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Fighter’s Heaven – Muhammad Ali at Deer Lake

Muhammad Ali shadowboxing
Tris Dixon visits Muhammad Ali’s legendary Deer Lake training camp to tell the story of the fight haven’s past, present and future

THE Champ is here. The Champ is here. You can hear the exuberant, excited chants as you tread on the crispy orange leaves and survey a significant slice of boxing history. The gravel crunches beneath your feet. Birds sing. The soft spring rain echoes through the woods. There’s magic here.

As you walk between the wooden cabins, you can imagine the bustle, a lit fire, a training camp BBQ, basketball hoops being thrown by competitive sparring partners, maybe a few card games as the sun sets over the panorama that looks down and over Deer Lake in rural Pennsylvania.

There’s now solitude here.

It’s about a mile, if that, off the Centre Turnpike, up Sculps Hill Road in the middle of almost nowhere. You couldn’t find it if you weren’t looking for it. Even if you are, you need eagle eyes not to miss the turning and wind up at the next place of note, the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville about 10 miles down the road. But here, under a thick canopy of trees and among the 18 buildings scattered into the woods lies a buried boxing treasure.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1970s it was a destination. It was firmly on the map. Frank Sinatra, The Jackson Five, Cheryl Tiegs, Dick Cavett and Jim Brown paid visits but it was all about one man; The Greatest. Deer Lake was a home for Muhammad Ali from 1972 until 1980.

It was, as Ali called it, Fighter’s Heaven. That’s the name it goes by now. It was bought by Mike Madden in 2016. Mike is the son of National Football League coaching legend John and after Ali died in 2016 he tried to find out what had happened to the famous old training camp. It turned out, coincidentally, it was for sale.

Now Madden is trying to rescue what it was. He’s trying to breathe new life into the old place, he’s trying to make it look like it did in its pomp more than 40 years ago. He’s trying to preserve it. Make no mistake, though, he’s up against it and he has been since he bought the place.

Ali owned it from 1972 to 1997, but he hadn’t used it to train in since his disastrous loss to Larry Holmes in in 1980.

From around the mid-eighties to some point in the nineties, Ali leased it for a dollar a year to a group of mothers and children. When he decided to sell it went to martial artist George Dillman. Lonnie Ali sold it to him for $80,000. He had some tenuous links to Ali and set about trying to make a buck from the place.

“He tells everyone he trained Ali, he never trained Ali,” said Ali’s former right-hand man, Gene Kilroy.

“He had used it as a karate camp,” said Sam Matta, who now helps run Fighter’s Heaven for Madden.
“He was quite successful with it but he was not the guy he portrayed himself to be as this big Muhammad Ali guy… And he got a lot of mileage out of it. He had stories written, pictures taken… and he was kind of using Muhammad Ali.”

But decades have passed since Ali was here. Then came its incarnation as a bed and breakfast and then there was a period when it was empty. At each stage it lost part of its being, its identity, its soul and by the time the nostalgic Madden came to see what he had bought a few weeks after doing the deal, it had fallen into varying stages of disrepair.

He didn’t know exactly what he’d let himself in for.

“He just decided to google Muhammad Ali training camp and up popped places for sale and a realtor down in Reading had the property,” Matta continued. “He made the call and said, ‘I’ll give you five hundred thousand’. She said, ‘No’. He said, ‘I’ll give you five hundred and twenty thousand and that’s it’. She said, ‘Sold’. He never saw the place. In early July 2016 he flies in, she meets him here, gave him the papers – he’d already wired the cheque to her – and he now had the deeds and that was it.”

The idea was there was no idea.

“We came up in a hot day in August and the place was a shambles,” Sam remembered. “It was a mess. It was nothing. It was filthy dirty; broken down. The Ali house was used as a storage place. You’d open the damn thing up and you’d think, ‘What the hell is all the junk?’ “The cabins had bunk beds in them. Ali’s room… there were filing cabinets in there, everything you could think of was in there. There were cobwebs. It was dormant.”

Madden’s father asked him what his plans were. “I don’t know, but it’s not going away,” he replied.

Muhammad Ali

Work to do

Sam first visited Deer Lake as a cub reporter in the seventies. He interviewed Ali. Through Ali’s great camp facilitator, Gene Kilroy, he was put in touch with Mike Madden to become one of the men on the ground for its reincarnation.

“So anyway,” Sam went on. “When I met Mike in there, there was like a little bleacher on one side of the gym and I guess they put that down next to the mats in the gym and I said to Mike, ‘What do you want to do?’ We talked for two, two and a half hours and we toured the place.”

They weren’t impressed but with the Madden video game fortune they were in a position to change it and start transforming it into a fight fan’s dream factory.

Through the years, almost all of the original artefacts have gone, but through research – leafing through books, rewatching old interviews and so forth – Madden, Sam and Mick Stefaneck,who lives onsite, have scavenged duplicates, replicas and anything similar they can find to match things they saw from the old Ali literature.

They’ve recreated the signs at the entry, the hanging wooden ones that say ‘Muhammad Ali, Welcomes you to Deer Lake, Training Camp, Est. 1972.’

There’s still the tombstone with the names of all the camp staff, from hype-man Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown to chef Lana Shabazz, trainer Angelo Dundee and sparring partner and friend Jimmy Ellis.

Along the perimeters of the camp on the hill before a steep drop, that used to be open with panoramic views but is now treed in, are the rocks – cut from a nearby quarry – with the names of Ali’s former opponents.

That was something Ali started, paying tribute to his former foes. His father, a sign writer, did the original painting but over the years, as you can imagine, kids from the camps and so forth went over them with more exploratory colours. At least they’re still there.

Several of the old cabins are yet to be renovated but the centrepieces are now Ali’s bunkhouse, the gym, the communal area and kitchen and the Mosque.

Ali’s cabin is wonderfully authentic. There’s a bed and they’ve matched a quilt cover with one Ali used, his old water pump is outside, a rocking chair like the one he had is in front of the fireplace and even a duplicate pair of army boots, Ali’s preferred running footwear, add to an air of authenticity.

Each morning at 5am, he’d ring a giant bell – also recreated by Madden and co – to summon sparring partners, putting them on standby, announcing that they had to get ready to run the hills with the star of the show.

They would assemble in an open area by an outdoor furnace, possibly with red-orange embers glowing from the night before, and off they’d go.

Later, they’d hit the gym, which has been beautifully recreated. There’s a ring in there, not the ring, unseen photos of Ali through his career, magazine covers, Ali quotes – “I’m more at home with my log cabins than I am in my house in Cherry Hill,” fight posters, a heavybag, a side office and a door that leads through to Ali’s old massage room. Hung up is an old Ali fight robe, and there are some old school scales. 

Of all the wooden cabins, only one is white, the Mosque. It’s been refurbished and there’s a prayer mat on the floor.

The kitchen and dining area is another area that’s been extensively redone. It even hosts original features, the stove from the 1970s and the huge colourful, floral table that must weigh more than 100 kilos and was probably assembled in there because it’s so big. This is where Ali sat and ate with a young Larry Holmes, joked with Bundini, listened to Dundee and told stories. You can hear the laughter.

Back outside, as you patrol the grounds, you can smell the history. It almost makes the countryside air musty, it’s so strong.  

Glory years

A stream of celebrities and talkshow hosts visited over the years. The story goes that Elvis came here once. Sam smiled at that one. “There are people in this area who say, ‘We saw him. He definitely was here. He was shopping. He was in an antiques store.’ It’s a lie. But…” and Sam paused here, “But, we kind of let it go. We call it urban legend and let it go.”

When Ali first arrived it was just woodland. Kilroy brought him up to Deer Lake and spoke of the upsides. Having a camp could look good on a tax return. The place wasn’t easily accessible to fight scribes on the East Coast; New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlantic City… They were all four-hour round trips or so.

Even though Ali lived in Cherry Hill in New Jersey at the time, he snubbed invitations from ambitious Atlantic City hotels in favour of solitude.

“Ali was training in Miami with the Dundees [Angelo and Chris at the 5th Street Gym] and he was spending all kinds of money down there,” reflected Kilroy. “This was after his exile. I was showing him a business plan where the NFL teams have their training camps and they use it as a write off for tax and he couldn’t believe it, so I brought in an accounting firm and I told him all about that and it made sense to him.”

Ali also liked it that fellow 1960 Olympian, USA pole vaulter Don Bragg (who became a lifelong friend) had a kids’ camp. He thought there was something there, too.

Needless to say, there were fewer distractions in remote Pennsylvania than there were on the New Jersey shoreline.
“He had an offer to train at Atlantic City in a new hotel, free food, rooms, a gym in the convention center, but Ali never met a man he didn’t like,” Kilroy added. “He’d go to the bathroom and come out with two new friends and it was my job to run them away. Deer Lake was two hours from everywhere, people couldn’t just show up like they would have in Atlantic City.”

Gene spoke to the landowner and did the deal. He was there in the beginning. The gym went in, then the kitchen, and Ali always wanted log cabins. It was his vision.

“It started with his mother, his father, his brother Rahman and his Aunt and myself,” Kilroy stated. “Then we would bring in maybe four sparring partners and Louis Sarria, his masseuse, then Angelo would come in and when his mother couldn’t do it any more we hired a cook called Lana Shabazz, who did a great job. We realised one thing up there; we were just spokes in the wheel, Ali was the wheel. Everyone who was around Ali, they would have taken a bullet for him because he would have taken a bullet for them.”

Muhammad Ali sign

The future

An immediate goal is for Deer Lake to be preserved as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. They also want national recognition. “Mike put his money where his heart is, he bought the camp, he overpaid for it and he restored it, brought it up to date,” said Kilroy. “He bought it for half a million dollars and he’s already put a million dollars in it. He did that from his heart.

“He wants the state of Pennsylvania to make it a historical shrine, like the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross Museum and the Valley Forge Battlefield. He’s the one that’s keeping the legacy of Muhammad Ali alive.”

“People don’t realise what Muhammad Ali was about. Muhammad Ali was about humanity,” Sam said. “He was a very, very different man.”

There’s an idea to make it a destination for corporate America, for team bonding stays. Already local schools have begun to include it on their curriculum while an HBO crew stayed onsite while they filmed their recent Ali two-parter, What’s my name?

Fighter’s Heaven raise money for the Parkinson’s Foundation and a local cerebral palsy charity. “I was the closest guy with Muhammad Ali,” added Kilroy, who was one of Ali’s pall bearers at his funeral. “I was with him when he was fighting, when he wasn’t fighting, when he was in exile I put the college lecturing together for him, I helped him get his licence back, but I was well respected by all his kids, even today, and by his mum and dad, and the story is you can’t give respect unless you get it, and I have a lot of respect for those people. The story of success like that is to never wear out your welcome. To be successful in life, surround yourself with successful people.

“I’m blessed. If I was to die tomorrow and go to heaven it would be a step down. My heaven was with Ali. He had the innocence of boyhood but the dignity of manhood. I was blessed to be there.”

Kilroy knows the story of Deer Lake, he lived through the story of Ali by his side. Now 85, he lives in Las Vegas with his treasure trove of fond and fascinating memories.

Mick and Sam have bold ideas to perhaps implement some virtual reality props into their tours. At present, there are TV screens in three areas, Ali’s room, the gym and the Mosque, and they play key highlights and interviews from the former heavyweight king’s life.

It’s all highly impactful.

“We’ve had a seventh-eighth grader who said when he left, this is going to change my life,” Sam smiled. “If it saves one kid, we’ve done a good thing.”

“Ali just loved it here,” he said, something Kilroy was quick to agree with.

You can’t help but be inspired. There’s greatness everywhere. Every building wants to share its secrets but they can’t talk. If only they could.

After all The Greatest, he was here.

The Champ was here. The Champ was here.

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