Grinding out copy in a typically grubby newsroom in Miami Beach, Florida, one morning in 1975, I was writing a story about Chuck Hall, Miami Beach’s colorful mayor, who was never boring, but I was bored with writing.
Dennis Feola, a Jewish-Italian reporter from Brooklyn, rescued me when he breezed in and said, “Let’s go down to the Fifth Street Gym and watch Ali.”
I didn’t have to be invited a second time. Feola and I walked the few blocks down Alton Road to see the best show playing that day on South Beach. Admittedly, few shows were playing in Miami Beach during that era. South Beach was between its glory days that spring.
The glamour and glitz of the 1950s and 60s were long gone. Arthur Godfrey no longer did his shows from the Kenilworth Hotel. It had been a long time since Jackie Gleason filmed his TV show in a Miami Beach studio. Most of the hotels along Collins Avenue were run down, and even the Fontainebleu and Eden Rock had gotten a little shabby. The original Kenilworth had been dynamited and hauled away in dump trucks a year earlier. Most of the hotels south of 41st Street were crowded with permanent guests: mostly retirees from New York and New Jersey, who had outlived their retirement incomes. They sat in the sun and complained and compared symptoms and shared their prescription medicines. “Try one of these little green ones, Morris. They help my liver.”
The renaissance that created the glamorous South Beach of today didn’t start until the late 1980s.
But there was one old and revered institution that was alive and flourishing in Miami Beach in 1975: Chris and Angelo Dundee’s Fifth Street Gym on Washington Avenue was open for business. Only Lou Stillman’s gym in New York, closed since 1959, was more famous as a training facility for boxing champions. Chris Dundee (“The Wizard of Oz”) had opened the gym at Washington Avenue and Fifth Street in 1950, and his brother Angelo (“The Prince of Oz”) trained 15 world champion boxers there.
Carmine Basilio and Emile Griffith, both of them world champions as both welterweights and middleweights, were trained there by Angelo Dundee. So were Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Roberto Duran and Willie Pep.
But that day in 1975 the trainee was Muhammad Ali. He was hardly a rookie, however, having become world heavyweight champion with a TKO over Sonny Liston in 1964. He was training to defend his title against a heavyweight named Ron Lyle. Normally, Ali would train in remote locations in the islands or the deep woods of Michigan, isolated from distractions. But for the Lyle fight Angelo had decided to prep Ali at his own home, the Fifth Street Gym.
Lyle was no slouch (he was one of only three guys who ever knocked George Foreman down), but was not considered real world champion material. The Lyle fight was more like a warm up for Ali’s title fight later that year with Joe Frazier, “The Thrilla in Manila.”
The main part of the fabled Fifth Street Gym was on the second floor of a drab old masonry building, covered with soiled, flaking white paint. It was April, but it was already hot and humid in Miami. There was no air conditioning. The fighters liked to sweat. All the windows were open, but there was no breeze coming off the Atlantic. The old cigar company thermometer on the wall said it was 92 degrees in there.
There were perhaps a hundred men — no women — in the big, well-lighted room, and the main feature was an elevated boxing ring. At 12 noon, a few minutes after Dennis Feola and I arrived, Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest,” the “Louisville Lip,” the reigning “World Heavyweight Boxing Champion,” crawled between the ropes. There was a little sprinkling of applause, and Ali started bouncing around the ring, forward and backwards, shadow-boxing. Although his feet were leaving the canvass by two or three inches each time he bounced, there was no perceptible movement of his legs, “floating like a butterfly.”
After several minutes Angelo Dundee handed Ali a jumping rope, and he jumped rope without stopping for probably another ten minutes. Forwards. Backwards. Twisting the rope. Jumping rope with one foot in front of the other.
The entire time Ali was shadow boxing and jumping rope he was also entertaining, famously running his mouth. Talking and making funny faces. Sticking out his tongue. Winking and blinking and tossing his head. Singing a line or two of a song. Clowning around. Cracking wise. He traded insults with a couple of sports writers. “Look at you, chump. You’re ugly and you ain’t even a fighter. Just ugly, ugly, ugly! You be careful, boy, or I’ll come down there and whup you!”
Everybody was laughing except Ali, who only allowed himself a couple of small smiles. Angelo Dundee stood outside the ropes, holding on to a turnbuckle, grinning like a school boy.
And the entire time Ali kept moving, too fast to see. Somebody had somehow caught a dozen or so house flies and had them in a peanut butter jar. The guy stood just outside the ropes and cracked open the jar lid, releasing the flies one at a time; only once, two escaped at the same time. Ali caught every one of them except one. Something like eleven out of twelve, snatching house flies out of the air. Try catching just one out of twelve sometime. Bet you can’t.
Ali easily defeated Lyle the next month in Las Vegas. In fact, he fought five heavyweight championship bouts in less than twelve months. At age 33, he was an old man in the fight game when he defeated George Foreman, Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner, and, finally, Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” on October 1, 1975. During that year, Ali was considered the best known man in the world. He had charisma before the word was trivialized. I never actually met Ali, but seeing him from 15 feet away in a “live performance” at the Fifth Street Gym is still a vivid memory 41 years later.
Muhammad Ali died last week at age 74. They will bury him today in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, his home town
George Foreman spoke for a lot of people a few days ago when he said, “I loved the guy. There was something about him, you see his face and you have to smile. My heart would beat fast around him. It was like the most exciting human being I ever met in my life.”