Greg Cote

Muhammad Ali’s legend was ‘born in Miami’ 50 years ago

Muhammad Ali attends a Friday Night Fights event to honor his former trainer Angelo Dundee at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Dec. 21, 2002.
Muhammad Ali attends a Friday Night Fights event to honor his former trainer Angelo Dundee at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Dec. 21, 2002. Miami Herald staff

Ferdie Pacheco, “The Fight Doctor,” famously once said, “Cassius Clay was born in Louisville. Muhammad Ali was born in Miami.”

You could further say Ali was born on Feb. 25, 1964 — exactly 50 years ago — on a surreal night at the Miami Beach Convention Center. He fought Sonny Liston as Clay, but his metamorphosis into the preening, floating butterfly that stung like a bee had already occurred.

He would announce the next day that his new name was Cassius X as a convert to the Nation of Islam. Within a week he was forever more Muhammad Ali, set to become perhaps the most important American athlete of the 20th century.

His playful braggadocio was like nothing we had seen. His politics and religion made him a lightning rod at a time the country still was divided by segregation. His new heavyweight championship belt, minted in Miami, made him a volatile star.

Pacheco, at 86, still lives in Miami, doctor, writer, painter, sweet scientist, Renaissance man, and the last alive of Ali’s old entourage. Being Ali’s physician and corner man gave Pacheco the most literal of ringside seats to boxing history — maybe no chapter of it more significant than that night at the convention center.

The thing is, back then, on that night, it wasn’t about a context bigger than a square of ropes bordering a canvas floor.

“We didn’t know we were gonna win, we didn’t even think of the significance. There was sheer terror Liston was going to kill us!” Pacheco said Monday from his home. “It was a huge surprise. He out-fooled Liston and just boxed a beautiful fight. But the significance was for others to say, later. For us, that night, it was sheer elation, then we went home and went to sleep.”

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As Clay-turning-Ali, then only 22, towered over a fallen Liston in triumph, America had a new counterculture hero, and our sports would never be the same.

Sports Illustrated on the eve of the millennium called that first Clay-Liston fight the fourth-biggest American sports moment of the past century. That makes it a logical starting place for anyone trying to decipher the biggest sports moment we have hosted and seen here in South Florida.

If you might nominate instead the Super Bowl 3 “guarantee” Joe Namath fulfilled across town at the Orange Bowl not quite five years later, I’d remind you Namath simply was the first athlete to successfully embrace the template that Clay/Ali created for everyone who followed.

Ali kicked open doors and allowed color and outlandish personality to flow into our games. Instantly, sports changed. He gave breadth and volume to the voice of athletes. Namath parading to town with his fur coat and his guarantee — he should have paid Ali royalties.

Liston, the aging but feared reigning champion, had been the heavy betting favorite to knock that bluster clean out of Clay. To shut him up.

A black-and-white photo shows Edwin Pope, the great longtime former Miami Herald sports columnist, ringside that night with his mouth agape and an unlit cigarette on his lip, in the moment Clay won.

“The night exploded so fast I never got the match to the cigarette,” Pope explained about the photo in a 1989 column on the fight’s 25th anniversary. “I remember thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’ ”

Pope lamented then that the significance of that night had largely been forgotten. I didn’t know my mentor to be wrong often, but thankfully about that he might have been.

The HistoryMiami museum on West Flagler Street is commemorating the fight’s 50th anniversary with an art and photo exhibit, and Pacheco is to headline a panel discussion there Tuesday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Fifty years earlier, exactly, the Miami Beach Convention Center would have been filling for the main event, with arriving fight fans having little idea a stunning coronation was to take place on the canvas.

That night was the epicenter of a golden era of boxing in Miami, back when Miami Beach’s famed, original 5th Street Gym, a jog from the convention center, was the splendidly seedy hub of it. Clay trained there for that first Liston fight. The gym, the love and life of brothers Chris and Angelo Dundee, now both passed, lasted 42 years.

The last time I remember walking up those sagging steps to enter the pungent squalor of the gym had been to interview actor Mickey Rourke, then embarked on a short-lived boxing career. Some skinny fighter played a drumbeat on a speed bag against a backlit window.

Not long afterward, Pacheco and I stood together and watched the 5th Street Gym razed by a wrecking ball on a morning in 1993, history crushed to rubble, old ghosts rising in the clouds of chalky dust. I remember thinking, “Anything can be torn down, if this can.”

Pacheco saved from the demolition an old “rubbing table” where fighters could get a massage. The table is in his house. It holds his paints. The Fight Doctor called that grimy, beautiful old gym “our earthly equivalent of the kingdom of Oz.”

These days the former Cassius Clay is, at 72, a brittle shell in the cruel embrace of Parkinson’s, while the original 5th Street Gym is as irretrievably gone as some magical, disappeared night 50 years past.

None of them is forgotten, though. Never that.

In the memory, the old 5th Street Gym is still thrumming, full of sweat and dreams, and its most famous fighter is in its humid mist, floating like a butterfly.

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