The big, drab room, about as appetizing as a dish of roach powder, is almost ail there is to the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. From it, however, flows a ceaseless stream of champions, not the least of them Cassius Clay and Willie Pastrano
April 06, 1964

For a boxing fan with sharp eyes, dirty shoes and 20¢, the best place in the world to get a shine is the Tropical Shoe Shine Parlor on Fifth Street near Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, at noon. For his 20¢ he will probably get, besides a shine, a close look at two or three world champions, an ex-world champion and a large assortment of boxers of somewhat lesser ability on their way to work.

If he wants to see them sharpening the tools of their trade and he has a dollar, he can follow the champions up a flight of weathered, creaky wooden stairs to the Fifth Street Gym, a large, bare and faintly dilapidated room furnished with a boxing ring, two standards for light bags, two heavy bags, a mirror, a couple of rubbing tables, an old icebox now serving as a storage cabinet for tapes, bandages and other appurtenances of the boxing trade, and Mrs. Hattie Ambusch, who is in charge of all this and who collects the dollar at the door.

Mrs. Ambusch is an elderly lady of indeterminate age who has run the gym for nine years for Chris Dundee, the boxing promoter who owns it. Her husband managed the place until Hattie came up one day and watched him for a while.

"You're not running it right," she said. "Everyone's getting the most of you." She took over and, after her husband's death, she stayed on, although occasionally she longs for her native Brooklyn.

"All of my relatives are there," she says. "I go back once in a while, but I can't leave here for long, and when I do I can't wait to get back. It gives me an interest in life. I know the fighters. I can tell a good one by the way he talks to me. Boys come up here and say they want to fight and I say how good are you and they all say good, but I don't let them fight unless I know they are good, because they can get hurt.

"I demand the highest respect from them. I say to them this is a perfect gym and you have to be perfectly clean and give me the highest respect or you can't work here, and they all do, irrespective of race, religion or creed. I don't have no favorites, but Willie Pastrano is a terrific man. I make them all terrific by the way I train them."

Of course, Mrs. Ambusch does not actually train anyone, even Pastrano. That is done by the professionals who brought along Cassius Clay at the Fifth Street Gym. not to mention Pastrano, Sugar Ramos, the featherweight champion, and Luis Manuel Rodriguez, the ex-welterweight champion who will fight Emile Griffith for the title June 12 in Las Vegas. But Hattie Ambusch does everything else. The other afternoon she helped Fay Pastrano, Willie's wife, ride herd on the five small Pastranos while Willie worked out in preparation for the bout he has scheduled with Greg Peralta in New Orleans on April 10, when Pastrano defends his light heavyweight title.

Pastrano practiced under the testy eye of Lou Gross, a trainer who has been in the business for 40 years. He worked hard, although he objects strenuously to hard work. After it was over and he had retired to the dark, ramshackle confines of the dressing rooms, which are as much a part of the atmosphere of the Fifth Street Gym as the sagging wooden floor, the gray, unwashed windows and the old fight posters Scotch-taped to the wall, he sat in a small cubicle he shares with Heavyweight Mike De John and mopped his streaming face.

"I thought the slaves went out with Lincoln," he said bitterly to Gross. "I been working like one."

Gross is a small man with a growing belly and a ravenous appetite for exercise—if it is Pastrano's exercise.

"You gonna say, 'Thank you, Lou,"' he told Pastrano. "Your trouble, you don't like work. You hate it like fire. I got to eye you all the time. I look away, you dog. You watch."

"I'm watching," Pastrano said in a soft, New Orleans voice. "Man, all I got to do is relax and I hear you. Me, I want to invent a roadwork pill. You get up in the morning, you take the pill, have breakfast, take a deep breath an' look around and you done five miles on the road. I make a million dollars."

Tony Alongi, a big heavyweight who once ranked 11th in the division, was dressing in the cubicle next to Pastrano and he laughed.

"You remember Gorilla?" he said. "Manager had maybe eight, 10 Puerto Rican fighters couldn't any of them talk English? That's what he done. He got these pills, little green pills the way I remember, he used to sell them to his boys every morning. 'Take them pills!' he'd say. 'Just as good as six miles on the road!' And the boys take the pills and then they get in the ring and come the third round, they all run out of gas and get their heads knocked off. Pills must of cost him maybe a nickel."

Marcelino Armenteros, a Cuban who is in his early 30s and who was once a fine middleweight, laughed quietly. He spars with Pastrano, working three rounds with all the wisdom and the moves he has learned in 15 years in the ring, accepting his role as a sparring partner with endless good humor.

"Don' nobody like road," he said. "De champ here, he don' like. But ees theeng you got to do. I ron weeth Weelie, I say, 'Come on. You de light heavyweight champion an' you ain' ronnin'. Me, I am just a bum. You can't run so fast as me?" "

"Oh, man, that Lino, he runs," Willie said. "Look at his legs. Run all day. He puts me down running. Sometimes he puts me down in the ring."

Lino laughed again, his eyes almost disappearing under the thick curtain of scar tissue that weights his eyebrows.

"Ees not so," he said. "You see heem slap me aroun' in there? Whop, whop, whop! Get me in de corner. Lou here, he holler, 'Go after heem!' Lou, you are a bad man!"

"Lino shows the pace," Gross said seriously. "Willie takes it easy with him, so I got to keep on him all the time to go after him. That's the way he's gonna have to be with Peralta. Crowd him, move in on him, don't let up. I got Willie fighting flat-footed some now, in close, so when he hits it's going to break Peralta up. You can't make it against him with them light jabs. When he hits, he's got to break him up. So I got to holler, 'Go after him.' "

"Whop, whop, whop," said Lino, still smiling. "Don' never let up heem, get me in de corner, whop, whop, whop. One time he slap me aroun' all de afternoon, we go for coffee, he slap me aroun' some more. 'Why you do dat?' I ask heem, and he say, 'Ees for coffee break, so you no forget, Lino.' "

Armenteros laughed. Willie laughed with him. Pastrano is a stockily built man with a wide, unmarked face. He looks like a puncher, but he is, instead, probably the most finished boxer in the world today. He was taking off the black tights and black T shirt he works in; he looks bulky in the ring, but free of his clothes he seems compact and hard. He weighed 186 after this workout, but he knew he must get down to 175 for the Peralta bout.

"I'll make it," he said after weighing. "It won't be like breaking sticks, but I'll get down there. Maybe dry out first."

Stripped, he walked down the narrow aisle between old green metal lockers to a shower at the end of the dressing room. The shower is as Spartan as the rest of the dressing room, a shower head at the end of a gray iron pipe over a square of cement. On the way, Willie turned sideways to let a pale, intense young man sidle by him. He soaped himself thoroughly, looking after the youngster.

"That's a mean one," he said. "Stormy Winters. Me, I boxed with him the other day. Got no respect for the champ. He gets in there with me, he wants to kill me. Hits like hell. Quick. Quick with both hands. You watch him."

He finished showering and walked back to his cubicle and dressed quickly in black, close-fitting trousers and a black, hip-length shirt that buttoned down the front. In his clothes he looked like a middleweight.

"See you tomorrow," he said to the dressing room at large, and walked out to Fay and the five small Pastranos. Winters looked up and nodded, his blue eyes cold. He looked like a larger but just-as-mean edition of Lew Jenkins, the old lightweight champion.

Pastrano was back the next day at noon, without his family. So were Winters and Alongi and Rodriguez and Armenteros. They may all hate the hard work of training, but they do it, intensely, and their activity makes the Fifth Street Gym the best—and the most exciting—place of its kind in the country today. In his black tights and black sweat shirt, Pastrano loosened up. On the wall, between the posters and yellowed clippings of fights long finished, is a spar timer—a small clock that divides the two hours of activity into periods of three minutes of bedlam and one minute of rest. For three minutes Pastrano danced and feinted and looked at himself in the mirror. Winters punched the heavy bag viciously, and Rodriguez boxed the heavy bag. Luis Manuel looks like an Aztec stone carving—all forehead and nose. Around the edges of the nose peer two merry black eyes. His mouth seems almost an afterthought.

The spar timer bonged once, and all the fighters quit. Outside, the sun washed Miami Beach in a white heat; in the gym the heat was intensified and sweat sprinkled the floor near all the fighters except Winters, who sweats very little.

His three minutes on the heavy bag had left Winters fresh. His manager is Lenny McMillen, a Miami Beach criminal lawyer who spends his lunch hour working with boxers because he loves boxing.

"Come here," he said to Stormy, "Tell him why you like to fight." The youngster looked at a visitor with his cold eyes.

"You evah po'ed hot tar on a summer day in Macon, Gawgia?" he asked. "You po'in' on a slanty roof, ain't possible to po' but about five hours because the tar gets sof' an' you slide off the roof. On a flat roof you kin po' fo' eight hours. Ain't nothing worse than that. That's why I'm a fighter."

The spar timer rang, and he went back to the heavy bag and Pastrano began to skip rope. Luis Manuel had climbed into the ring and was sparring with a lightweight named José Veliz. He fought in an unorthodox style, because Veliz' next fight would be with an unorthodox fighter. Rodriguez, whose next fight will be for the welterweight championship, does not mind changing his style. He has been fighting since he was a 12-year-old in Camaguey, Cuba, where he cut cane, and he can fight any way you want him to.

Gross, Pastrano's trainer, watched him carefully. Pastrano's square, strong body seemed light as he skipped the rope; it seems light in the ring, too, where he moves with bewildering speed. Gross turned to say something, then glanced back quickly at Pastrano, who had stopped skipping rope to wipe his forehead, stringing a skein of beads of sweat from his fingers to the floor.

"That's 10 seconds you owe me," Gross said. "All the time you wanta slow down. You got to go on."

Pastrano went back to skipping rope, his flat, wide face impassive.

The next time the bell rang, Willie handed the rope to Gross and put on a head guard, gloves and a protector.

"Four rounds," Gross told him. Armenteros dressed for the ring, and the two of thorn climbed through the ropes and waited for the bell.

Armenteros leaned down from the ring and grinned at Gross, his mouthpiece stretching his lips.

"You hol' heem, Lou," he said. "Thees time I knock heem out."

The bell rang, and Winters and Rodriguez went back to work outside the ring, but worked so that they could watch Pastrano and Armenteros spar. The two came together quickly in the middle of the ring, and Pastrano, punching very quickly, hit Lino with a flurry of punches, none of them very hard. Lino blinked and moved in and said something to Pastrano, and Willie stopped and looked at his glove.

When he did, Armenteros stepped on his toe and hit him hard twice, left and right, and knocked Willie back into the ropes and followed him, only to catch a quick, hard series of punches to the head and belly that brought him to a halt. He grabbed Pastrano and held on and laughed, and Rodriguez, punching the light bag, laughed so hard he had to quit. Winters did not laugh; he hit the heavy bag and frowned thoughtfully.

The bell rang, and all the activity ended, except for Luis Manuel. He left the light bag, still laughing and, in Spanish, said to Florentino Fernandez, a hook-nosed, hard-punching Cuban middleweight, "Did you see that? It was like this!"

He stepped on his own toe, looked at his glove, hit himself between the eyes and staggered back, spraddle-legged, his mouth open, his eyes wide around the majestic nose.

"It was a good trick," he said, and laughed again, then repeated the whole pantomime, still laughing. Fernandez laughed, too, and from pure animal spirits feinted a hook at Gross that would have taken the trainer's head off if it had been an inch longer. Gross made a circle with his finger at his temple, pointing at Fernandez.

"He's a nut," he said. "He's always throwing punches like that. Miss you a half inch. You cough and lean forward just as he does it, and bang—there goes your head."

Pastrano finished the next three rounds with Armenteros without incident, boxing beautifully and quickly. After he had showered, he said, "How about lunch?"

He walked across Fifth Street from the gym, to Al's Restaurant, where you can have a fried-shrimp lunch with a soft drink and vegetables for 95¢.

"Fruit salad with a scoop of sherbet and a glass of seltzer," he said to the waitress.

"No sherbet and no seltzer," Gross told her.

"Ees bad, thees apple in the fruit," Armenteros told Pastrano."Ees not good for fighter. You fight for de title. You got to take care. Eef you lose, these friend you got, they don' know you no more. Me. I am a true frien'. I know you. Don' eat de apple."

"Listen to him," Pastrano said. "Steps on my toe, tells me my lace is untied and punches me when I look at it and now he's telling me, don't eat the apple. He could have cut me.

"I used to dream about getting cut," he said. "I'd see this guy coming at me with a knife, then I'd feel it going in my stomach and I'd catch my breath." He caught his breath, demonstrating. "I went to a psychiatrist. I think nine out of 10 people ought to go to psychiatrists. He told me I'm leary of someone trying to do me harm. I didn't know anyone at the time who was my enemy, but I had the feeling that someone was trying to harm me. I went to him $750 worth and he made me look into myself and find out things. I wasn't fighting good. I was confused. I used to talk to him and ask him things and he wouldn't give me an answer, just ask me another question."

"He bugs himself too much," Gross broke in. "Always bugs himself, always thinking. It ain't good for him."

"It was," Pastrano said seriously. "It helped. I don't have those dreams anymore. I'm still afraid of water and of height, but I don't dream about knives like that. And I fight better. I concentrate better."

He ate some of his fruit salad, spooning the apple aside, his wide, handsome face thoughtful.

"Things bug me," he said. "I trained in the same gym with Benny Paret before he got killed, you know? And the next fight I had, after he got killed, you know, it plagued my mind. I touched this man's hand at the beginning of the fight and I had a bad feeling. Every time I got hit, if my head ached a little, I thought, no, no, I'm too young to die. But I won, and it doesn't bother me anymore. But I don't like to get cut."

"Ees bad theeng, thees cut," said Lino, from the network of scar tissue that maps his face. "But you don' cut, amigo."

"No," Willie said. "Only three times, and I've been fighting for 16 years. Some fighters, they open their faces and chisel the bones flat so they won't cut and sew them up and they still cut. But not me. And I been fighting since I was 12."

He shuddered slightly at the thought of having his face opened and the bone chiseled, and then, obviously, changed his train of thought.

"You wouldn't have known me when I was 12," he said, smiling, the brown eyes bright. "Five feet tall and I weigh 185. The other boys in the parish down in New Orleans they all see me and holler, "Fat Willie, ha, ha, ha!' And they holler, 'Willie the potato!' And they come up to me when I am with the girls—one little girl I love very much—and they hit me on the arm and run away and I can't catch them."

He puffed out his cheeks and looked fat and spread his arms and seemed to waddle sitting at the table.

"So I decided one day I'm going to lose weight. The first morning I ran one block and my mouth was open and I like to died and I had to fall down and rest. It took me a year to get down from 185 to 136 and I started boxing during that time and then I decided, what the hell, maybe I have one fight or two, get me a little silver trophy to put in my room. But it gets in your blood, like show business, and the first thing you know you can't stop. Me, I tried to stop. When I was going to the psychiatrist. For eight months I didn't fight. And I found out it's too hard on the outside. I can't do anything else."

"See what I mean," Gross said. "All the time he's thinking. It ain't good for a fighter. How can it help him?"

"It made me a better fighter," Pastrano said. "I tell you though, man, when I first start to go to this man, it's costing me 25 bucks an hour, I thought I wasn't getting my money's worth. There was days I hated him so bad, I wanted to hit him. Then, after a while, I liked him so much I could have kissed him. But he helped, man. He helped."

"Helped." Gross said flatly. "A good second, he helps. A good cut man can close up a cut so it don't bleed anymore. He helps."

Armenteros laughed.

"You hear heem?" he said. "De man in de corner—dat what dey all say. He don' fight, but he de man, dey all say. How about dat, Weelie?"

Pastrano and Armenteros laughed and Gross devoted himself to his grilled cheese sandwich, angrily.

"How about the big one," he said, finally. "How about that?"

Armenteros' face turned serious and he nodded.

"He ees right," he said. "You know about dat? When Cassius, he get some-theeng in hees eye? He could of lost right then eef he don' have Luis Sarria in hees corner. He say, 'I no can see,' an'Angelo, he wait a beet, but Luis say, 'No, Angelo. Ees for the beeg one.' Angelo, he poosh Clay out and he ween it. So ees good to have old man like Luis there weeth you, know everytheeng, been there before."

"See what I mean?" said Gross.

"He get hurt very bad, dat round," Lino said. "Not de second gettin' hit in de belly dat way. Eet was Clay an' eet hurt heem. Next morning he call Luis, "Come over give me massage, because my belly hurt.' Luis go over, Clay's belly is swell up like pregnant woman from where Listen heet heem there een dat roun', but Luis he make eet all right."

Pastrano had finished his fruit salad and they all left. They would be back the next day.

Late in the afternoon the gym came to life again, but no champions or putative champions worked out. A small man in shorts, rubber sandals, dark glasses and a deep tan worked with some young fighters, patiently trying to teach them to jab without crossing their legs and losing power and balance. His name is Max Goodman, and during most of the day he is a beachboy at the 14th Street beach, renting lounge chairs to sunbathers. At night and, occasionally, when he can get away, at noon, he dreams of being the 'manager of a Pastrano or a Clay.

"There ain't many can take them up right from the start," he said. "I mean, it's an art. You take these boys. This one here, his name is Grady Ponder, he's just turned 16. I had to make him quit, because I didn't know he was 15. Had two fights, knocked them both out. Give him three years, he's a go lighter. You know what I mean? Who brought him to me? Cassius Clay's dad. That's who. He talks as big as Cassius, too. He's a lightweight now, but he's growing. Maybe to a heavyweight. 'I'm going to win it all,' he says to me. 'And you're going to be my manager.' How about that?"

Ponder, a tall, slender young man, punched at the heavy bag doggedly if not expertly, and Goodman wandered away to show him how to hit with power.

From her vantage point by the green-oilcloth-covered desk, Hattie Ambusch watched.

"He is a nice boy," she said. "He has the highest respect for me. And he is very clean. Like Pastrano."

Pastrano worked briefly the next day, but he would save the last of his training for New Orleans.

Winters came in to collect some gear from his locker. He was fighting an eight-round main event that night at a Miami Beach club, and his face was drawn and tight. McMillen. his manager, was with him.

"This will be No. 15," he said. "Never lost one, but he's got a tough boy tonight. Hard to fight. All closed up, like this."

He put both hands in front of his face and crouched, much like Floyd Patterson in his peekaboo style.

"Hard to hit," he said. "But if he hits him, he takes him."

"He's a good boy," Pastrano said. "He's mean. He hates."

"He'll win tonight," McMillen said as they walked out the door past Hattie and down the beaten steps. They stopped in front of the Tropical Shoe Shine Parlor. "He gets up strong. You see him working on combinations on the bag the other day? He's always thinking. And he can hit. Willie told you that. But the big thing is, he gets up strong. One fight, he comes out in a hurry, gets hit with a big right hand and down he goes. I know he's hurt and I want him to get up and look for cover, but he gets up and, whop, he knocks the other guy out like a light. You don't find many like that. He learns. He thinks."

The lights were out in the gym, and Hattie came down the stairs. All the boxers had gone. Pastrano took a last look around before leaving for New Orleans.

"I like it here," he said. "It's cool, you know what I mean? All these people, I like them."