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Recollections from the Ring

A Conversation with Ferdie Pacheco

HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

Ferdie Pacheco is a physician, a painter, a writer, a television producer, and a sports commentator. As a young doctor, he ran a free medical clinic in Miami. One of his visitors was fight trainer Angelo Dundee, who introduced him to a promising young boxer. It was the beginning of a long relationship. Pacheco became a fixture in their lives, the doctor at ringside, as Muhammad Ali fought his way to the heavyweight championship of the world. Pacheco talked recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about his experiences.

Bruce Cole: Some consider boxing a low sport, yet kings and presidents and writers and intellectuals have long been attracted to it. What is it about boxing that has drawn such a loyal following from people such as Swift and Pope, Hemingway, Byron, London, and Shaw?

Ferdie Pacheco: It's the purest form of combat without killing each other--hopefully, without killing each other. It's the purest form of competition between one man and the other, going all the way back to the caves. It's one man against another man, both the same size, under the proper restrictions and regulations with a proper referee. So there are safety factors involved.

It could be tennis. How can you get serious about a game where love is a score? (Laughter.) Here you have a real sport: aggression, competition, confrontation, conflict, and resolution. It's a one-act play. It's the drama of life. It's either me or you, somebody is going to walk out of there a winner. And it's all resolved in one night. That's a very big high for people that are watching it and it's a very big high for us who are in it.

I love to work in fights. They're just incredibly passionate. If you don't have a passion for boxing, they'll kill you. You are fighting for your life. That brings to it a great dramatic impact. That impact is what makes boxing what it is. It's always going to be here, no matter what they do.

Cole: It's one of the few things in life that's often clear cut. Joyce Carol Oates writes that "watching the best boxing match is like hearing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier perfectly executed." She particularly favors a half-dozen fighters: Joe Louis, Billy Conn, Joe Frazier, Mohammed Ali, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns. What matches come to mind that rise to the level that Oates describes?

Pacheco: Every one of those guys she describes has had one of those fights, every one of them. Joe Louis had four or five of them--the one with Schmeling is certainly one. The one with Billy Conn is one. Ali had about six huge fights: the Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle, the two Liston fights, all life-and-death fights where he was the underdog, where he came back and won the fight. Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard fought three fights themselves that qualify for that.

Hagler fought about four or five of them that qualified, including the Hagler-Leonard fight and the Hagler-Hearns fight, the Duran fight. Duran had four or five fights like that. Big fighters that have long careers fight equal fighters: that's where they become great.

Currently, we had the farce of a fighter who is really truly one of the best but who refuses to fight anybody equal to him. That's Roy Jones. So when he finally gets in with somebody equal to him, the guy knocks him out in two rounds. Guess what? That's because he doesn't fight somebody equal to him. Somewhere along all these steps that lead you to greatness, you come to a step where you've got to get past this guy or else you're not great.

Marciano with Jersey Joe Walcott, with Archie Moore. Ali, every time he stepped up with Liston or with Foreman, nine to one underdog, eight to one underdog, he knocks them out. Greatness is on his lap.

This is an aside, but I'm really interested: what has made Joyce Carol Oates an authority on boxing? I don't think she's gone to a fight. The eastern establishment knows nothing, like the guy that used to go around playing football, George Plimpton, and Norman Mailer, who runs around imposing himself on every story. They're not real. They don't belong in boxing. They went and bought a seat and then intruded themselves. Look at the one film Plimpton did with the Africa fight. It was just horrible.

You've got as your voice-over, Mailer. He says, "I was in the dressing room and I saw the fear etched on the corner man and everybody." He was in the dressing room? He was never in the dressing room. I was the one who kept him out. I let Budd Schulberg in. Now that's a boxing guy. I said, "Let Budd Schulberg in, not Mailer." The bell rings to end the first round and Ali had taken this terrible beating and Mailer says he's looking up at the sky and he asks the African gods to please look after him because he feels death in the air. What is that? Ali reads the Koran. He's with Allah and he isn't with his African gods to begin with. If he's got to say something to somebody, he's got to say it to Allah.

Besides, we were beating Foreman already. In the first round we knew we were going to beat him. Ali was laughing and he was saying, "This guy isn't hitting me. I'm going to knock this guy out." He was so confident that it was almost scary. It was scary because we thought he was getting his ass kicked and he wasn't. He was beating Foreman already in the first round.

Cole: When we talk about a fight, comparing a fight to Bach, we're talking about art. You're somebody who's passionately interested in art--in writing and painting. Do you see these great fights as art?

Pacheco: I see them as a drama, is what I see them as. They're the best play you can go to. I never paint too much boxing. It seems routine and every fight is the same. I could sit down and paint two four-round fighters that look just as good as two champions fighting.

For me to do a boxing painting, I have to play with lights. You can get all sorts of angle and star effects in the lights, all kinds of color and so forth, the people in the first row, the referee. There are a lot of things in a fight beside the boxers.

Cole: The fans.

Pacheco: Well, the fans rising .up. From ringside you can only see .the first two or three rows. You see .the fighters or the photographers .and the newspaper guys. Right behind the first row probably you don't see that much.

Cole: Do you have any boxing paintings that you like? Bellows?

Pacheco: Well, Bellows is a classic. Fletcher Martin has done some really good ones. He was a 1930s realist and paints the way I like to paint.

Cole: You're not into abstraction?

Pacheco: Abstract is, to my mind, .one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the American public. I don't think it's going to last. It's already petered out.

I can't paint like somebody else paints. I paint like I paint. If I'll be remembered for anything, it's these faces.

Cole: The film When We Were Kings was a real disconnect. Norman Mailer explained how Ali threw thirteen lead rights in the first round and was dominating Foreman. But then Mailer says how Ali returned to the corner and was terrified. It didn't make sense.

Pacheco: That's when he says he looked up at the African gods.

Cole: Right, and breathed deeply and asked himself, how am I going to win this?

Pacheco: Because he's writing like a novelist. In principle, he doesn't even know what he's looking at. He's writing the way he would like for it to be rather than what it is.

Cole: But then Ali did switch strategies.

Pacheco: No, he didn't. If you go back to Ali's previous fights, he did that all the time. He'd go back to the ropes and let the guy punch him on the side and never hurt him. Then he would counter-punch. His right hands were very hard, very hard, and he was throwing with a lot of power.

It was the most thrilling fight I ever worked in, outside of the Manila fight. But when I go to London with my fight film under my arm and I get my buddies together and I say, "Come on. We're going to watch the fight. This is the most exciting fight you've ever seen." We showed it and everybody was yawning. You already knew the ending. A fight has to be fresh. No, when he was hitting him, I was scared to death. Angelo was scared to death. We thought he was getting hit and he wasn't getting hit. About the third round he says, "This guy has already lost his punch. He can't punch at all."

Cole: Oates writes that she doesn't go to boxing matches; she watches the film. She prefers to see it on film; knowing that no one got hurt, she can appreciate the artistry of the fight.

Pacheco: Well, they're very tough fights--the Philippine fight was the toughest I've ever seen--and there are fights where people get killed. I've worked in two or three of those. I don't like that at all. Every time somebody dies, I'm thinking to myself, what am I doing here? What am I supposed to be doing in the corner, sending a guy out to get hit? What am I doing here? Afterwards, okay, fix him up. Before, it's, okay, you get him ready. But during the fight, what am I doing in the corner? Why am I sending this guy out to hit that guy some more?

It's a very tough thing, and I've found myself, embarrassingly enough, without any reason that I could defend outside of the simple foolishness that I was part of this event and it was a gigantic ego stroke to be in the middle of an important event like a heavyweight championship fight.

Cole: But it is the whole passion and the drama.

Pacheco: It's huge. It's huge, and it builds. Maybe the best thing I did my whole life was twenty years of free medicine in the ghetto--free. I didn't charge anybody. There were nights there that were life and death. There were nights where I was that close from being killed. There were nights where I had a gun pointed at my rib. Yet there was no thrill in that. There was no excitement. You came home and said, "Guess what? I almost got killed last night." It was like nothing.

We all are performers. I said to Donald Myer, the head of NBC, "I'm a little uncomfortable in front of the camera. I'm a doctor. I'm not supposed to be asking people to look at me." In those days doctors couldn't get publicity.

And he said to me, "Ferdie, let me tell you something. If a guy isn't full of me, me, me, and he gets in front of that camera, he's awful. He's got to be completely convinced that he's great and what he's saying is the smartest thing in the world and he's looking better than anybody and he is going to tell you what's happening. If you don't have that, you ain't going to last long in this business."

Well, I was in the business twenty-five years. I'm going to start doing it in September, again, on cable.

Cole: We've been talking about drama. There have been a number of films about boxing, Raging Bull, with DeNiro, Champion, Rocky, Requiem for a Heavyweight, with Anthony Quinn. What makes a good boxing film? Are any of these good?

Pacheco: You didn't mention the best boxing film of all, The Harder They Fall, by Budd Schulberg. The next one was probably DeNiro's film, except where Scorsese interjected his own view cinematically of what a boxing match is, which sounded like artillery combat on the western front. You would hear these punches, boom, boom--I've been in boxing all my life and I never heard anybody like that. What can you hear? It's a big gloved fist. You're not hitting a drum. And the brutality was so exaggerated. It was like an abstract painting of a boxing match rather than a boxing match, because the fact of the matter is for dramatic purposes you've got to cheat.

A boxing match is not unrelenting fire. Guys don't go at it hammer and tong, except for the Thrilla in Manila. There are some rests, some runs, some hugs. There's a lot of give and take, but it ain't all punching. Very seldom do you see people go toe to toe like you see in the movies. The people making movies don't respect history at all.

Cole: Rocky was a huge success.

Pacheco: Rocky was a success for the simple reason that the public expects the reverse of reality. They expect the drama, which is artificial and exaggerated. Reality isn't as exciting.

Cole: Who is the smartest fighter you've ever dealt with?

Pacheco: Ali, by about eighteen trillion, jillion miles. Ali was so smart that it was almost a disadvantage for him to fight with anybody. He just outfought everybody. He outfought us--I mean he outfought his corner and he was always right, always right. Here is what makes Ali great. He shows you his mistakes. Then when you come in to take advantage of them, he kills you.

He leans back, and the right hand comes in and you're left wondering what happened to the left hand, because you just got smashed with the right hand. You have this package, six foot four, fast as a welterweight, and heavy punching. Nobody had ever seen anybody like that.

I don't know of one heavyweight, including Joe Louis, who could beat him. Joe Louis was very slow and good fighters gave him a tough time.

Cole: You have said that everybody remembers where they were the night Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling. Where were you that night?

Pacheco: It was the important event of my growing up. Not only was this so important itself, it was the build-up, like the build-up to the World Series. This nation was at the height of segregation. A black man couldn't initiate a conversation with a white woman. We had lynchings. But in this fight, for the first time the black people represented America. They represented Americans against the Nazis, who were coming here with their idea of racial superiority. Joe Louis had the effect of putting a drop of chemical into the water and all the color goes out.

The fight that night happened so fast: bop, bop, bop, bop, over. This poor man, he broke his ribs. And Joe was so enigmatic. He just went out and did what he had to do. That's it. Then he put his clothes on and left. He didn't hang around like Ali and all these people mouthing and jawing about "I am the greatest." He just put on his robe and left.

Cole: Amazing.

Pacheco: He was such a complete hero, because that's what we expected our heroes to do. When I was growing up, vanity was the province of idiots. Any guy can run around saying "I'm great"--or "I'm pretty." People say, "Were you nice-looking when you were young?" I say, "I have no idea." I never thought of myself in that frame of mind.

I remember the worst thing my mother did was make our clothes. That's her sewing machine right there. She was a great seamstress. She would take my father's suits and make good looking clothes for us, and we had to go to the school with those clothes on. Oh, what a pain.

Cole: Nobody wanted to stand out.

Pacheco: I looked like Prince Charles. Everybody else had T-shirts and overalls. That's what I wanted, just a T-shirt and an overall, you know?

Cole: But sports heroes had that modesty, right?

Pacheco: That's what I mean. Modesty was in everything you did. You are a modest war hero. Who could be more modest than Charles Lindbergh, the hero?

Cole: Did you ever paint Lindbergh?

Pacheco: When I was little, that's all we painted, The Spirit of St. Louis several times. In the thirties, that's all you thought about was flying.

Cole: Can you tell us a little bit about your interest in painting when you were a kid?

Pacheco: I painted from the time that I understood the avoiding physical labor and art. If I can do something for the school, I didn't have to go out and clean the yard. So from the age of six or seven, every time my mother said to me, "You've got to trim the lawn," I would say, "Sorry, I've got to do this work for my teacher." And I just kept on painting. It was in the realm of avoiding physical labor due to artistic endeavors which made me an artist.

Cole: That's the most honest explanation I've ever heard about somebody on how they got their painting career.

You have talked about how you wanted to paint heroes. Did you ever do a painting of your father? You've indicated he was a hero to you growing up.

Pacheco: No. Not a portrait. He's in some of the other paintings.

He's a hero, but he didn't look like one. He was big and everything, and he had big arms, but he was bald-headed, and he looked somewhat like me. If we walked in a room, you would know I was his son.

Cole: How do you pick someone for a portrait? How do you decide that a person is a hero and worth painting?

Pacheco: The current thing is to say there are no heroes; there are survivors. I think heroes are people who take unusual chances. Your mind would tell you, if you thought about it, you better not do that, "I better not get in a little airplane and go across the Atlantic." Your mind would tell you that. But if he's thinking, "I'm going to do it," that's a hero, the guy that tries that.

Heroics are in doing something unusual that your common sense would tell you, "Don't do that," and you do it anyway, for whatever reason, whether to save somebody from a burning building or whether to take a stand on civil rights when you know it's going to cost you the election. That's heroics.

There are all kinds. You don't have to risk your life, but you are risking your life. I think Thomas Jefferson was heroic. In a way, George Patton was heroic because in spite of everybody that was against him, he fought the kind of war that you needed to fight to beat the Germans. He just got in his tank and went on forward and fought.

People that have a strong feeling of right and are willing to die for it, or lose their business or lose their job or do it because they're right, that's heroic to me.

In boxing, I went against every ruling body there was in order to save boxers' lives. I had to fight to get ambulances, but now it's a law.

Cole: Is boxing worth saving? Is there a nobility there and what is it?

Pacheco: Is boxing worth saving? I don't know whether it is or not. I've been asked that a lot and I think whether you like it or not it's going to be here forever, as long as people pay money to see it.

Cole: Well, thank you very much for taking time from your writing and painting to talk to me.

Pacheco: My pleasure.