The Great Contender

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!"

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."

He refused to call women's boxing matches when that great humanitarian Don King began to introduce them to his TV cards on the Roman arena principle: "Give the crowd what it wants." He claimed that female mammary tissue is prone to turn cancerous if repeatedly punched, and that the "safety bras" trumpeted by network sports execs -- who just wanted to see their schedules running smoothly and their ratings increasing -- were useless. Doc campaigned for and got thumbless gloves (to prevent eye gouging), double-stranded ropes (to keep fighters from being knocked out of the ring), and quicker stoppages of fights (he'd seen Benny "Kid" Paret killed by welterweight champ Emile Griffith, and Duk Koo Kim, a brave Korean lightweight with a dim or heartless corner, die at the hands of Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini).

Curiously, the moral/medical knowledge that Pacheco drew on -- one of his assets to earlier TV execs like Arthur Watson and Dick Weisman at NBC -- became a liability to their replacements over the course of his 24 years in broadcasting: "Some of these [newer] TV guys, the most mild-mannered nebbishes you'll ever meet, became General Pattons when it got down to 'Are we gonna put on a big [pay-per-view] fight or not?'"

The worst examples were Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier for the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975, in which Frazier went into the fight legally blind in his right eye (but "undetected" by sports commission doctors or his own corner), and in which both men took such fearful beatings that they began showing symptoms of dementia pugilisma; and Ali vs. Larry Holmes in 1980, which put the finishing touches to Ali's deterioration (after which King talked the incoherent champ into accepting $50,000 cash in lieu of an extra million he was contracted to receive).

Pacheco was in Il Fico restaurant at 4770 Biscayne Blvd., being served by the beauteous Sladja Stantic, co-owner with her husband Simon, while recalling the Ali tales. The food was excellent, the atmosphere chic but comfortable, and yet Ferdie's voice broke and his eyes welled up, recalling Ali's last fighting days:

"I'd told him after Manila that he couldn't sustain beatings like that anymore, that brain injuries develop slowly, and that by the time he was 50, he'd be paying for the glory he was living at the moment. He nodded his head. He understood. He chose his fate."

Fame, however temporary, is fame. And, increasingly, it's business. So Ferdie and Luisita had moved their big Giuliani portrait over to Books & Books in Coral Gables for a live visit by its subject, who was in town pushing Leadership, his latest writing effort, and stumping for Jeb Bush. When Ferdie arrived, about 200 people were waiting in line, but he just led the way to the front, past Mitch Kaplan, who owns the joint, and was ushered to a table. He'd been here before, selling his own books; he ate a slice of cake, and told photographer Steve Satterwhite how the Herald refused to review his art shows: a personal matter, and also because his work was too "populist and commercial," like LeRoy Neiman, or Norman Rockwell.

He recalled Lynne Pyne, the art critic of the Phoenix Gazette, commenting on a Pacheco show that included a portrait of Einstein: "That little block of magenta on the temple locks in the design," the woman authoritatively told the Fight Doctor. "It's the key to the painting."

"Actually," he'd replied, "I'm a miser about wasting paint, and I had a little left in the tube, so I just smeared it on there."

By then, Giuliani had arrived, and Ferdie sidled over to be photographed with him. They beamed at each other, two men who understood the value of publicity. The famous, and the almost famous.

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John Lombardi
Contact: John Lombardi

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