The Great Contender

True fame and hard truth don't mix in the TV-sportscasting biz

At the Davinci Gallery in Coral Gables recently, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco -- the Fight Doctor, Muhammad Ali's physician for the good part of the champ's career, and then boxing's best analyst at NBC and Showtime -- had seized an old patron by the elbow. Ferdie looked bespoken in a black blazer and black band-collar shirt, gray flannel slacks and a pair of those pricey-looking dress sandals you mostly wear sockless, like Don Johnson did. He was energetically relating the history of his Rudy Giuliani portrait, along with his portentous painting of President Bush, the main events of his one-man art show:

"Oye. I'm watching TV, tu sabes? September 11! I see the plane hit! It smashes the World Trade tower. Then a second one hits. Pearl Harbor all over again!" Ferdie leaned in closer:

"Suddenly Mayor Giuliani -- who people had written off, politically dead -- is leading a group to safety. Some of his own party, trapped on Chambers Street . . . 'Go north!' he says. He points uptown. He's calm. The buildings around him are falling down, but he's guiding folks away from danger!"

The famous and the almost famous: Rudy Giuliani (right) and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco at Books & Books
Steve Satterwhite
The famous and the almost famous: Rudy Giuliani (right) and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco at Books & Books

Ferdie beamed like a sunrise. He was inspired by the largesse of the mayor, he told his captive listeners, who by now included a couple of classy older women dressed in high Hispanic party mode -- dignified, but with that warm impasto rich Anglos instinctively shrink from.

Ferdie said he'd marched down the hall of the million-dollar Spanish manse he shares with his dancer wife Luisita in the exclusive Bay Point section off Biscayne Boulevard. He'd grabbed his paintbrushes and gone to work on Giuliani . . . A kind of hyper-realistic poster style, with bold colors intimating the mayor's emotional landscape: a big red blush on his left frontal skull, between the parietal bone and the sphenoid, to denote anger and pain; a greenish tan over the zygomatic and upper lip, indicating nausea and hardening of purpose; silver ice shading into black on the right occipital -- Rudy would dig the Afghan bombing . . .

"I'm not a trained painter," the doctor explained dismissively. "With me it's heart over head. When my grandfather Gus first took me to see the Renaissance masters in Tampa when I was a kid, I said: 'I can't do that!' But then I saw the simpler lines of Monet, Picasso, their emphasis on impressionist and expressionist emotional truth. . . A good painting is like a good story is like a good fight -- Pablo, Budd Schulberg [who wrote The Harder They Fall and What Makes Sammy Run?] and Jack Dempsey would have had a great time drinking beer and telling lies together . . ."

His fans at Davinci didn't argue. Everything he said or did got rock-star reaction. His long gray hair curled democratically, like LBJ's in his later Pedernales, Texas days, and Ferdie sold a number of paintings on opening night, for fees ranging from $6000 to $10,000.

Fame is clearly Doc's metier, it excites him primally, yet his relationship to it is problematic. He seems to need to like the famous person, or else say why not. It's a quality that helped make and end his TV career two years ago. And it left him, as he says ruefully, "almost famous."

Take Ali, a man he loves: "A physical genius as a boxer -- do you know how many mental calculations go into timing a hook off a jab?" Ferdie asks. "But otherwise intelligent? No. Never could talk about anything but himself. Zones out if the subject changes from him . . .

"I'll tell you something else: Ali would have happily joined the army and gone to Vietnam! [He'd have done "Elvis" duty anyway.] It was the Muslims who told him to evade the draft, and then when his drawing power dropped when he was stripped of his title, they dumped him! And he kept going back to them, and listening to that idiot Herbert Muhammad [Muslim manager]!"

So much for Ali's liberal hero status with the great white middle-class "No Vietcong ever called me nigger" crowd. "He's a good man," Pacheco says, "but not even Lincoln lives up to his media myths . . ."

In Ferdie's field the purveyors of those myths were "sports personalities" like the late egotist Howard Cosell; self-glorifying writers such as Norman Mailer and Mike Katz (boxing columnist for the New York Times and Daily News); and "network nitwits" like Sean McManus (eventually president of CBS Sports), who once urged Doc -- who was booking fights for NBC as well as announcing them -- to match then-heavyweight (250 lb.) champ Larry Holmes with lightweight (135 lb.) titleholder Alexis Arguello. Ferdie just laughed and told him to subscribe to Ring magazine and learn the basics. When George Foreman began his ludicrous "comeback" in his 40s -- a series of phony victories, capped by a fluke KO of Michael Moorer, which made George the champ for five minutes -- Ferdie refused to call his fights.

Outraged, Dick Auerbach, then NBC's boxing guy, and Ken Schanzer, a VP, and later David Dinkins, Jr. and Jay Larkin, executive sports producers at Showtime cable, wanted to know why: "Because he's a fake. And he's a big guy who can't get hurt too badly, making a lot of money and encouraging other old boxing wrecks -- who can get hurt -- to try comebacks, too."

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