I turned north onto Highway 61 for the last leg of my trip. Deer Lake, Pa. was less than half an hour away now, so I would be there by 4:30. Ali would be finished in the gym by then, if he was at the camp at all. The Frazier fight was only a month away. He was calling this one the Thrilla in Manila.
It was late August 1975. I was 19 and would start college in two weeks. Ali had won the title back from George Foreman in Za�re almost a year before. He was 33 now. If I was ever going to see him in person, now was the time. My feeling for boxing was strong. The year before, I had fought at the Felt Forum as a novice light heavyweight in the New York City Golden Gloves. I got decisioned, lasting the whole fight only because I imitated the clinching tactics Ali had used in his first fight with Frazier.
I was seven when Ali beat Sonny Liston in Miami to win the heavyweight title. By my late teens I had spent a lot of time keeping track of him and emulating him as best I could—eating pancakes with whipped cream on Sundays because I had heard he did, listening to Aretha Franklin records, etc.
There was no sign announcing Deer Lake as Ali's training camp and no locked gate or guard to turn back the uninvited. I parked and headed toward the center of the compound, carrying my gym bag. I thought that if I strolled around with it, I might look inconspicuous. I paused at the boulders on which Ali's father had painted the names of fighters like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier. Two 50-ish looking men in leisure suits distracted me from the display. One of them was Kid Gavilan, welterweight champion of the early '50s. I recalled reading that he worked at Ali's camp.
Nearby was the big cabin that served Ali as a gym. Inside were a ring and several dozen folding chairs. A heavy and a speed bag hung in a far corner. I inspected the heavy bag, hoping that the depressions in it had been made by Ali himself.
Exiting, I saw the heavy brass bell the champion was known to ring before road work. It hung next to his personal cabin. The kitchen and dining cabin stood within pancake-flipping distance. They were built in 1973 following the defeat and broken jaw Ali suffered at the hands of Ken Norton. Ali called the camp Fighter's Heaven. A fighter in training needs good food, sleep, a gym he can get to and freedom from distractions. These three cabins, on a bluff overlooking the Poconos, had everything. Nobody seemed to mind that I was walking around camp. I sat on the Jersey Joe Walcott boulder, and a relaxed looking middle-aged man came strolling my way. I asked if he knew if Ali was in camp.
"Yeah, he's here, he's takin' a nap now," he said.
"What will he do between the nap and dinner?" I asked.
"Oh, he'll just be walkin'...talkin'. Hey fella, there he is now."
Farther up the hillside, obscured by foliage, a cluster of figures in light-colored clothes surrounded a patch of black shirt. I moved to get a better look, and the cluster began coming down the path.