Monday, August 3, 2015

Brothers Dundee, the 5th Street Gym, and boxing's best days in Miami Beach

New York Times, Nov. 19, 1998

By Jane Feehan

I was hooked on boxing as a kid after seeing World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson running along River Road in Chatham, N.J., training for his matchup with Ingemar Johansson. In his early 20s then, Patterson exuded intensity and purpose, endurance and physical magnificence. I was awe struck when I learned it was all for professional fighting.

A few years later we moved to Fort Lauderdale, about 25 miles from the epicenter of boxing, the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. Looking back it may have been the one time I wished I were a man … to climb those creaky wood stairs to the dilapidated, termite-invested gym sitting above a drugstore and news stand. How else to authentically experience this fraternity of the "sweet science" whose members were punching, jabbing, left hooking and pivoting hours each day in hopes of reaching pugilistic fame and fortune? I could only read about it … and that was OK.

Born in Philadelphia, Chris Dundee (1907-1998) had managed the boxing career of brother and club fighter, Joe Dundee. The family name was Mirena but “Dundee” sounded Irish, loaning (they thought) street cred to their boxing finesse and promoting abilities. It stuck.

Chris first came to Miami Beach in 1938 to promote the Ken Overlin-Ben Brown fight at the jai alai fronton. The area was ripe for boxing events; Miami was the new land of opportunity. He returned to stay in 1950 and opened a gym at 5th Street and Washington Avenue. Younger brother Angelo Dundee (1921-2012), who gave the gym its name, came aboard as trainer and manager. The Miami Beach Auditorium often served as stage for official boxing events. Chris remained the consummate promoter, keeping seats filled. With complementing skills, they yin-yanged their way to success. .

New York Times, Jul. 25, 1971
Brothers Dundee kept the gym humming with hopefuls and Chris scored a few notable promotions. The first big smack up was in 1956 with the lightweight World’s Championship fight between Wallace “Bud” Smith and Joe Brown. The most famous, of course, was the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston matchup for the World Heavyweight title in 1964. It catapulted Clay, who had just taken the name Muhammad Ali, the 5th Street Gym, and the Dundees—especially Angelo—into world fame.

There was another among the gym’s notables who rode this rising tide.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco (b. 1927) operated a free clinic in Miami’s poor Overtown neighborhood when he joined the cast of characters at the 5th Street Gym in 1962. He became known as the fight doctor, corner man and personal physician to Ali and other boxers. Pacheco left Ali’s camp after a controversial bout with Ernie Shavers in 1977. He went on to become a media personality as boxing analyst for NBC and Univision. Pacheco and Ali remained friends.

Pacheco’s book, Tales from the 5th Street Gym (University of Florida Press, 2010) captures both the history of the gym and essence of what it meant to fighters. Among them included a troupe of talented Cuban pugs, their fellow exile fans, and other managers and trainers during the decades before the gym's demolition in 1993. Several practitioners of the sweet science contributed to Pacheco’s compilation but he set the background and tone, providing context. His wife, Luisita Sevilla Pacheco, provided many of the photos.

To know the gym’s history is to understand why Ferdie Pacheco was “steamed” in 2006 when Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer ceremoniously installed a plaque at the site of the demolished gym dedicated to Angelo Dundee who was on hand for the occasion. Chris was gone by then but Angie remained in the collective conscience (he still does). Now 89, Pacheco is a treasure trove of good, bad and hilarious memories from this Golden Era of boxing. He’s a prolific writer, with 14 books to his credit, and painter of works that fetch thousands; his book features a few of them.

No, I never made it to that boxing mecca in South Beach, but reading the doctor’s tales was almost as good as climbing those stairs to boxing heaven. Sweet. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

Tags: Ferdie Pacheco, Angelo Dundee, Chris Dundee, Muhammad Ali, Miami Beach, 5th Street Gym, film researcher

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