The original 5th Street Gym is gone, as is its most famous boxer.
But on the day Muhammad Ali’s memorial service was held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, his fans and admirers came to the new 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach to reminisce and pay homage to the American hero who “shook up the world” with his fists, his words and his principles.
Ali, who died June 3 at age 74 after a three-decade battle with Parkinson’s disease, spent the pivotal years of his early career living in Miami and training in Miami Beach and often returned to the mangy but storied gym at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue to prepare for his later fights.
“We’ve had a lot of people come in who always wanted to make the pilgrimage to the one and only 5th Street Gym, and here they can feel and appreciate some of the history,” said Dino Spencer, co-owner of the gym at 1434 Alton Rd.
The visitors Friday included people who once sparred with Ali — because he was willing to go a gentle round with just about anybody who climbed the creaky steps and asked for the thrill of sharing the ring with the champ. And people who were touched by Ali in other ways — visiting them at the hospital, giving their organization a donation, signing an autograph, reciting a poem, cracking a joke, performing a magic trick or simply bestowing on them his innate joy by flashing that unforgettable smile with the mischievous glint in his eyes.
“So many, many stories about Ali,” Spencer said. “One person recalled how Ali entered his hotel through the kitchen, shaking all the hands of the staff, and was asked to come to the front lobby to meet some important people and he said, ‘I’m with the important people.’ ”
Spencer became an Ali fan at age 5 in 1978 when he watched Ali lose his world title to Leon Spinks “and I cried.”
Ali, then Cassius Clay, moved to Miami in 1960 and used to run across the causeway to the gym owned by trainer Angelo Dundee and his brother, promoter Chris Dundee. Even then it was a hot, sweat-stained, threadbare place, and the Dundees used to nail plywood to the floorboards rotted by termites. But it oozed character, and the young, brash and handsome Ali gave it a glamorous appeal. He was an unorthodox heavyweight who held his hands low and moved his feet with dazzling quickness. Celebrities such as the Beatles — who were appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show during their first U.S. tour — stopped in to see the kid who proclaimed himself “the greatest.”
“It was our own kingdom of Oz,” Ferdie “the Fight Doctor” Pacheco used to say about the gym whose aura is captured in his book Tales From the 5th Street Gym.
After Ali upset Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Hall in 1964, he confirmed his conversion to Islam and changed his name. During a time of protest marches and assassinations, he became an outspoken proponent of black power, black-is-beautiful pride, civil rights and religious freedom. After he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War because of his faith and was suspended from boxing at age 25, he traveled to college campuses to express opposition to the war.
By 1993 the gym was considered too decrepit to refurbish and was demolished, much to the chagrin of those who wanted to save it or make it into a museum.
In 2010, Spencer and Angelo Dundee partnered to open the new 5th Street Gym at its original location. Ali attended the grand opening with wife Lonnie “and the next day he came back and reminisced about the old pictures and posters,” Spencer said. “Everyone he met was influenced by his kindness and affection.”
The gym was bought out by a CVS drug store and moved to Alton Road three years ago. The famous second-floor 5th Street Gym window that Spencer preserved and hung like a piece of art was stolen, but the gym is still decorated with black-and-white photos of Ali with the Dundees, Howard Cosell, Sugar Ray Leonard, his entourage and lots of little kids.
It’s still steamy and thumping with the sound of speed bags. Fighters such as Paulie Malanaggi, James DeGale and David Haye train there, as will Australia’s and Azerbaijan’s Olympic teams.
As Ali was eulogized by Lonnie Ali, his daughters, Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel, the daughter of Malcolm X and former President Bill Clinton — with a message from President Barack Obama — people came by the gym to pay tribute and snap photos of themselves standing at the storefront, which displays a photo of the young Ali inside the gym, grinning, with fists raised and one of Ali standing defiantly over the fallen Liston.
“He loved people,” said Spencer, who plans to sound the ring bell 10 times at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Saturday. “And they loved him.”