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"He was the most publicized fighter in the world ... because of his brashness, because of his talking," says boxing historian, archivist, manager, and recent hall-of-famer Hank Kaplan, who lives in Kendall and maintains what he modestly dubs "the most comprehensive archive on the planet." Kaplan, who keeps his age a professional secret, grew close to Clay from the beginning.
"I'll never forget this time when he heard me coming up the steps at the Fifth Street Gym," Kaplan recalls, "and he says, 'Hey, Hank, who's the number 10 heavyweight in the world?' I says, 'I don't know. I'll check the ratings. Why?' He says, 'Well, I want him.' That's how he was — it was his second professional fight! He was just being honest; he was so impressed with himself."
Clay was so popular that the gym, which had always charged visitors a small fee to watch boxers train, began to charge double when he was there. The ring, Kaplan says, would be surrounded by spectators, with Clay chatting away within.
But if he was something of a novelty for fans, Clay inspired a kind of mystical awe in Miami's boxers, who were mostly black and poor, fighters like Jerry Powers ("The Prince of Second Avenue"), Bobby Marie, Willie "Cadillac" James, Grady McClendon, and Herb Siler.
They idolized Ali, and being invited to train at the Fifth Street Gym was one step closer to being like him.
"I came right off the streets and came to the gym," remembers Eddie Linder, a lightweight from Overtown who took to boxing to defend himself from the gangs that loitered around his school. Linder, now 60, hangs out every day at the Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department's boxing center on NW 27th Avenue and 69th Street, where his son Elijah trains. Linder still looks like a fighter — huge shoulders, chiseled arms. "I was so proud, man, when Angelo [Dundee] asked me to train on the beach," he says. "I felt so good, man, I felt like somebody." Like Ponder, he modeled himself after Ali. "I was a good scientific boxer, like Ali," he says. "And I was a good showman. I could put on a good fight for people. I would do Luis Rodriguez style — pop pop pop pop — then I would do Ali style. Sometimes I thought I was doing it better than Ali."
Willie Melton was another local kid who trained with Ponder at Fifth Street. In fact he and Ponder were best friends. A few years after Ponder began boxing, he rented an apartment with Melton at NW 62nd Street and 12th Court. Melton, too, had been drawn to boxing by the desire to become Muhammad Ali. "He was a beautiful guy, man. A nice person, too, you know?" Melton remembers. "We'd practice speed bags at the same time, right hand, left hand. I remember the bell would go, and pa pa pa pa, ba ba ba ba — he'd say, 'You little runt, you think you the Champ?'
"Everybody wanted to be like the Champ — everybody," Melton emphasizes. "Even before he whupped Sonny Liston, he was famous. Who didn't want to be like the Champ?"
Of the scores of local boxers, Grady Ponder was from the start one of the best. He was just 16 years old when he fought his first bout, against a Puerto Rican lightweight named Hector Verdugo, and won easily. He was victorious in his next fight as well, and the next, and the next. By the end of his first year of boxing, he had fought 25 matches and lost only once.
The papers began to take notice. He even appeared in a TV commercial with another Miami boxer, a rising star named Gomeo Brennan. The ad featured Ponder and Brennan pausing from sparring in the ring to enjoy a few sips of Tenderleaf tea together. The ad ran for years, Ponder says. He figures it paid him at least as much as all of his boxing matches combined.
His onetime manager, Mac Goodman — a short Jewish guy who sold beach umbrellas by day — knew he had struck gold with Ponder. "Mac knew I was the best thing he had," Ponder says. "For him there was all other fighters, and then there was me. He thought I was going to be better than Ali."
On March 13, 1963, Cassius Clay defeated Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden. In what was later dubbed the Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine, Clay won by a 5-4 decision after a grueling 11 rounds. The crowd, which overwhelmingly favored Jones, booed as Clay held his arms up in victory. He, in turn, faced the crowd and booed back at them. Grady Ponder saw the fight on television in Miami. He watched ecstatically as Clay told reporters: "I hope Sonny Liston is watching this. And when I get back to Miami, I want that bum." In his idol's eyes, Ponder saw his own future.
On June 21, 1966, Ponder fought a much-touted main event at the Miami Beach Auditorium against a Cuban-born slugger named Jesus Hernandez, who had knocked out nearly every one of the nine opponents he had faced. Ponder was no slugger; he drew the fight out to a decision that was awarded, unanimously, in his favor. "There are those who insist lightweight Grady Ponder is the best young prospect to tote boxing leather in the Beach arena since the sport came to town," wrote the Sun Sports. "Ponder ... seems to hunger for more action — and more talented opposition."