It was Sept. 18, 1970, my 25th birthday, and I was already a washed-up, woulda-, coulda-, shoulda-been prizefighter, living on the edge of a deadly ghetto lifestyle that one would be hard-put to imagine in South Miami Beach. When you think of South Beach, you think of art deco hotels and million-dollar condominiums, but the ghetto? But that's what it was in 1970, for me and many other professional fighters, camping out in any of the dozens of run-down, dilapidated rooming houses and apartment buildings that proliferated throughout South Beach in the '60s and '70s, some renting for as little as $5 a week.
I know now that I had a lot in common with most of the other fighters who came to Miami Beach: generally a stubborn, rebellious nature, a juvenile delinquent past, experience in the amateur boxing ranks and a hometown that had few boxing promotions. We would also fight anybody at the drop of a hat.
In those days you had to be a world champion to make any real money, and even the top contenders usually had to hold down a day job if they expected to feed their families. So we all dreamed of a title shot.
My hometown of Washington held little promise for a fighter in the mid 1960s, and when another local boxer journeyed to Las Vegas and turned pro, I ended up following him there. I had a dozen fights in less than a year and flew back to D.C. But after training for four months at Finley's Gym, the only gym in D.C. where fighters went to get fights — and not getting any — I remembered a friend whom I had come to love and respect, Ralph Dupas, a former junior-middleweight champion. A great guy, he told me about his manager, Angelo Dundee in Miami Beach, and said if I couldn't find steady work in D.C. to head south to meet Dundee at the 5th Street Gym.
I packed my bags and hit the road just a few weeks before Christmas, and ended up fighting a main event a week after I hit town and signing a contract making Angelo my manager two fights later. But in the next few years, I lost as many as I won, and had returned to D.C., Vegas and L.A. for fights.
And now, on my 25th birthday, here I was, back in Miami Beach. Having sparred three rounds with Luis Rodriquez, I was dead tired and was sitting on the rubdown table in the 5th Street Gym's shower room when Angelo came in; there were only a few fighters left and Angelo wanted us all to clear out — Muhammad Ali was coming in and he wanted the gym devoid of other boxers. Ali came into the dressing rooms; he never said much to anybody when he came into the gym and went straight to his dressing room, a small room that had a window looking out across Washington Avenue with a view of a run-down burlesque house that showed dirty movies and an ice cream vendor hawking snow cones and Italian ices.
I grabbed my bag and shuffled into the main gym area, where a small crowd that had paid a dollar a head to watch Ali train was already sitting down on the benches and folding chairs that were scattered about. Ali was training for an upcoming bout in Atlanta with Jerry Quarry, what would be the first fight of Ali's famed comeback, and he always drew a crowd of people wherever he went. In the gym he was always somber and silent unless he saw a reporter or someone who could help promote his upcoming bout — then he would start talking. He quickly entered the ring with a white terry cloth robe and began shadowboxing, working up a sweat before sparring or hitting the bags. In the crowd I noticed a kid, maybe 10 or 11, standing up to get a better look at Ali. "Float like a butterfly, Moham-mud," he said, but Ali simply danced around the ring, as if he hadn't heard anything. The kid shouted it again, as Ali continued shadowboxing, and then again. I could see that a few of the 15 or so spectators were staring at the youngster when Ali suddenly smiled down at the kid and barked out "and sting like a bee" as he shot a dozen lightinglike punches into the stifling, humid midday air.
I walked down the steps of the gym that day in 1970 — now four decades ago — and sat down on one of two battered chairs that were perched atop a disintegrating plywood shoe-shine stand. It had a pair of steel shoe plates where you could place your feet and get a shine from none other than Beau Jack, a former lightweight champion of the world. Sitting there in front of the entrance to the 5th Street Gym, I stared out into space. I had sweat off 5 pounds in the gym and my throat was dry, but the scorching heat still sent a droplet of sweat down my forehead. I stood up and pondered where in the hell life was going to take me now.
In addition to his time as a professional boxer, Keith G. Laufenberg, who lives in Spring Hill, has been a Marine and Realtor. He has had numerous short stories and poems published, and has completed two novels, "Semper Fi, Do-Or-Die" and "Miami Rock." His Web site is www.kglaufenberg.com.