Grady and the Champ

For better and worse, Muhammad Ali left his mark on a generation of Miami boxers

But Ponder hadn't won. Grant did, on a split decision. Even the crowd was stunned. "Unlike the type of outburst the Jamaican fan is now accustomed to hear after a Bunny Grant fight, it was the other side which was yelling, 'We was robbed,'" the Star reported.

"It was stolen, and everybody got upset," says Buster. "It got rowdy. People started throwing cups." Goodman was outraged, barking at reporters — "My boy won by a mile" — demanding a rematch, and vowing never to return to Jamaica. Buster was furious as well: "[Grady] was calm; I was the one who got crazy. He realized he was in a different country and couldn't do anything about it."

The Kingston fight was a turning point for Ponder. He had been boxing since he was 14 years old; now 20, he could still barely pay his rent. He continued to fight, but half-heartedly, he says. He took a job driving for Society Cab and began to distance himself from the sport.

Ali took him in as a runaway; three years later Grady Ponder was one of the best boxers in Miami
Aleem Fakir
Ali took him in as a runaway; three years later Grady Ponder was one of the best boxers in Miami

Ten months later he got his rematch with Bunny Grant but lost again — this time, he says, fair and square. Within a year, he quit boxing. "I just left all my equipment and everything at the gym and never went back for it," he remembers, chuckling. "I wish I had gone back for it."

Among the scores of Miami youths who came into boxing on the heels of Ali, there wasn't much room for champions. Most of the local boxers stayed local. There was a tremendous demand for them to fill the tickets. Unscrupulous managers — called fish peddlers and beachcombers — would scour the beaches, streets, and bars, looking for youngsters willing to take a beating for 20 bucks. There was a profit to be made in losers, in so-called dead men, and many of the local kids were unwittingly slated by their managers to be just that. And so they fought each other, filling the tickets for lesser bouts, only rarely getting a shot at a fight that would make the news, let alone further their careers.

David King, a fighter who trained with Ponder at the Fifth Street Gym, has bitter memories of his managers. "There was a boy named Pedro Sanchez; I must have fought him seven times. I swear they wanted me to lose," he says, chuckling. "They didn't treat us too good in those days ... those kind of managers. I always was very picky, but I know a crook when I see one. [Grady Ponder] was the king over me; he was dynamite. But we all fall in the same place. Wasn't no good place or bad place. Everybody went down in the end."

When their dreams didn't pan out after years of fighting, some boxers fell apart. Jerry Powers, a tireless fighter, was charged over the years with drug possession, grand theft, burglary, and assault. Herb Siler, the first Miamian to fight Ali, went to prison for manslaughter in 1972. Luis Rodriguez, onetime welterweight champion of the world, wound up penniless, working as a bus boy in Miami Beach. His half-brother, Douglas Vaillant, a main-event fighter in Miami Beach, hanged himself. Reiner Hartmann killed himself too. And former heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick — the last man to fight Ali — was beset by legal problems until he was found murdered last year in Jamaica.

"The whole history of the sport, as far as I'm concerned, is sad stories. Fundamentally these kids end up with their brains scrabbled and nothing in their pockets and nothing to show for it," says Murry Gaby, who spent years managing boxers out of the Fifth Street Gym. As he watched what happened to boxers over the years, he began to question the sport. "There are people who maintain this romantic image of the sport, but the fact is that you hang around, and it all turns to shit." Gaby saw many of his fighters wind up broke, incarcerated, or dead. "What happens is these kids, they hear these hands clapping at this part of their life and it lasts such a little time.... It'd be better if you take kids who aren't going to be great and take them away from these great expectations — because they aren't going to happen."

When Grady Ponder quit, he didn't turn to drugs or booze or crime. He married his girlfriend Patricia, whom he met when he was 16 and she 14. He took a job driving a cab until, at age 25 — having not set foot in a classroom since leaving Sylvania — he went back to school. In 1975 he got his GED and enrolled in Miami-Dade Community College, where he earned an associate's degree. That year he changed his name to Aleem Fakir.

In 1981, in the wake of the riots that followed the acquittal of white Miami-Dade Police officers accused of fatally beating a black insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie, Ponder's life changed yet again: He became an organizer. He was recruited by People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), a group that organized black congregations into action and monitored compliance with a state supreme court ruling that outlawed the use of preemptive strikes based on race in jury selections. Ponder worked throughout South Florida as an organizer for the next 20 years.

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