DEER LAKE — Fifty years after it was first heard there, the voice of Muhammad Ali echoed across Fighter’s Heaven on Sunday evening at the pugilist’s now legendary training camp in southern Schuylkill County.
As darkness fell, the voice of a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay declared “I am the greatest” from a 13-foot TV screen outside the gym where the three-time world heavyweight champion trained from 1971 to 1982.
Owner Mike Madden, who dedicated the restored camp to “the fighter and the man” in 2019, invited a few of Ali’s friends and former associates to watch the premiere of the Ken Burns documentary “Muhammad Ali: Bigger Than Boxing, Larger Than Life.”
“It made sense to have it here,” said Madden, 58, a California real-estate investor who bought the camp several years ago. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
The son of sportscaster and NFL Hall of Famer John Madden, Mike Madden drove in from Michigan, where he watched his son, Jason, play his first game as quarterback with the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday.
Six years in the making, the four-part documentary portrays Ali as one of the most indelible figures of the 20th century. It follows his transformation from a child growing up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, to a civil rights advocate and humanitarian who was accorded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2005.
The third segment airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS stations, including WVIA in Luzerne County and WLVT in Lehigh County. It concludes Wednesday evening.
Fighter’s Heaven featured
A crew from Florentine Films, Ken Burns’ production company, visited Ali’s camp about two years ago.
Mahanoy City native Gene Kilroy, Ali’s longtime manager, was interviewed for the documentary. So was former world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, the renowned Easton Assassin.
Holmes reportedly cried after he KO’d a vulnerable Ali, for whom he had served as a sparring partner at the camp, in the 11th round of a fight billed as “The Last Hurrah” in Las Vegas in 1980.
Only moments into the documentary, a visibly emotional Holmes said, “I loved being around Muhammad Ali.”
In an interview on Skype from his home in Las Vegas on Sunday evening, 83-year-old Kilroy said Ali was offered a training facility in Atlantic City but chose to come to Schuylkill County instead.
Working with Deer Lake furrier Bernie Pollack, Kilroy arranged for Ali to buy a secluded tract on Sculps Hill Road in West Brunswick Township in 1971.
For Ali, then 29 years old, 1971 was a year of defeat and redemption.
In March, he lost the heavyweight title to Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” in Madison Square Garden. It was his first professional loss in a career that saw 56 wins and five defeats.
In June of that year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Ali’s appeal of a five-year prison term for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War in 1967. His opposition to the war cost Ali his world championship title and a ban on boxing for three years.
“Coming to Schuylkill gave him a new lease on life,” said Kilroy, a former assistant to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jerry Wolman, a Shenandoah native.
Ali, who lived in a trailer while the camp was being constructed, found solace among the complex of 18 log buildings, including a mosque where he worshipped.
“Ali found a sense of peace at the camp,” Madden said of his boyhood idol. “It enabled him to make ready for the things he had to do in the ring.”
Open door policy
As a youngster, Ali waited hours for an autograph from his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, only to be snubbed by the world welterweight champ, the documentary notes.
Ali, who vowed he’d respect his fans when he became famous, opened his training camp to the public. After workouts, he’d routinely pose for pictures with kids and their parents.
Harold Hazzard, Ali’s personal assistant and chauffeur from 1972 to 1981, recalled seeing Frank Sinatra, Elivs Presley and Sylvester Stallone at the camp.
“I remember Ali clowning around with The Beatles in the ring,” said Hazzard, 72, who attended the premiere showing.
Lynda Pollack-Schiffer, of Orwigsburg, Bernie Pollack’s daughter, was among the invited guests.
She loved the documentary, but her thoughts were with Mike Madden for preserving the camp her father helped build.
“Who could have foreseen a Mike Madden,” she said. “Mike Madden is responsible for preserving the legacy of Muhammad Ali.”
Modest about his role, Madden said the eight-hour Ken Burns documentary may prove to be the most lasting tribute accorded Ali, who died at age 74 in 2016.
“When you have somebody as big as Muhammad Ali, you need a big canvas to tell his story,” Madden said. “Ken Burns’ stuff lives on.”
The camp is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and by appointment by calling 570-968-2961. It closes for the season Oct. 31.