Grady and the Champ
The National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, was packed to capacity as Grady Ponder stepped into the ring to face local favorite Bunny Grant. Five years earlier, in 1962, only three days after Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain, the immensely popular Grant had fought British Commonwealth Lightweight Champion Dave Charnley and beaten him in that venue, claiming the title for himself and the island.
Now Grant was not particularly worried about his young American challenger. Boxers like Ponder were often sent abroad to fight title-holders. The contests made a pile of money, and the young fighters — who almost always lost — got their cut and went home.
But Ponder had come to win. Back home in Miami, leaders of the local Nation of Islam mosque were supporting him in his title bout. Black Muslim boxers weren't exactly a dime a dozen, and young Ponder reminded the mosque members of another fighter they had backed.
Ponder danced, throwing amazingly fast left jabs at the champion. Grant was caught off-guard: His opponent was a no-name, 19 years old, a child. But Grant couldn't touch him. Round after round Ponder danced, jabbed, retreated, outmaneuvered. The 6000-strong Jamaican crowd even began to cheer for the young American.
Around the fifth round, both boxers began to tire, and Grant landed a few clumsy punches. Bunny Grant had been favored to beat Grady Ponder two to one. But almost everyone agreed: From the beginning of the match, it looked like Ponder, not Grant, would walk away a champion.
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Grady Ponder came to Miami in 1961 on a Greyhound bus that dropped him off downtown. Clutching a brown paper bag containing his clothes, he gazed around. He had never seen a city before. The night before, the 13-year-old runaway had left his home in Sylvania, Georgia, with a single purpose: to find Cassius Clay.
He knew from television that Clay trained at the Fifth Street Gym, so he asked a passerby for directions. The stranger answered in gibberish. Frightened, the teen repeated himself, but to no avail. The man, Ponder discovered later, was speaking Spanish. The boy had never heard Spanish or any other language besides English. He didn't know others existed.
When he finally worked up the nerve to ask another person, Ponder learned the gym was in Miami Beach, not Miami, and that the public bus that went there cost 25 cents. He didn't have the money. He'd bought his bus ticket with $7.50 that he'd borrowed from a friend across the street. (Twenty years later he would find that friend in Orlando and try to repay him. The friend would refuse.)
Eventually he caught a ride with a sympathetic stranger and made his way to Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, to a dingy building with a sign reading "5th Street Gym; Nationally Known Boxers Training Here Daily; Public Welcome Upstairs." He walked through the door and climbed the stairway. The air grew more stifling with each step, until he reached the gym, which was broiling. The place was empty. Ponder sat down on a bench and waited for Cassius Clay. This was as far as his plans went.
An hour later he heard footsteps on the stairs, and into the gym walked his idol. He had come alone — no entourage, no anybody. It was just Ponder and Clay, looking at each other. The teen was unable to suppress his joy: "Cassius Clay!"
Clay was 20 years old. Standing six feet three inches tall, he towered over the boy. "How you doing, champ?" the boxer replied.
As Clay worked out, Ponder remained seated on the bench, staring at his idol. Four hours later, when Clay finished and began to head for the door, Ponder was still watching.
"You need a ride home, champ?" asked Clay, walking over to him.
"I got nowhere to sleep," blurted Ponder.
"Okay, champ," Clay said simply. "Grab your stuff. You can stay with me until you get yourself together."
And just like that, Grady Ponder moved in with the greatest boxer in the world.
Clay had come to Miami to train under the legendary Angelo Dundee shortly after winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, a victory that propelled the brash boxer to sudden fame. Upon returning home to Louisville from the Rome games, he had been greeted at the airport by cheerleaders, 300 fans, and a 25-car motorcade. (He liked the attention so much he threw a parade for himself a week later.)
When the boxer invited Grady Ponder to live with him in his Liberty City home, he didn't ask the boy who he was, where he had come from, or why he had run away. Ponder doesn't even recall being asked his name that first night. Clay simply called him champ.
"That's the amazing thing about it," Ponder says now. "He never did pry. He gave me money, food, a room, and all that stuff. 'Champ, get your stuff together' — that's all he said." For a year Ponder lived with Clay in the house he shared with his brother Rudy at 15th Court and 49th Street.
Clay let Ponder tag along. The two went running in the mornings, the younger trailing the older like a loyal duckling. He followed the boxer to the gym and watched him train for hours on end — just as he had done the first day he saw him. Clay, only barely out of his teens himself, became like a father to the youngster, handing him money when he needed it, ensuring he had dinner, giving him advice.
After Clay's workouts, Ponder rode around town with Rudy and the boxer in his pink Cadillac. As the world was beginning to learn, Clay loved attention. He enjoyed being seen walking "The Stroll" — as Second Avenue in Overtown was known then — with his retinue of admirers; he loved to take his Cadillac to the schools. One afternoon when Ponder was riding in back, Clay and Rudy pulled up to Miami Northwestern Senior High, and adoring students mobbed the car. By all means, the scrawny, grinning Ponder should have been one of them (when he left Georgia, he left school behind as well). But instead he was in the back seat of Cassius Clay's Caddy, and when the fighter rose to his feet to greet the crowd, so did Ponder. "Man, I stood up and waved at all them kids like I was somebody," he recalls nearly a half-century later, laughing and then shaking his head. "But I wasn't nobody."
For all the theatrics, life at home with Clay was quiet. The boxer never drank, never smoked, never had parties. Sometimes he and Rudy screened mobster movies for friends on the porch. But most nights Clay returned tired from a long day of training, Ponder by his side; the two ate a quiet supper together ("He could eat a whole chicken by himself"), and Ponder went to bed while Clay stayed up reading. The teenager never thought to ask him what he was reading every night. "I imagine it was the Holy Koran," he reflects.
To train for a match against Doug Jones, Clay left in 1963 for New York, one of a handful of stops along the way to his Miami Beach championship bout with Sonny Liston the next year. Ponder says he missed Clay terribly at first, but had understood all along that his idol would leave him. "He was the champ. He had to go."
Grady Ponder moved in with a brother in Hollywood, took a job washing dishes in Miami Beach, and began training to be a boxer.
His only ambition — to become as great a boxer as Cassius Clay — had been sparked back home, in Sylvania. Ponder was the son of sharecroppers, the 10th of 15 children. His family was poor, and by the time he was eight years old, Ponder was working full days in the fields, mostly picking cotton. He attended school only after the harvest was done, usually a month or two after classes had begun. When he did go to school, he usually went barefoot.
Ponder had learned the basics of boxing from cousins, who derived pleasure from dragging the younger kids out of the house and forcing them to fight each other in the dirt street. Ponder learned to dodge punches, watch opponents' hands, and take advantage of openings.
His life changed when he turned on the TV set one night and for the first time saw Cassius Clay fighting. Back then Clay was by no means the most famous boxer in America. He was a kid with a risky style of fighting — lowering his hands, relying on sheer speed to dodge punches — and an unbelievably loud mouth. Long before he had proven himself a champion, Clay talked like one.
The impact of Clay's attitude on Ponder was profound. His brother had once "spoke back" to the man who owned the land his parents farmed, and the white landowner had nearly had the boy locked up. At the time, Ponder hadn't thought much about it — it was "the way things were." But seeing Clay changed that. "There was this young black guy," he remembers, "fighting these white guys.... I said, 'I want to be exactly like Cassius Clay.'"
Ponder was hardly the only young, poor black kid in Miami who dreamed of becoming the Champ. In the early Sixties, boxing was still the second most popular sport in the nation (behind baseball), and even before Clay came to town, Miami was a hub. The city was full of places to box. On NW 79th Street there was the Little River Auditorium, a small gym that was converted into a boxing arena where every Thursday night 400 or 500 people would pack in for a night of fighting — two four-rounders, two six-rounders, and the main event, an eight-rounder. Sometimes area bars would set up a tiny ring in the back and host fights. One of these jerry-rigged arenas was the bar at the Sir John Hotel in Overtown — better known for prostitution, gambling, and drugs than for boxing. In Liberty City there was the Palace, a dive that occasionally hosted bouts. The best fighters in the world — Sugar Ray Robinson, Luis Rodriguez, Joe Frazier, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter — all passed through Miami.
But Clay's arrival was different. At the time, the 20-year-old wasn't even considered the greatest boxer in Miami. Before coming to town, he had fought only one professional fight, a six-rounder against the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. But that didn't matter: By the time he stepped through the ropes at the Miami Beach Auditorium, Clay was a celebrity.
"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."
Despite his successes, Ponder was growing increasingly frustrated with the fights — or the lack thereof — he was getting. The wait between bouts was sometimes two, three, four months. The fights Goodman did arrange were often outside the country — Trinidad, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas — where decisions inevitably went to the home boxer. "The reasons I was going out of town for all those fights is that those were the only kinds of fights Mac could get," he reflects.
Meanwhile, for the first since he came to Miami, Ponder was beginning to think about more than boxing. During the time he had lived with Clay, he had been oblivious to the change taking place in his idol, even as it happened quietly before his eyes, in those late-night sessions with the Koran. Even then Clay had already become involved with the Nation of Islam, but — partly at the request of his handlers — the rising star kept his beliefs to himself. But the day after he returned from defeating Liston in 1964, Clay went public with his new identity, appearing by Elijah Muhammad's side on television and announcing his new name: Muhammad Ali.
Ali's conversion to Islam didn't mean much to Ponder. But when he heard Ali would be in Miami later that year to speak at the Liberty City mosque, he went there, hoping to reunite with his idol. The last they had spoken, Ponder was a 14-year-old dropout without a plan; now he was a champion-to-be.
Ali never showed up, but Ponder politely stuck around to hear the sermon. The language moved him. "I had never heard black people talking like that before," he says. A few weeks later he returned for another meeting. In early 1965 he joined the Nation, privately renouncing his "slave name" and taking the moniker Grady X. Later he would change his name to Aleem Fakir. Publicly he still fought as Grady Ponder.
Ponder's shot for a title came November 18, 1967, against Bunny Grant, the British Commonwealth Lightweight Champion, at the National Stadium in Kingston. For the first and only time in his career, Ponder was given a warm reception abroad, largely thanks to Cecil Bustamente Campbell, better known as Prince Buster, the Jamaican ska legend. Buster met Ponder at the airport and instantly befriended him, insisting Ponder stay with him and escorting the young boxer all over the island.
Ponder says he never thought to wonder why a famous musician should take under his wing a foreign boxer who was predicted to lose to a popular national champion. In fact Prince Buster was acting on the orders of Captain Sam, then head of Mosque 29 in Miami, to which Ponder belonged. Buster, himself an ex-boxer, had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 — like Ponder, shortly after meeting Muhammad Ali, who had personally invited him to attend a talk there.
Captain Sam was a big fan of Ali's and attended all of his Miami fights. In Ponder he saw another young "lion," another Black Muslim, devoutly religious, who appeared to be following in Ali's footsteps. He told Prince Buster to look out for Ponder and help him win.
On the night of the fight, more than 6000 Jamaicans packed the National Stadium to see Grant, their own champion, defend the title he'd brought to the island after beating Love Allotey in Ghana. They cheered wildly as Grant stepped into the ring. And then a funny thing happened: Grant found himself staring into the eyes not of Ponder but of Prince Buster, who stood beside the young American as his second. Buster and Grant had been good friends; the musician had even accompanied the champion to London for a previous fight. But now his former ally stood beside the opponent, staring down Grant as hard as he could. The Jamaican boxer looked surprised, and so did the crowd. Probably because of Buster's presence, the thousands of onlookers received Ponder more warmly than they would have another foreign opponent.
The bell rang. For the first five rounds, Grant couldn't seem to catch the young fighter. "Grady was excellent — to see this young guy come with this style and outmaneuver [Grant]. It was his moves, his accurate punching," Buster recalls. "He could shift well, he could step in well, he threw good combinations — and so fast, man. Believe me, I was proud."
Ponder was too fast for Grant to connect often, but the American's careful defense and backpedaling cost him: He landed few blows to Grant's body or head, and he was beginning to tire. In the eighth round, Ponder opened up a cut above Grant's left eye — a feat Grant tempered in the ninth and tenth rounds when he pushed Ponder to the ropes and pummeled him. But Ponder fought back to the very end.
The fight was close but, Ponder says, not that close. At the last bell, he was sure he had won. Indeed the Jamaican Star reported Buster was so sure of Ponder's victory that the musician lifted the would-be champion back into the ring and held his arms up in victory. The crowd cheered; they thought the match was his too.
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.
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.
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.
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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