Grady and the Champ

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

And then, 10 years ago, his life took a turn for the worse: On February 6, 1997, the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office pulled him over for DUI. He was detained and released without a conviction. Two years later it happened again: This time the Henry County Sheriff's Office charged him with DUI as a second-degree misdemeanor. In 2000 he was charged in Surfside with DUI as well as driving with a suspended license. Ponder — now Fakir — had gone 50 years without touching alcohol. But now he had a drinking problem.

He's not sure how it happened. His job, he says, could be extremely stressful: "You were always worrying about making sure everybody showed up, making sure nobody embarrassed anybody else, making sure the money was in." He theorizes that having gone his whole life without drinking, perhaps his body wasn't ready for it when he did try alcohol. In June 2005, after yet another DUI, he was sentenced to a year in Broward County jail.

This past June, Aleem Fakir stood in a Liberty City parking lot with his old friends and boxing partners Willie Melton and David King. He hadn't seen them in 20 years. The reunion was a coincidence. After his release in February 2006, Fakir had taken a job at a printing company in Opa-locka, where a co-worker had told him he had run into some guys who knew him, and wanted to bring the ex-fighter along to meet them. Fakir pooh-poohed the idea: "Don't nobody know me," he replied. But the co-worker insisted, and convinced Fakir to go with him.

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

Now he meets Melton and King once or twice a week in the lot, which abuts a liquor store and is used by locals as a sort of outdoor bar, with a single picnic table sitting outside and a semifunctional pool table shoved into the store's garage. One gets the impression that if a meteor hit the place, patrons would come back the next day and sit in the crater.

Fakir, King, and Melton lounge at the picnic table, sip beers (Fakir still has an occasional drink, but never gets behind the wheel afterward), and talk about boxing. "I disassociated myself with everyone I grew up with," Fakir says. "I didn't have no friends when I was doing that stuff. I don't know if that's good — to forget your roots."

Melton and King, like Fakir, avoided the fate that befell many of the boxers they knew. They did odd jobs, manual labor, construction. Melton carries a card that reads "Willie the Roofer"; he also sells perfume and cologne. King, who works in construction, recently took an interest in music. On Father's Day he arrived at the parking lot with a canopy tent, two enormous speakers, an electronic keyboard, and a karaoke machine, and he accompanied himself as he sang. Fakir found King's rendition of Ray Charles's "America" so good that King obligingly performed it three more times.

A half-mile northeast of the lot is the apartment where Melton and Ponder lived at the height of their boxing careers. A few blocks north is the 27th Avenue Boxing Center, where every day Eddie Linder leaves his job as a custodian to watch his son train. And half a mile east, on 15th Court, is the house Ponder and Cassius Clay lived in together.

After the Father's Day celebration, Fakir and New Times took a ride to visit the old house. It is a small, unremarkable two-story home on a pretty, working-class block of Allapatah. Fakir knocked on the door, and the owner's son came out, looking suspicious. When Fakir explained he had lived there, the young man nodded. "I heard Ali lived here," he said. "Him and his brother."

On the way back to the car, Fakir casually remarked he hadn't seen the house since he left it 40-odd years ago.

He had made a complete break with his former life when he quit boxing. Since getting out of jail, he finds himself starting over yet again. "My job is a lot less stressful now," he says. "I just come in, work, and go home." In the evenings he and his wife of 38 years retire to their house in Miami Gardens, and Fakir turns on the TV set to see if a fight is on. He doesn't follow boxing, but sometimes he'll come across a classic Ali match. "I check the channel every night to see if he's on. Once they had a whole day of Ali — all his fights. Man, I sat there all day."

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