It's a shame nobody was willing to fight to save Miami Beach's Fifth Street Gym

Phil Jackman

May 06, 1993|By Phil Jackman

One of the joys of cavorting with the Orioles back before mediocrity was not only accepted but extolled was wintering in South Florida while the troops shook the kinks out before another 105-win season.

Miami, the Beach, Fort Lauderdale and environs were jumping then, as no less than a dozen sports collided and the proud and the profane were all over the place. With Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in the Yankees' camp, it was as big an attraction as Ted Williams learning about managing with the Washington Senators.

Every Saturday, there was a big prep race for the Kentucky Derby at Hialeah or Gulfstream and, one Sunday, Jack Nicklaus was picking up the PGA Championship in Palm Beach Gardens a short ways from where Billie Jean King was playing a big match against Evonne Goolagong. Days like those were the rule, not the exception.

But for all this activity -- Jackie Gleason motoring around in a big Caddy and "Murph The Surf" trying to beat a murder rap -- there was one location that held firm as the place to be. Mainly, it was because Muhammad Ali was getting ready to battle Joe Frazier for the first time. But the site itself didn't play second fiddle to anyone or anything in its own right.

Perhaps you read about the famed Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach being torn down the other day. To some, sooner they fill in the Grand Canyon, drag the Statue of Liberty out to Rapid City, S.D., or dam the Mississippi River above St. Louis.

"This," said the "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, "is yet another example of America's failure to recognize its history. Or worse, to say 'to hell with it.' "

Pacheco, who lives and doctors in Miami, is an expert on the Fifth Street, not only because of his working relationship with Ali, but his longtime study of the sweet science.

"There were a lot of ghosts wandering around there the other day when the end came," he said. "Guys like Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson, they had to be upset. People are into money now and forget the past. New York people own the place now and they said they didn't care, but the city or state should have stepped in and kept it as an active museum place.

"You see something like this and you think sooner or later someone will come along with the idea of paving over the Gettysburg battlefields. Imagine tearing up that beautiful lawn where Pickett's Charge took place to put in an amusement park.

"The funny thing is, it's a great area now; it used to be bad. It would have been terrific to leave the old place up there and surround it with shops, restaurants or whatever. It seems nobody has the energy or desire. Maybe they [the locals] just don't understand. All along, it was one of the things Miami Beach was known for."

Memorable seems hardly an apt description. Double doors on a side street opened to a wide staircase heading up. There were 25 steps, a haul.

Usually, there was a guy at the top, trying to mooch a buck as an admission fee. Show him anything, a baseball writer's card, a driver's license, a gas credit card, and you were in.

Actually, it was typical gym save for the fact that there were always at least two champions getting ready for title defenses. Oh yeah, that's Willie Pastrano over there; notice he'll spar a whole round and the other guy won't lay a glove on him.

Holding court at all times, of course, was Ali. Everything he did -- spar, shadow box, bang the heavy bag, skip rope, rat-a-tat the speed bag or simply tie his shoes -- was met with appreciation and applause. Trainer Angelo Dundee played second banana, expertly spinning yarns and filling up notebooks.

Most of the time, it was miserably hot and close up there, several windows being painted shut. But even ladies in chiffon dresses and big, wide-brimmed hats didn't mind. The posters on the wall were classic: Dempsey vs. Tunney, Sept. 23, 1936. Nearly 121,000 people showed up to see that one in Philadelphia. Louis vs. Conn, 1941, the Polo Grounds.

Then, too, there were the usual signs on the walls. A particular favorite was "No Expectorating on the Floor." One of the gym managers was asked if he expected fighters to know what expectorate meant. "No," he answered, "but it covers a multitude of sins."

"I was in the midst of doing an interview for television Monday and the whole building was shaking," said Pacheco. "My wife was there and, surprisingly, she got caught up in what was being done. She grabbed a trainer's table and, with the help of a cameraman, took it out to the van. It's in my [clinic] office. At least I can say I got the table they used for Ali, Marciano, Sugar Ray and so many more."

The rest of us will be left with a shopping center or a parking garage.

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