Famed boxing promoter Don King once said, “I don’t promote boxing, I promote people. Boxing is a catalyst to bring people together.” Far be it for anyone to cite Don King as a philosopher, but his notion that boxing unites people is reflected in Miami’s history and relationship with the sport.
To strike up a conversation with a Miamian about the fight scene in this city over the last half century is to make a friend. Often times, rather than dwelling on a certain fight or a particular fighter’s right cross, many of these animated conversations veer toward the old venues, the scene and the personalities that peppered the ambiance.
Boxing has a colorful and storied past in Miami. After all, this is the place where Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. Here, boxing not only took root, it flourished.
Like any popular pastime, the sport needed a stage, a distinct locale that fans could identify with and visit to soak in the sights and sounds of the game. In an unassuming corner of Miami Beach, the Fifth Street Gym opened its doors in the 1950s and quickly became one of boxing’s most hallowed grounds.
What made the Fifth Street Gym extraordinary was that it was not only a venue where history was witnessed, it was also a place where history was prompted. Italian-Americans Chris and Angelo Dundee, who opened the gym and were instrumental in molding the subsequent lore of the place, found themselves at the epicenter of Miami’s dramatic cultural tectonics. By the early 1960s, Miami became the most dynamically diverse city in America, which it still remains.
At the peak of the civil-rights movement and the beginning of a massive influx of immigrants (first from Cuba, and later from Haiti and all of the Americas) American culture was redefined every day in Miami, and the Fifth Street Gym was one of the places where these transcendental cultural transactions were taking place.
“The place was the mecca of boxing and a hell of a place if you just wanted to people watch and witness stuff unfold,” Dr. Ferdie Pacheco told me this week when we chatted about the heyday of Miami boxing. Dr. Pacheco himself is one of Miami’s most prized treasures — a physician, an accomplished author, celebrated painter, distinguished television boxing analyst and the most captivating chronicler of life I’ve ever met.
Dr. Pacheco is a true renaissance man. He also played a big part in sculpting boxing history in Miami, for he along with Angelo Dundee, Drew Bundini Brown, and Luis Sarria were the four stalwarts in Ali’s corner for 15 years.
The recently appointed president and CEO of the History Miami Museum, Ramiro Ortiz, also a bit of a renaissance man having presided over local banks and promoted boxing cards in town, says that the secret behind Miami’s affinity to boxing was in the “mastery of the Dundee brothers.”
“The formula was real simple,” Ortiz explained. “Angelo was the genius of what went on inside the ring, as one of, if not the sport’s most savvy trainers, and then you had the most creative, intelligent man I’ve ever met, his brother Chris, who was the promoter and ringleader that made everything work.”
My entry into the world of boxing was precisely at one of Chris Dundee’s smoky, Tuesday-night boxing cards at the Miami Beach Convention Center. I remember my Dad taking me there as a young boy, much to my mother’s chagrin, and at an early age gaining an appreciation for all of the different communities that made up this town.
Recently, over a bistec (steak) the size of blanket, recognized radio commentator, historian and boxing guru Enrique Encinosa, pointed out that, “Boxing has always been and will continue to be a galvanizing factor in Miami. To follow the history of boxing is to follow the history of immigrant communities striving to make their way in the United States.”