Boxing: Second coming of Miami's legendary 5th Street Gym

It was Muhammad Ali's sanctuary and welcomed all from Sinatra to The Beatles before it was demolished. Now the South Beach institution is back. Steve Bunce pays a visit
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nobody knows if Hattie Ambush asked the four "sissies" for their daily subs when they climbed the steps and approached her position at the 5th Street Gym's entrance. The sign was clear: "Stop and pay Fifty Cents. No Dead Beats."

An hour earlier the four men had been kicked out of world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston's Miami gym. "I ain't having no picture taken with no sissies," Liston had snarled. The boys were then taken to Angelo Dundee's gym to try and get a picture with the challenger; a young kid called Cassius Clay.

At Dundee's 5th Street Gym in Miami's South Beach the boys, better known as The Beatles, were held back in a tiny office for a minute or two and a local journalist grabbed a word with them. He asked John Lennon what he thought would happen in the heavyweight title fight between Liston and Clay, scheduled for the Miami Convention Hall in 10 days' time. Lennon laughed: "Oh, he's going to kill the little wanker." Lennon knew his boxing, everybody believed that Liston would win and win easily. It was February 1964 and Dundee had been running the gym on the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue since 1951 when his brother Chris, a local promoter and the owner, had opened it.

Chris is dead now, Liston is long gone, Clay is Muhammad Ali, the little old Jewish woman Hattie Ambush no longer collects the admissions at the door – the original gym was demolished in 1994 but a new 5th Street Gym is open on the same site and Angelo is back in business at 89 watching and talking to fighters.

"I never trained Muhammad at the 5th Street Gym – nobody ever trained Muhammad. I directed him at 5th Street." says Dundee. "Muhammad loved the place – he loved all the Cuban fighters, the noise, the sunshine. It was his fighting paradise."

Ali, who was then Clay, first walked through the doors on 9 December, 1960, to be evaluated by Dundee. "Nobody just walked in, not Muhammad and not [Sugar] Ray [Leonard] all those years later," insists Dundee. Leonard, who had just won the Olympic gold medal, still talks about his "trial" period at the gym.

Before Dundee had Ali to work with, there was a steady stream of Cuban fighters, both before and after Fidel Castro banned professional boxing, at the South Beach outpost. Chris Dundee had promoted fights in Cuba before the revolution and his contacts meant that fighters kept showing up, pleading poverty at the turnstile and performing with flair inside the original gym's raised ring. Ali was transfixed by the Cuban exiles, stunned by their fluidity and repertoire of punches.

"Muhammad would spend all day in the gym, watching and learning in the early days," adds Dundee. "He would look at [Luis] Rodriguez and just shake his head. He loved those guys." Rodriguez held a version of the world welterweight title and worked closely with a Cuban trainer called Luis Sarria, who would become Ali's full-time masseur.

Sarria had his rub-down table set up in the gym, open and slick with oil and sweat for everybody to see. The pictures from the Sixties are rich, glorious studies of a time and place that modern boxing has forgotten. Men with shirts, ties and towels over their shoulders look on closely in silence as the fighters in the ring trade punches or work the bag. These men, these trainers were sacred to retreats like 5th Street and Dundee was their prince.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Dundee was a busy trainer and manager and not all his fighters were winners. He worked with champions such as Carmen Basilio, Rodriguez, Willie Pastrano, Sugar Ramos but he also had his other fighters, the losers, the journeymen, the dreamers and it was this rich mix which made the 5th Street Gym so special. It was not a one-fighter gym.

During Ali's heyday the 5th Street Gym was visited by Frank Sinatra, Malcolm X and just about everybody else who was in town for a concert or an appearance. The stars had to rub shoulders with 5th Street Gym legends like Evil Eye Finkel and The Mumbler Sobel, no great fighters but ever-presents working the bags. The floor always belonged to Dundee, neat, tidy and tiny, but still swaggering. When Ali was forced out of the ring for his refusal to be inducted into the army, he was back in South Beach at the gym earning a few dollars as a sparring partner to Jimmy Ellis, another of Dundee's heavyweights. The gym was clearly a sanctuary for Ali. At the same time a young kid, a troubled young local fighter called Mickey Rourke was paying his 50 cents to chase his boxing dream.

Long before the wreckers' ball destroyed the original building in 1994, the Dundee brothers had moved away, Ali was retired and most of the fighters were long gone. In the late Eighties, a local Latin promoter, Tuto Zabala, took over the 5th Street Gym but it was just a shell of Angelo's golden retreat. Most of the pictures and posters from the walls, which looked so splendid with all the great Sixties and Seventies photographs, had been stolen or lost. The streets outside were savage and ravaged by the crack epidemic, which hit Miami particularly hard. Angelo was still in the boxing business but had moved north along the beach to an air-conditioned candy-box gym. It looked like the 5th Street Gym was lost forever when I made a pilgrimage in 1995. The beautiful hand-painted windows were gone, the steps had vanished and I was asked to move by a bank security guard when I took a picture of the dull building for the sake of prosperity.

Last September, the 5th Street Gym re-opened on just about the same spot, give or take 20 feet. A trio of businessmen, Matt Baiamonte, Tom Tsatas and Dino Spencer, had seen a "for sale" sign on the building that replaced the rotten one that was bulldozed, and knew they had found a home for their new gym. They set the scheme in motion and Ali and Dundee were at the grand opening. "My guy loved being back in the gym," Dundee says; he called all his fighters "my guy", still does. Dundee is involved in the gym, popping in on a regular basis. Three weeks ago he watched from the apron as David Haye, the current World Boxing Association heavyweight champion, was sparring. He was impressed: "He belongs in my gym – I like this kid, this is his era." Haye admitted to trying just a bit harder when he noticed Dundee, who looks increasingly like Yoda, take up a position near the corner post.

The walls at the new place are covered in various Dundee slogans and pictures from the halcyon days when Miami sunshine often bathed the first-floor gym in blinding light. Modern pilgrims include Andy Murray, who fell silent when he walked in from the street. "Murray knew all the fighters when he came through the door – he said hello and then he just watched," said George Groves, the unbeaten Commonwealth champion from Hammersmith, who trained alongside Haye. "It's a good little gym, full of history and it doesn't smell of feet."

At the centre of the new gym is the old man of the ring, Dundee. The veteran's veteran, a glorious relic back in his personal playground. "I tried like hell to have the original building made into a historical landmark," says Dundee. "But the guys who had the title to the property wanted five million [dollars]. I tried to keep it, my guys loved it. Thankfully, it's back now. I like that."