Mad­den’s son fights to save Ali’s se­cluded camp in Pa.

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports -

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.’ ”


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.


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.

AP file pho­tos

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.

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