By LEROY BOYER
[This column is reprinted by permission from the Republican & Herald newspaper located in Pottsville, PA.]
Mention Muhammad Ali’s name in Schuylkill County, and you get a wide variety of responses.
Greatest heavyweight fighter of all time … draft dodger … a goodwill amb
assador for the United States.
Regardless of your opinion of Ali, no one can dispute his place in Schuylkill County folklore.
Ali spent nearly a decade of his career training and living on Sculp’s Hill in West Brunswick Township, bringing several title-winning boxers and big-name celebrities to the small community of Deer Lake.
This weekend, the three-time champion was honored in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., with the dedication of the $80 million Muhammad Ali Center. The six-story center was built to promote Ali’s humanitarian work and relive his boxing triumphs.
There are exhibits that show him in his prime, firing jabs and sending opponents to the canvas. Other exhibits recount the days of segregation during Ali’s youth and the civil rights movement of the 1960s when Ali rose to fame. Ali’s refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War cost him his boxing title.
In addition to recounting his boxing career, the center will serve as a meeting place for heads of state, and will be a training ground for people to learn about conflict resolution.
A gala celebration was held Saturday evening, with celebrities like former President Clinton, Jim Carrey, Angelina Jolie, James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson on hand. The center was dedicated Sunday, and will open to the public today.
While Ali’s career began in Louisville, it was enhanced in West Brunswick Township.
Ali built his “Fighter’s Heaven” training camp in 1972, and trained there until his final bout against Trevor Berbick in 1981. It served as a training ground for famous fighters like Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon and Ernie Shavers, and attracted celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley, Dizzy Gillespie, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.
His training camp, currently owned by George Dillman, remains intact on Sculp’s Hill Road, with big rocks listing famous boxing names like Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano gracing its entrance.
The log cabin buildings that served as Ali’s home and gym are still standing, some modified for the various businesses the camp has housed since Ali departed in 1981.
It’s still a functional training facility, with Reading native Kermit Cintron using the famous camp in June 2004 to prepare for his NABF welterweight championship fight against Teddy Reid that was televised on HBO.
Ask anyone in their 30s, 40s or older who lived in Schuylkill County at the time, and I’m sure they have a story or two to tell about Ali.
I can remember seeing Shavers spar at the facility. And I can vividly remember the day my parents took my brothers, my cousins from Illinois and I to visit Ali’s camp.
Despite us showing up unannounced, the champ dropped what he was doing, took
us into his home and talked to us for a while – I still have photos of my cousins on his lap – and his daughters showed us around the camp and let us touch the horses that were penned up outside.
Aaron Snowell has plenty of stories.
The Pottsville native began his boxing career at Ali’s camp in the 1970s, and used the knowledge he gained there to become a professional trainer.
Snowell has worked for Don King since 1981, training former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Witherspoon, and guiding Frankie Randall to a victory over Julio Caesar Chavez in the first fight held at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas.
Now 45, he’s currently working in Camp Orwell, Ohio, training Tim Austin, a bronze medal-winner at the 1992 Olympics who is on the comeback trail after losing a title he held for seven years.
Snowell, who credits longtime Ali associate Gene “Bucko” Kilroy of Mahanoy City for boosting his career, raised an interesting point last week.
Despite Ali’s place in Schuylkill County history, there’s no official state or national marker or designation to mark his camp near Deer Lake.
In a county that wants to increase tourism, showcasing places like America’s Oldest Brewery, Pioneer Tunnel and Tuscarora and Locust Lake state parks, imagine the tourists that would flock to see Ali’s camp if given the proper attention.
“Great fighters, entertainers, people from all around the world came to Schuylkill County, to little Deer Lake,” Snowell said last week by phone. “Michael Jackson, Tom Jones, big-name entertainers, they came to Ali’s training camp and stayed somewhere in Schuylkill County.
“In my travels, to hear people talk about Ali’s training camp and Ali, it brings back wonderful memories.”
Now 63, Ali suffers from Parkinson’s disease and recently underwent back surgery. He has looked frail in recent public appearances, and a National Enquirer story recently said Ali had “three months to live.”
Wouldn’t it be great to honor Ali’s place in Schuylkill County history before he passes?
Designating the camp a national historical site would be the appropriate way to honor the “greatest fighter of all time.”
(LEROY BOYER is sports editor of the Pottsville Republican & Herald.)