If Neil Armstrong had once landed on Muhammad Ali’s toe, chances are he’d be best known for that. So it goes without saying that accomplished author, painter, and screenwriter Ferdie Pacheco is himself best known as the “Fight Doctor” after serving 15 years as The Champ’s physician.
In his latest book, Tales from the 5th St. Gym, which he will discuss on Saturday at the Miami Book Fair, Pacheco recounts his 40 years ringside in the temple of boxing’s golden age. Originally at 501 Washington Avenue, in South Beach, the 5th Street Gym bred some of boxing’s greatest champions, including Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali. In the book, Pacheco and several guest writers share their memories of the Oz-esque world that was the 5th Street Gym and of its “Wizard,” Chris Dundee, the older brother of Angelo Dundee, Ali’s cornerman.
On Wednesday, I spoke with the Fight Doctor by phone about his new book, the 5th Street Gym’s mystique, and the difference between a gym and a gymnasium.
You start your book by recounting how the commemorative plaque for the original 5th Street Gym, which was torn down in 1993 to make room for a parking lot, makes no mention of Chris Dundee. That, you say, is the reason you wrote the book.
Ferdie Pacheco: I think he was being disparaged, is what it was. It was the 5th Street Gym, and it was Chris Dundee’s 5th Street Gym. I wanted to set the record straight.
What made the 5th Street Gym such a special place?
Ferdie Pacheco: If you were going to be a good boxer, if you were going to fight in major fights, you had to go through the 5th Street Gym, and that made it incredibly important. You had to go through 5th Street Gym to get to the championship.
In the book you describe it as a mystical place.
Ferdie Pacheco: That’s what it was. It was like Oz – we had our wizard [Chris Dundee]. It was beautiful. It was really truly a mystical place.
Did it feel that way then or just in retrospect?
Ferdie Pacheco: No, that’s the way it was or I wouldn’t have been there. If it was just a cutthroat place, I wouldn’t have been part of it. The atmosphere there was like a college atmosphere where everybody helps everybody. It was like a college football team where the fourth-string guys are helping third-string guys. It really was a lovely learning experience, like being in a university. Everybody was helping everybody, and everybody was sweet to everybody.
Were you there before Ali got there, or did you first arrive with Ali?
Ferdie Pacheco: I was there for a long time before. I was there to take care of all the boxers. I was the doctor for the whole gym. I took care of the fighters and their families. I didn’t get paid. I didn’t want to get paid.
Do you have a favorite memory of the gym?
Ferdie Pacheco: THAT is a stupid question. I mean, you spend 40 years in a gym and you ask me if I have a favorite memory. That’s the favorite memory — the 5th Street Gym.
You couldn’t pick one?
Ferdie Pacheco: It’s not that I couldn’t — it’s that I wouldn’t. They are all about the same.
You witnessed the demolition in 1993, right?
Ferdie Pacheco: Yeah. It was all junk, and they tore it down. I took what I wanted out of the gym. I took a rubbing table, which is what I use to put my paints on.
The book contains a handful of your paintings of the 5th Street Gym.
Ferdie Pacheco: I make a big living out of that. I’ve never made less than $150,000 a year from painting. You know, I’m not trying! I just paint and paint and paint. People come by the house and buy them and that’s it. I don’t have an agent, I don’t have a gallery.
Tales features contributions from long-time Miami Herald sports columnist Edwin Pope, Tom Archdeacon and several other journalists who spent a lot of time at the 5th Street Gym. Why did you decide to include guests?
Ferdie Pacheco: I wanted to bring the old guys in so we could get a more balanced view point than just my view point. And I think I picked the best. Edwin Pope was the best there is.
The boxing writing of that time is amazing, but it seems to have declined as the sport itself has declined.
Ferdie Pacheco: That’s very true. There used to be such a thing called a boxing writer. A boxing writer went to every fight. He knew everybody, knew who was coming up and who was going down. But now they just send somebody with a camera. You can take a picture with a camera and write a couple of paragraphs, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The 5th Street Gym reopened earlier this year —
Ferdie Pacheco: It’s not a gym. It’s mostly a training facility for exercise. A gym is for people who box and nothing else. To make it successful, they just opened a gymnasium. I don’t want to be any part of it. Listen, I’m 83 years old. You think I’m going to go up there and do sit-ups? If they had boxing, I could go up and sit on the corner and watch and find out what’s going on and do what I used to do there. But time has gone by. They have to do something else to make a living.
So, is it safe to say that the demolition of the 5th Street Gym was the end of an era?
Ferdie Pacheco: Absolutely. Right now [boxing is] in the doldrums. No, I don’t think we’ll ever see it again. But you know what, everything changes in this world. You can’t have a 5th Street Gym now — no siree. And that is a shame. It was just a lovely time. It was a wonderful time for the writers, too, because the stories that came out of there were just lovely. The stories keep going but there’s no one to write them. Except me.