Muhammad Ali learned to be a champion in The Sunshine State
As a kid growing up in Tampa and later as a young adult I never missed a Muhammad Ali fight. From the first battle with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, in 1971, till his sad departure from the sport in 1981 when he lost to Trevor Berbick, I saw them all.
Sometimes it was on the big screen of pay per-view at the Amory or at Cutis Hixon Hall, or on ABC Wide World of Sports, anytime Ali fought it was must see TV. What many may forget was Ali was a fixture in Florida and two of the most important men in his professional life, his trainer Angelo Dundee and the pride of Ybor City, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, help craft a raw, talented boxer into a world champion.
It was at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami that was run by his brother Chris that Dundee helped to Ali the greatest fighter of all time. Ali held court at the Miami sports landmark and besides working on boxing he also would craft some those great phrases he would use to drive his opponents crazy.
Dundee traveled around the world with Ali, and he was the corner man in all but two of Ali’s fights (Tunney Hunsaker in 1960 and Jimmy Ellis in 1971). That is two out of his 61 bouts that Dundee was not at Ali’s side. The two men were friends until Dundee’s death in 2012 and the veteran trainer would always refer to Ali as “my kid”.
“Ali could go all night. Where he got his reserves from I don’t know. But he always had those reserves. He was a little bit special,” Dundee told The Boxing News, not long before his death. “One time I saw him get decked in sparring. He got whacked on the chin, but as soon as his butt hit the canvas he woke up and he got up. I knew then I had a great fighter to work with.”
As for Tampa’s own “Fight Doctor,” Pacheco became Ali’s corner man and personal physician in 1962 and worked with him through many matches and many years, including all three of Ali’s successful title bouts. He was corner man and physician with Angelo Dundee, Bundini Brown, and Wali Muhammad, forming Ali’s winning team.
Fifteen years later, in 1977, Pacheco became seriously concerned Ali’s reflexes were slowing down, with great potential for incurring liver and kidney damage. Pacheco left Ali’s corner after the Earnie Shavers fight (Ali Win 15). He was convinced that it was time for Ali to hang up the gloves before he got hurt badly.
Ali then lost three of his last four, fighting Leon Spinks twice (Lost 15 and Win 15), Larry Holmes (Lose Referee’s Technical Decision 10), and Trevor Berbick (Lose 10). Ali also fought a ten round no decision exhibition against Lyle Alzado in Denver in 1979.
Pacheco knew Ali and his body better than anyone and he told the champ that he was done. In retrospect Ali could have and should have listened. To the bitter end, Ali was the consummate showman, and would not relinquish the public media attention and the limelight spectacle he created.
The retired physician sat down in his Miami home with USA Today’s boxing writer Jon Saraceno in 2010 for a conversation about Ali. Saraceno asked Pacheco why he left the Ali camp after the Shavers fight in 1977.
“They [team Ali} had told me they never were going to put him in a hard fight again, then they put Shavers in there. He was about the strongest guy in boxing. That was easy?”
Saraceno asked Pacheco if presented his post-fight medical findings to the Ali camp after the Shavers fight?
“I sent them to Angelo, (manager) Herbert Muhammad, Ali and his wife (Veronica). I wrote, “This is what’s happening to you. If you want to continue, you have no shot at a normal life.” I never heard a word — a word. Because they knew I was right.”
In the interviews last question Pacheco was asked – How do you feel about Ali’s life today?
“Ali’s life is a perfect novel. 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, (voice cracking) 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.”
One wonders if Ali had listened to Pacheco, and called it quits back in 1977, if his quality of life would have been better. Alas, that is not what happened and we will never know if things would have been different if Ali would have paid attention to the “The Fight Doctor.’