Madden’s son fights to save Ali’s secluded camp in Pa.
all these guys were messing up his story. I lived through that history and I thought, ‘If this is how history is written, it’s horrible.’ So I went home and Googled some stuff about Ali and one of the stories made a reference to Deer Lake. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had to see it.”
Soon afterward, Madden took a red-eye flight east and walked the site extensively. Within six months, and without a specific plan, he’d purchased it from a Reading karate instructor for $520,000.
Following settlement, Madden called his then-80-year-old father, who coincidentally was sitting in his California office with Troy Aikman, lamenting the fact that great sports figures like Vince Lombardi and Sugar Ray Robinson were being forgotten.
“I knew he had a photo of Ali there, so I asked him to turn around and look at it,” Mike Madden recalled. “I said, ‘Do you see he’s smiling? Well, that’s because we’re going to have a hand in preserving his history.’ And Dad said, ‘Well, dammit, somebody has to do it.’ ”
‘MUHAMMAD WELCOMED EVERYONE’
For eight years, boxing’s self-proclaimed “King of the World” trained in this off-the-grid locale. He mingled easily with the locals and they grew used to him, to his colorful entourage and RollsRoyce. Sometimes, on his early-morning runs, youngsters used to jog behind him. One cancerstricken boy was especially close, visiting Ali often. At the boy’s funeral, a photo he’d taken with the champ rested in his casket.
From 1972 through 1980, Deer Lake was open to the world. Its unfettered access drew fans and journalists from all over the world. Even after Ali retired, devotees continued to come.
“People were always popping in and out,” said Sam Matta, a former sportswriter who is the camp’s manager. “Can you imagine Tom Brady or LeBron James working out someplace where people could come and see them? They’d walk away. But even when he was the most famous person on earth, Muhammad welcomed everyone.”
Until going to Schuylkill County, Ali — then living in Cherry Hill — had trained in Miami. But costs were high and distractions numerous. Impressed by a visit to Archie Moore’s Salt Mine camp near San Diego, the boxer asked his business manager Gene Kilroy, a native of nearby Mahanoy City, to find a similar, more suitable venue.
Kilroy, once dubbed “The Facilitator” on a Sports Illustrated cover, knew a Pottsville boxing manager named Bernie Pollack, who owned what had been a mink farm. Ali visited the secluded site and bought it for $10,000.
“He was happy at Deer Lake,” said Kilroy, 76, who lives in Las Vegas. “He loved it. All the houses he bought, someone else lived there first. This is something he created. He cut the logs. He knew what kind of gym he wanted. It was his own creation. And it was just far enough off the beaten track to keep a lot of people away.”
While the camp’s 13 buildings were being constructed, Ali resided in a trailer and trained in Reading, 30 miles to the southeast. Once settled in, he reveled in Deer Lake’s spartan lifestyle.
“There were trees down there,” said Matta, pointing toward a valley to the west. “He would go down with an ax and cut them down. Well, the guy who owned the land and the trees sued. Muhammad eventually settled with him for something like $2,500.”
By the end of the 1970s, both Ali and Deer Lake were fraying. Though his last fight, for which he trained in the Bahamas, took place in 1981, the boxer maintained ownership for years. He sold it in the 1990s to Reading karate instructor George Dillman, a onetime workout partner. Dillman operated it as both a karate camp and a bed-and-breakfast, the Butterfly and Bee B&B.
Over the years, to satisfy occasional nostalgic or spiritual urges, Ali returned. The last visit came in 2001, the stricken former champion peering at his former camp through a limousine window.
These days a dentist’s billboard featuring a smiling tooth marks the dusty turnoff on Route 61 to this almost-forgotten sports treasure at the top of Sculps Hill.
TELLING ALI’S STORY
Madden, according to Kilroy, has invested more than $1 million in the camp’s rebirth. Its 45-year-old structures, many of which were rotting and porous, have been repaired and improved by Amish craftsmen. Some have been decorated with period furniture, equipment, appliances and Ali memorabilia.
“We’re trying to replicate everything,” Matta said.
As a guide for the project, Madden turned to Kilroy, who was best man at one of the fighter’s weddings and a pallbearer at his parents’ funerals. The crusty manager supplied both stories and photos from the Deer Lake years.
“When I saw those photos, I knew we had to put them on display,” Madden said.
Now dozens of them — along with Ali quotations, fight posters, ticket stubs, magazine covers — adorn the walls of the spacious gym, with its regulation ring and punching bag.
Up a hill from there is the cozy white mosque where Ali prayed five times daily. Out back, adjacent to a large stone grill the boxer built, is his cabin, equipped with the same water pump, oil lamp, and coal stove. A short walk away are the bunkhouses and the kitchen, where Ali’s mother and Lana Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, prepared meals.
Those bunkhouses, Matta said, might be suitable for corporate meetings or as theaters where tourists could view some of Ali’s 61 professional fights.
“Mike’s not sure how it’s all going to work or how many people are going to come to see this place,” Matta said. “But if we market it right, they’ll come.”
There’s no timetable yet for when the public will be admitted, but this autumn, Madden said, select groups of schoolchildren — “focus groups,” he called them — will tour.
“We’ll sit them down afterward and ask what they liked what they didn’t. What was boring and what wasn’t,” he said.
Retired boxer Robert Miller sits on a boulder outside the gym at Muhammad Ali's training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., in June 2016. A month later, Mike Madden, son of longtime NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden, purchased the property.