Ferdie Pacheco, the ‘Fight Doctor’ and Muhammad Ali’s physician, dead at 89

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco enjoys an exchange with his wife Lusita during lunch with friends in Miami. Pacheco, born in Miami, achieved fame in the world of boxing but his interests stretched far beyond it. [Times file, 2013]
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco enjoys an exchange with his wife Lusita during lunch with friends in Miami. Pacheco, born in Miami, achieved fame in the world of boxing but his interests stretched far beyond it. [Times file, 2013]
Published November 16 2017
Updated November 17 2017

Ferdie Pacheco’s final regret might be that someone else wrote his obituary — someone who didn’t know, as he did, how great he was.

"He had no self-doubt," his daughter Tina Pacheco said with a laugh. "He will be mad at me."

She laments that it will take her a while to find the obituary he wrote, but she knows it’s there, somewhere underneath the piles of pages from short stories that the doctor, artist and writer was still working on at his home in Miami.

That’s where he died Thursday, in his sleep. He was 89.

Born and raised in Ybor City, Pacheco spent time with Miami’s poorest through the medical clinic he opened there and with the most famous people in the world as ringside physician to boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

FERDIE PACHECO’S LAST STAND: A Times profile of the doctor, writer, painter and ladies man

Dr. Pacheco became known as "The Fight Doctor" and won two Emmy Awards as a television boxing analyst. Once that stage of his life ended, he threw himself into art, producing a gallery full of distinctive paintings and six books.

Excerpts from his childhood memoir Ybor City Chronicles, written on pavers shaped like tobacco leaves, line the historic Latin district’s Seventh Avenue.

If Dr. Pacheco thought highly of himself, say those closest to him, he backed it up.

"Ferdie will be real upset if we don’t get a statue for him up in Ybor soon," said his longtime friend Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta newspaper. "You know what? He absolutely deserved one."

His famous friends took to social media to mourn his passing.

"Went down fighting," tweeted retired sports broadcaster Dick Enberg. "Fascinating man ... servant-scientist-artist."

"He will be missed by so many. Rest in peace my friend," tweeted actor Burt Young of Rocky film franchise fame.

• • •

Dr. Pacheco insisted that a stroke he suffered in 2000 opened a part of his brain that allowed him to dream more deeply than others.

PHOTO GALLERY: Doctor, writer, painter, and his works

Often, he would awake from a reverie and immediately write a complete short story from what he recalled — a steamy romance, an adventure, or another memoir from his rich life. One was about the time in 1935 when he saw the National Guard come to Tampa to prevent ballot box stuffing in an election held during a hurricane.

La Gaceta — the Spanish, Italian and English language newspaper published for 95 years in Ybor City — would print these stories.

"I think Ferdie always had lofty ambitions for his art and writings," Manteiga said. "Especially those stories about Tampa. Some were insulting, some true, some not true, but all captured the essence of Ybor and West Tampa. Perhaps no one documented our Latin history better than Ferdie."

Paintings that often depict the Tampa of Dr. Pacheco’s youth sell online for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

Among his subjects, depicted on canvas in swirls of deep color, are streetcar conductors sipping cafe con leche from saucers at the Columbia Restaurant, cigar factory rollers, and Tampa’s seedy days as a mafia hotbed.

These were images, he would say, inspired by experience.

He also liked to communicate his experiences as oral history.

Among his favorite stories was the one about his first day as a young waiter at the Columbia, when he spilled soup on the lap of mobster Santo Trafficante .

Later, goes another story, when the two became friends, the gangster loaned Dr. Pacheco a car for a date. Dr. Pacheco was losing his virginity inside the car just as a "hit" was ordered on Trafficante. But no misguided bullets flew that night.

And many years later, while visiting a Trafficante casino in Havana to see a dancer he was dating, security dealt with a drunk there who was threatening to beat up Dr. Pacheco and take the girl.

Once he met his wife Luisita, though, he never had eyes for another woman.

For all the decades they were married, he’d introduce her as "the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen and the love of my life."

"We traveled the world together and we loved each other for all 47 years of our marriage," Luisita Pacheco said in a statement through their daughter.

• • •

Born in Ybor City in 1927, Dr. Pacheco was the son of a pharmacist who was beloved for giving away medicine to those in need. Dr. Pacheco followed in his footsteps.

He served in the Air Force during the Korean War then opened his own medical practice in the downtrodden Miami neighborhood of Overtown.

If someone couldn’t pay, he still tended to their needs.

"He’d want to be remembered as someone who helped people," daughter Tina said. He had a favorite saying, she recalled: "In essence, the whole thing of life is to just keep trying to do good things. Just do good things for people."

Muhammad Ali once said of Dr. Pacheco, "He is the only white man down there helping poor people and the fighters. He never would charge any fighter no money. That’s why I like him. We both like to help people who need it."

The two met at Miami’s 5th Street Gym, where Dr. Pacheco helped fighters at the request of famous boxing trainers the Dundee brothers.

And as Ali, in his words, would "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," Dr. Pacheco was by his side, all the way to the heavyweight title. When Ali joined the Nation of Islam, its leaders demanded he fire Dr. Pacheco, but "The Greatest" refused.

"What’s it like to be Ali’s fight doctor?" Dr. Pacheco once said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "It was like being Queen Victoria’s gynecologist. The title didn’t mean much, but the view was spectacular."

When Dr. Pacheco saw that Ali’s reflexes were fading, he told the fighter to retire. When Ali refused, Dr. Pacheco walked away.

"He was so angry when no one else would listen," daughter Tina said. "He loved (Ali) and wanted what was best for him."

Dr. Pacheco remained in the boxing limelight as a color commentator for two decades, from 1091 to 2000, alongside announcers Marv Albert, Steve Albert and others. Later, he was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.

"I worked numerous fights with Ferdie," said ring announcer Mark Beiro of Tampa. "Now, with Dr. Pacheco’s passing ... so is a major part of boxing history."

Still, said friend Jason Fernandez, owner of Ybor City’s Bernini Italian Restaurant, there is no way Dr. Pacheco’s memory will fade — especially in Tampa.

"He is an Ybor City icon and a Tampa classic," Fernandez said. "No one loved Ybor more than he did. And Ybor loves him back."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.


Ferdie Pacheco

Born: Dec. 8, 1927, in Ybor City

Died: Nov. 16, 2017, in Miami

Survived by: Wife Luisita; daughters, Tina, Dawn, Evelyn; and son Ferdie Jr.