I had no intention of going to the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach that afternoon in 1966. My fighting days were over, my light heavyweight championship lost. Even the pleasure of seeing my old friend Muhammad Ali, who was training for a fight, wasn't a strong enough lure to bring me back to the boxing loft where I had spent too many years—usually at Ali's side—trying to hone a body that tended more to fat than to muscle. Instead, heavy and happy, I went to visit another old friend, a Miami Beach cop named Steve Mills, who was in Mount Sinai with a minor blood disorder. Little did I know then that within a few hours Ali and a kid I had never met would teach me the meaning of the word champion.
After a few moments of small talk, Mills asked me how my new job was going. I was a representative of the South Florida Dairy Institute, sort of a goodwill ambassador. I said the job was easier than fighting. Mills then asked me if I would do him a favor. Just a few rooms down the hall, he told me, was Kenny Feldman, a friend. He was 21, a fight fan, and dying from leukemia. Mills asked me if I would stop by and say hello.
They told me later that young Feldman had lost 40 pounds in a month. As I entered the room, he smiled and said, "Hi. Hey, I know you. You're Willie Pastrano. You're the champion."
I nodded. I was almost afraid to speak. "You got me, man," I said. "But I think you're the real champion."
Feldman smiled again. He pointed toward a table near his bed. On the table was an 8 x 10 photo of Muhammad Ali, and on each side of the picture were bouquets of flowers. "There's the champion; my champion," Feldman said. "He's the greatest."
When I left the hospital I drove to the gym on Fifth Street. On the way out a doctor had told me that Feldman had at the most 10 days to live. I decided I would ask Ali to autograph a picture for him. Upstairs in the gym, I told Ali about the dying youngster. He listened attentively as I described the table with his picture and the flowers.
All Ali said was "Sure." He asked me to wait while he finished training. After he had dressed, he turned to his brother Rahman and said, "I'm going to the hospital with Sweet Pea. You all take the other cars and follow us." Ali called me Sweet Pea, which was just a play on words to go with the "P" for Pastrano.
Off we went: Ali and me in my car, Rahman and some of Ali's party in a red El Dorado and the rest of the group in a chauffeur-driven Fleetwood limousine. When we entered the hospital lobby, the place almost came apart. In less than a minute the lobby was jammed with doctors and nurses and patients.
As we approached the elevator, Ali placed a hand on my shoulder. "Say, Sweet Pea, is this a black boy or a white boy?"
"He's white and he's Jewish."