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√Øre 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.
February 10, 1986
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.
When the group paused, I moved up to the fringe and picked up the conversation with Ali's query to a man and woman holding motorcycle helmets: "What are y'all doin' all the way down from there?"
"We came down to see you!" the man exclaimed.
Ali's face remained passive; he seemed preoccupied. "The wind don't bother y'all?" he asked.
"Naw, you get used to it."
I had a Golden Gloves photograph of myself in the gym bag, which was still sitting on the Joe Walcott rock. I wanted Ali to autograph the picture, but determined to stick to my strategy of hanging in the background, I held off. Ali motioned toward a nearby cabin, and we all moved in that direction.
The cabin had heavy wooden furnishings. A projector was being set up. Ali placed a chair in the center of the floor and slouched into it. I was startled when a squat, white-haired black man in denim overalls came in. It was Dick Sadler. He had been across the ring in Foreman's corner in Za√Øre. He sat down heavily on the floor next to me. "Aren't you Dick Sadler?" I asked. His head snapped around in surprise. "Yeah, yeah, that's right." He reached up to shake.
We watched an entertainment program that Ali had recently emceed, introducing and joking with a procession of celebrities: singer Barry White was thanked for not taking up boxing; Billy Conn was told he was lucky he came along as early as he did; former Cleveland Brown fullback Jim Brown traded some lighthearted machismo; Aretha Franklin got her hands kissed and was blessed as the true Queen of Soul. After about 20 minutes, one of the several young men I had noticed hustling around camp leaned in from outside and gestured. Ali, Sadler and several others left the cabin.
The program ended, and the rest of us left, too. Outside, I waited, leaning on the Jack Johnson rock. Soon Ali came by, and the cluster formed again. Holding my gym bag, I stepped up and asked if he would sign the picture of me fighting in the Golden Gloves. He flipped it over and inscribed in large letters: TO MATT BOWEN FROM MUHAMMAD ALI 1975.
I had read that Ali welcomed anyone who wanted to work out to come to his camp and use the facilities. When he handed back the signed picture, I blurted out, "Could I shadow box and hit the bags?" I felt absurd. "Yeah, go on in, I'll have someone cut the lights on for ya'," he said without blinking.
Within a minute one of the gofers appeared and the overhead fluorescent lights flicked on. I slipped into one of the adjacent small rooms to change. Over a couch, various items of boxing paraphernalia hung from wooden pegs, including a pair of dirty handwraps with a name written faintly on them. I looked closer—it was HOLMES. Larry Holmes, then a sparring partner and promising heavyweight from nearby Easton, Pa.
I climbed into the ring and began to shadow box slowly, glad that the big room was empty. A man of about 60, wearing a John Deere cap and holding a little girl's hand, came in. He held the child in his lap and watched with keen interest, no doubt assuming that I was a young hopeful training for a fight. Being the subject of this illusion inhibited me for only a moment, and I began to play the part, quickening my punches and snorting air. The heavy bag barely twitched when I hit it. My left hook always made the canvas ones back at the Westport YMCA and Bridgeport Boys Club swing convincingly. This leather monolith had jerked to an almost horizontal position when Ali worked on it during a TV spot the previous year.
I showered in the sparring partners' quarters and was slouched on the sofa wondering where I could get some food, when a dapper black man of about 30 peered in. He said he was down from Connecticut to film a documentary. The two of us went into Deer Lake to eat at a roadside café. We returned at nightfall and the filmmaker suggested that we go to the recreation cabin where Ali's entourage would be gathered.
Cornerman Bundini Brown lined up his pool cue to break the rack against chief trainer Angelo Dundee. Photographer Howard Bingham and somebody else played Ping-Pong. A few other men milled about the room. Off to the side, in a huge leather chair, Ali surveyed the scene. My filmmaker friend introduced me to Dundee and Brown, but he didn't follow up on his earlier offer to escort me over to Ali, instead suggesting that I say hello by myself. I did, thanking Ali for the use of the gym. He nodded, then spoke. "You ain't a fighter are ya'?"
"No," I replied, "I just do a little amateur boxing." The pause that followed seemed an eternity.
"You got any brothers?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "one older in college." Then I continued hesitantly.
"I don't want to stay—I mean, I have a sleeping bag, and I'm wondering if I can sleep in your woods."
Ali didn't flinch. "No. I'll put you in the camper. Come on."
We walked down the dark path without talking. Light shone from a cabin down below where a couple of men were wrestling a mattress through the door. Ali headed that way.
"Ralph!" he suddenly bellowed into the night. "Otis!"
Ralph or Otis materialized from the darkness.
"Get me some fresh linen in here." Ali gestured at the room where I had dressed and showered earlier. I followed him through the door of the training cabin into a small room with a rubdown table and a few chairs surrounding it. A light was already on, and he led me to the room I had been in earlier. He moved a stack of linen off the sofa bed and began to pull it out.
"You want to get up at five?" he asked. Ali was asking if I wanted to do road work with him.
It was close to 10 p.m. I stripped down quickly and got into bed. The floodlights went out and the camp was quiet. Larry Holmes's handwraps hung a few inches from my face. I lay there for several hours, too keyed up to sleep. I had never run more than three miles at a time in my life. If Ali ran hard for five miles I was either going to discover a new physical horizon or flop facedown in a ditch.
The brass bell was loud. I jumped up, dressed, folded the sofa bed and splashed cold water on my face. The screen door to Ali's dressing room slammed.
"We're ready to roll, boy!" he called out to me.
"O.K.," I called back.
Headlights bathed the compound and a 10-passenger van eased up alongside the cabin. Ali emerged in a gray sweatsuit and boots. He got in the front seat, and Sadler opened the rear door from inside, saying, "C'mon in, you gonna come with us this mornin'." Sadler was cheerful. I sat with him two seats back. Dundee was in the second seat with Luis Sarria, the Cuban masseur. Gene Kilroy, an all-around aide, drove.
Ali wrestled into a rubber jacket. We cruised for a few miles, and Kilroy made a left. A sign glimmered in the headlights: PLEASANT RUN RD. I had read about this stretch of road and had seen shots of the sun rising on Ali as he made this run. Kilroy went along more slowly over the gentle rises until Ali, speaking for the first time, told him to stop. Sadler slid the back door open and I crawled out. Ali had begun to walk down the road, limbering up with slow, sweeping uppercuts that he started behind the hips. I jogged up alongside him.
"Run behind me," he said. I fell back a couple of yards. He began to jog, and the van, a stone's throw behind us now, crept forward.
Ali kept an easy pace for the first quarter mile or so. I focused on the bottoms of his boots and ran up on him once or twice. Catching myself and glancing up, I realized for the first time how big he was.
Ali's boots began to thump the asphalt faster. The pastureland on either side was still only a nighttime silhouette. The road was flatter now, with gradual bends. On instinct my pace quickened with his and I ran up on him again.
I was certain I could keep going for five miles if he didn't push any harder. Surely we had done the first mile. I wondered if he would pick it up again about halfway through. We were running east, and the sky ahead had become faint blue. He broke into a near sprint. I took off after him, sure that, for me, the end had come all too soon. A hundred yards or so later, though, he broke stride and cut back to the slow pace we had started with. Another sprint, not as far, and then he pulled up and began walking in a fast, measured rhythm. I came up on his left only a couple of feet behind. His left arm jerked back to wing one of the sweeping uppercuts. The fist snapped forward just as fast, and in the instant after his knuckle grazed my eyelid, sweat from inside the cuff of his rubber jacket splattered my cheek.
"Sorry," I said, and moved over. He didn't seem to notice.
It grew lighter gradually. I watched his profile as he strode along throwing the uppercuts. He expelled bursts of air through gritted teeth and flared nostrils, grunting with the start of each new punch, "Sheeh-unh! Sheeh-unh!" Then he dropped his arms and just walked. We crested a rise in the road. "Listen," he said. Without punching, he sounded two quick huffs. A farm dog barked from across the pasture. He stopped. Street shoes slapped the asphalt rapidly and I turned to see a white T shirt bouncing toward us. Luis Sarria carried a white towel. Ali dabbed his face. At most we had run two miles. We got back into the van.
Halfway back to camp, Kilroy started to talk with enthusiasm about a diet he had read about. Ali grunted with a slight head shake and went on dabbing his face. "Yeeah, Champ!" Kilroy's voice went up an octave as he pleaded his case. Ali kept dabbing. Kilroy dropped the subject.
In camp Ali slipped into a shower cubicle and reemerged with only a towel around his waist. He eased onto the rubbing table. Clearly, he still weighed more than 230 pounds. I sat on a metal chair, Dundee opposite me on a wooden bench. Kilroy stood leaning with his back to the wall. The room was tiny. Sarria went to work, anointing the torso, shoulders and upper arms with oil and working his strong fingers into Ali's flesh. After a few minutes Ali, lying on his stomach, lifted his head from the table an inch and spoke to me in a deliberate, husky voice: "You can tell your grandchildren...that you were with Muhammad Ali...in preparation...for the greatest fight...in history." He paused for effect, staring at me. I smiled and nodded. Satisfied, he turned his face the other way and lay his head back down.
Dundee left to make some phone calls. The rubdown was over, and Kilroy left, too. I asked if I could use the sparring partners' shower, and Ali nodded.
As I dressed, I wondered about hanging around camp for the early afternoon workout. I hoped I would be offered some breakfast. I wanted to watch Ali eat. The door on his dressing room slammed, and I looked out to see others approach him. He passed them and then, still walking, called back over his shoulder, "We're leavin' at quarter to eight, and we ain't waitin' for nobody!" I learned they were headed for New York City.
I packed my gym bag and went out to linger in front of the kitchen. Chattering voices and the smell of onions came from inside. I stood for a long minute in the empty yard, slightly uncomfortable now with the notion of hanging around for a free breakfast. Ali stepped from his cabin, dressed in a black outfit. He smiled in a warm, matter-of-fact way.
"Thanks a lot," I said. "Uh, is there a good place to eat around here...some café down the road or something?" I asked. His head made a slight nod.
"How do you travel?" he asked.
"I came in a car," I said, pointing to a borrowed sedan. He glanced over at it.
"How much money you got?"
"I'm fine," I said, patting my back pocket.
"Let's see what you got," he said with a tilt of his head.
I pulled out the wallet and opened it to show him the twenty. He stretched his neck slightly as he peered down. I thumbed the bill up from the fold to make the inspection easier.
"This was a great thing for me," I said, thrusting out my hand. He brought his up slowly and simply laid it in mine.
Matt Bowen is studying for his Ph.D. at the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley.