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Dr. Ferdie Pacheco
November 08, 1976
Never one to say "Take two uppercuts and call me in the morning," this physician cares for the denizens of a classic training gym
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November 08, 1976

The Doctor Who Makes Fight Calls

Never one to say "Take two uppercuts and call me in the morning," this physician cares for the denizens of a classic training gym

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Ferdie Pacheco, M.D., is 48 years old. He is an art collector, a painter and caricaturist and he conducts two medical practices, one for charity in the Miami black ghetto. Dr. Pacheco also is a sports nut who has found the perfect outlet in working as a fight doctor, treating boxing heroes and bums alike. Since 1950 he has worked thousands of fights and ministered to nine world champions, most notably Muhammad Ali, whom he also serves as personal physician. Along the way, Dr. Pacheco has kept a journal that has grown to book length. Here are excerpts.

The last perfect example of a boxing gym is located above the drugstore at the corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street in Miami Beach. It is on the ghetto side of town and it is the jewel of the world. There once was Stillman's Gym in New York; now it is long gone. There still is Gleason's Gym there; no contest. With the fight game sputtering out, there simply are no other training gyms in the country alive with action. Only the Fifth Street Gym hums with activity. It is full of fighters in all stages of their careers, every one getting ready to step into harm's way.

Gym activity depends on fight activity. In Miami Beach we are fortunate to have Chris Dundee, the last dynamo among boxing promoters. Age cannot wither, nor custom stale the infinite variety of his fight cards made from zero talent. Dundee puts on shows with what he has and builds local fighters into international attractions. For more than 25 years he has patched together fight cards by cajoling, conning, gently blackmailing, threatening, conniving and convincing fighters to work for him for the money available. The result is that he has staged some truly great fight nights in Miami Beach. He also has had some mediocre ones and some real Smell-Os. But mainly, he has had fights, and that is why the Fifth Street Gym is alive and well.

The gym looks like it was built as a set for a bad boxing movie. First there are the stairs going up. The stairway alone is worth the trip if you are a student of decay and the damage that can be worked by generations of termites. To add to the peril, the stairwell is lit by a solitary naked bulb, perhaps 15 watts, and at the top, the entryway is guarded by a gnome. Admission to the Fifth Street Gym is just 500, and because that money makes up part of his salary, the guard is ever alert for what he calls "mud turtles"—freeloaders who try to slip by without paying up.

In close-up, the gnome turns out to be Emmett (The Great) Sullivan, also known as Sully. He is a refugee from the cold and harsh life of the New York jungle; he is stooped now and virtually toothless. His clothes hang loosely on him. His cigar is clenched in the corner of his mouth, and a brown dribble of tobacco juice courses down a withered jowl onto his shirt collar.

Sully's main concern is that someone will sneak past him without paying the four bits. Once, author Wilfrid Sheed, working on a boxing book, tried to breeze through by airily murmuring, "Press."

"Yeah, press your pants," Sully growled. "Come up with the four bits, you mud turtle." Sheed coughed up the money, and Sully pocketed it, muttering, "Press. Huh. Press."

When things get tough and he faces certain personnel problems, Chris Dundee has drafted Sully into service as a cornerman. However, some Miami Beach fighters are loath to have the old man in the corner because of his disconcerting habit of keeping the cigar in his mouth during a fight. Jerry Powers, a lightweight known as the Prince of Second Avenue, a veteran of more than 300 fights, was struggling through a dreary four-rounder in Miami Beach one night when he suddenly quit between rounds. Alarmed, I ran to the dressing room to see what had happened.

"Aw, Doc, it wasn't the fight," Powers told me. "It was just that the old man kept burning me on the shoulder with his cigar every time he reached for the water bucket."

Behind Sully and his cigar, you can see that while the Fifth Street Gym is large, it somehow seems small because of the number of people engaged in frenetic physical activity. Two of the walls are lined with dirty windows; on them some long-forgotten da Vinci painted a pair of boxing gloves and the letters GYM in yellow on a red background. The paint is appropriately faded and peeling. The floors are in the same state of advanced decay as the stairs, having been worn thin by the shuffle of feet and the slapping of jumping ropes. The floor has been patched here and there with slabs of plywood; some years ago an attempt was made to repair and paint it, but the dry wood merely sucked up the paint, while the plywood continued to wear. It is clear that the pharmacist downstairs is in danger of being hit by a falling heavyweight.

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