By: Ken Hissner
It was back in 1973 when this writer first went to the camp of Muhammad Ali, in Deer Lake, PA. Ali had just suffered a loss to Ken Norton in the first of 3 bouts with Norton. It is about 8 miles north of Reading, PA, on Rt. 61 before you reach Pottsville where the camp is now the Butterfly & Bee Bed and Breakfast! Remember float like a BUTTERFLY and sting like a BEE? How many times did Bundini Brown yell that out to Ali?
George Dillman purchased the camp from Ali. He is a 10th degree black belt and a friend of Ali’s. The last time I was there when it was still being used by Ali was in 1980 when he was in training for Larry Holmes in the next to last fight of his career.
On Sunday the No. 1 female fight fan and photographer Doreen Donnelly and I traveled up the NE Extension of the PA turnpike and went west to Rt. 61 north. There were no signs anymore once you reached Deer Lake for either Ali’s camp or the Butterfly & Bee bed and breakfast. You make a left on Sculpshill Road up 1/2 mile on Sculpshill Mountain. One of the workers on the site advised us all the cabins are open and being winterized but the gym was locked to our disappointment.
The camp housed many a top boxer and the Muhammad Ali amateur team once upon a time. I remember seeing a young future world champion named Timmy Witherspoon under the watchful eye of his trainer “Slim” Jim Robinson having his young boxer spar with Ali. I met world heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis and world cruiserweight champion Eddie Mustapha Muhammad there. The now late Philly world light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad also trained there under the watchful eye of his trainer Nick Befiore.
The prayer cabin painted in white is the first thing you see upon reaching the camp on the left side of the road with 3 small cabins next to it. Across the road you will find the gym and the kitchen. A museum would seem like a great idea. It could certainly serve as a training camp once again. There are some 18 cabins.
Ali would entertain fans by the bus load. He would also demonstrate some of his magic tricks. I witnessed this when he was training for the return fight with Norton in their second fight. Cus D’Amato was up there on one occasion as was artist Leroy Neiman who drew a likeness of Ali on a knotty pine gym wall.
The large rocks there were with names of boxers that were painted by Ali’s father and they were still clear with boxer’s names. There was Jack Dempsey, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry and the names of some of the assistant trainers (on one rock). Along the front side of the gym were names Kid Gavilan, Willie Pep, Rocky Graziano, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson and Jack Johnson. Two of my favorites were Marciano and Gavilan. Doreen and I took pictures of each other besides several rocks. I remember meeting Gavilan at the camp.
I recall sitting across from Ali and another on a pair of leather sofa’s after one of his work outs. He asked what I was doing there. I told him I was going to Scranton that night for the fights. He asked who was fighting and I told him Marty Capasso from outside of Philly (Aston) and Ali Allen from NY. He said “Ali, Ali?” It was as if only he was entitled to the name Ali. He then asked where I was from. When I told him Lafayette Hill the person next to him whispered in his ear and Ali went to get up toward me and said “hold me back, that’s where Frazier’s from”! Fortunately he was kidding or I may not be here to do this story.
I remember seeing his third wife Veronica holding a clip board asking if anyone wanted to go miniature golfing or bowling. They would all ride to either place in a motor home. What a beautiful woman she was. Once I saw his Stutz Bearcat automobile. A one-time visitor I was told who also had a Stutz Blackhawk was Elvis Presley who purchased the first one back in 1969. Ali and Elvis were not only friends but admirers of each other. There are plaques throughout the cabins about past visitors.
The area itself has changed with new roadwork being put in and many more business’ but few open on a Sunday. My companion, Doreen, was like a kid on Christmas Day and a joy to watch her excitement. For me it was just a reminder of the past days of one of the greatest heavyweight champions and certainly the most colorful athlete I ever saw, Muhammad Ali! “It was such an exciting day for me. I could almost feel the energy in the bunk house from Elvis to all the famous boxers were housed there. I know that will be the first of many return trips for us. I’m sure we will return in the spring,” said Doreen.
I remember handing Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee a book I had on Ali who was in the kitchen eating. Dundee came out with it signed. I hope it was Ali who signed it but I am not sure even now. I had a picture taken with Ali by Bronco Kilroy as I asked Ali “why are you fighting all these bums?” Ali has a stunned look and believe it or not was “speechless”. Kilroy was quite upset with me.
The facility is in need of repair but on my last visit the place wasn’t being used and it was much more run down. Dillman did some obvious repair work in sprucing up the place. One looks at this place and remembers how people would come by the bus loads to see Ali. You could bring your mother there. Ali was always available to entertain the visitors!
Former boxer, now trainer John “Iceman” Scully visited the camp in May of 2012 and filmed it. It can be found on www.google.com or www.youtube.com. It is well worth looking at. The sale price back then per Scully was $575,000.00!