Cadillac, the most beautiful woman I ever saw. The love of my life.''

As she wanders out of earshot the old Ferdie morphs into the young playboy Ferdie. Oh, the stories!

In Tampa, in college in Alabama, at the University of Florida, where he finishes pharmacy school, he dates breathtaking women. Don't even ask about the girls he dates while in the Army. He gets married. Divorces. Marries a nutty showgirl. Graduates from medical school at the University of Miami and divorces the nutty showgirl.

An eligible young doctor is on the loose among all those Miami beauties and Eastern Air Lines stewardesses!

"Ferdie!'' Luisita yells from the kitchen.

"I'm an old man whose life is slipping away and she's interrupting,'' he jokes.

Okay. Better to tell some G-rated history.

After medical school, he starts his practice in the city's poorest neighborhood, Overtown, where he charges patients $5 a visit or "pay me next time.'' Delivers babies for free, treats those babies for free until they're 2. "If you do the right thing, you'll make money" is his credo. It doesn't hurt his bottom line when Medicaid arrives in 1965 and he's getting paid for his services. He buys his first Cadillac and buys a home in Miami's most exclusive neighborhood, Bay Point.

Of course he loves sports, especially boxing, and every Tuesday night he attends the prize fights Chris Dundee promotes on Miami Beach. Ferdie sits behind Dundee's brother, the trainer, Angelo Dundee, who asks: "You a doctor? Tell you what. I'll give you free passes if you'll stitch up my fighters.''

• • •

In 1960, a young gold-winning Olympic boxer from Louisville, Ky., showed up at Miami Beach's Fifth Street Gym to train with Angelo Dundee. Cassius Marcellus Clay was the greatest fighter and the most audaciously charming man Ferdie had ever met.

He could even charm Ferdie's utterly uncharmable nurse, Miss Mabel Norwood. The handsome young boxer sometimes leaned over the table, pants down, waiting nervously for Miss Mabel to administer an injection. When she showed up with the needle he'd sprint away, pants around his ankles. She couldn't help but laugh.

Black-skinned men were not allowed to eat in certain areas of white Miami. So Clay shared meals and conversation with Ferdie. "He's not an intelligent man,'' Ferdie confided to friends. "Not in a conventional sense. He's totally instinctive. He just does the right thing.''

Fifth Street Gym, Clay's habitat on South Miami Beach, is gone now. It's where Ferdie watched Clay clown for the photographers, brag about being the greatest, recite poetry, predict the round he'd knock out his next victim.

In 1964, with a 19-0 record, Clay earned his shot against the fearsome heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, who was expected to take out the kid in the opening seconds. At the weigh-in, Clay called Liston "a big ugly bear" and Liston's eyes burned with hate.

We all know what happened. The young fighter floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Tired and discouraged, Liston remained on his stool in the seventh round. Cassius Clay was the new champ.

Within days, he announced that he was a black Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Black Power went over badly with certain parts of the American public. With Ferdie, too. He thought Ali was naive about becoming a political pawn. What's more, Ali's new bosses in the Nation of Islam wanted to fire Dundee and Ferdie and bring in their own people. Ali refused. Dundee and Ferdie remained in the Ali solar system and met everybody who came knocking, whether it was Malcolm X, the Beatles, Elvis or a galaxy of hangers-on.

Ferdie can still conjure the gym smells of sweat and blood and astringent. He can still see the cigarette smoke hanging over Madison Square Garden and hear Howard Cosell's grating voice. "Cosell,'' he tells people even now, "was a tall man stooped over from carrying the weight of his importance on his shoulders.''

Ferdie got famous because of Ali, too. He became "The Fight Doctor'' who signed autographs in Miami and New York and Tokyo. At Joe's Stone Crab he always got seated right away. He got a television broadcasting gig because of his years with Ali and even won an Emmy.

"What was it like to be Ali's fight doctor?'' someone asked Ferdie during a University of South Florida St. Petersburg speech about a decade ago. The auditorium was packed with students and professors, many of whom didn't know about Ferdie's earthy humor.

"What was it like to be Ali's fight doctor?'' he said. "It was like being Queen Victoria's gynecologist. The title didn't mean much, but the view was spectacular.''

• • •

Ferdie doesn't like to think about the Thrilla in Manila when Ali fought Frazier in 1975. They hated each other. In the boxing ring in the Philippines they came close to beating each other to death. Frazier's trainer stopped the fight after the 14th round. Ali, the winner, could barely stand. "I almost died,'' he confided to Ferdie.

And that was it. The beginning of the end. In fights that followed, Ferdie noticed symptoms of brain damage. In a championship bout in 1977, Ernie Shavers beat Ali senseless. "You have to quit, Champ,'' Ferdie said afterwards.

Ali wouldn't quit boxing so Ferdie quit Ali.

They last saw each other in 2002. They embraced as Ali trembled with Parkinson's. Ferdie heard Ali's slurred voice say, "You was right.''

So here we are now.

Ferdie goes to lunch every Tuesday with old Miami friends. They eat ham sandwiches, pea soup, potato salad. They talk about old times and the people they knew who are gone, the boxers, the writers, the intellectuals, the politicians, the criminals.

At night Ferdie reads. Luisita says their library includes 20,000 books. Ferdie usually has two books going at once, often histories. Lincoln and FDR are his favorite presidents.

In the afternoon he writes his own books. His 14 books include Ybor City Chronicles, a memoir in which he brings family and friends and the old neighborhood alive. He's also writing three different novels, including a Civil War thriller. Like Ferdie's spoken stories, the novels are long, about 900 pages each so far, with no end in sight. Ferdie writes in longhand and Luisita types.

In the morning, Ferdie paints. He's what you might call a "memory painter.'' His work immortalizes the life he remembers in old Ybor and his days at the Fifth Street Gym when Ali was the Greatest and spoke without slurring his words. Although his style is his own, Ferdie as an artist has been profoundly influenced by Norman Rockwell, but mostly Mexico's Diego Rivera in the way he uses vivid color. As he paints, he listens to the long gone jazz greats Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Luisita brings coffee, offers encouragement, wipes his lips.

Paintings hang everywhere in the house. In the alcove, a huge one of Luisita as a breathtakingly beautiful young dancer gazes down seductively. In other places Ali, in his prime, dares you to take a swing.

He dabs brown paint on the canvas that celebrates Rick Casares. He's in his Bears uniform, holds his helmet, stares ahead, a gladiator. He was perhaps the greatest athlete who ever lived in Ybor and later a fearsome fullback for the world champions. He passed away on Sept. 13. Ferdie doesn't travel well anymore and had to miss the funeral in Tampa.

"He was the last of the giants,'' Ferdie says, choking down a sob. "I know I'm getting close to my time to leave this earth.''

Luisita rubs his neck.

He believes in an afterlife.

"Yes,'' he says. "I believe it's a continuum of the essence of some form of life experience. What it is we are not privileged to know.''

With his eyes closed Ferdie can guess. Heaven is his mother's gentle smile. It's the feeling of a new Buick's leather seats against his naked backside and the smell of a pretty girl's perfume. The soundtrack is not provided by angels on harps but the clang of an Ybor City streetcar bell.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727-893-8727 and klink@tampabay.com.

Fight Doctor's last round 11/29/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 2:57pm]

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