IF YOU are ever in Miami and you want to spar at Big Dino’s 5th St gym, it will cost you nothing for the pleasure. It might, however, be a painful experience.
In 1964, The Beatles arrived at the original 5th St gym. It was not their first choice on that day on South Beach; the first choice was Sonny Liston’s gym. That never worked, Sonny evicted them. Pity, John Lennon was a massive Liston fan.
Liston was getting ready to defend his world heavyweight title against Muhammad Ali at the Convention Centre. It was just ten days before that historic fight. Miami was at the heart of the boxing world right then. After the fight it would slip away for a long, long time.
“I ain’t having no picture taken with no sissies,” Liston snarled. The Beatles left.
Anyway, The Beatles were stuck. So, to save face and get some sort of publicity from their first trip to Miami, the boys made their way to Angelo Dundee’s 5th St gym and met Ali. The gym had been there since 1951 on the corner of 5th and Washington, owned from the start by Angelo’s brother, Chris.
The gym was upstairs; the building is gone now, but there is a plaque on a drugstore wall, commemorating its holy-boxing existence. It has been defaced, which is really sad.
At Dundee’s gym, there is a very real chance that the boys were asked for their admission fee. There were no exceptions and a woman called Hattie Ambush enforced the law. There was a sign and it was glorious: “Stop and pay Fifty Cents. No Dead Beats.” It’s hard to invent this stuff.
Lennon was not happy about the switch: “Oh, he’s going to kill the little w**ker,” he told a local writer. Nobody disagreed with him and nobody really knew what he was saying.
The rumour was that the dynamic, mop-top boys were promised an audience with Elvis in Miami. After Elvis failed to show, it was Sonny and then the kid, known then as Cassius, became the last hope of a picture in the local paper. And what a picture it was: Cassius lines The Beatles up in the ring and hits them all with a jab. A simple and iconic photograph was made in the flash of a shutter speed’s eternal capture.
Big Dino’s version of the gym is about 100 metres from Dundee’s sanctuary. The original building was demolished in 1994. Dino’s version is a few feet down an alley and it’s a sweat box and home of the city’s finest Cuban exiles and fighting dreamers; the original gym in 1960 when the kid, Cassius, first walked up the steps from the street was also packed with Cubans.
“My guy [Angelo always called Ali ‘my guy’] loved all the Cuban fighters; the noise, the sunshine. It was his fighting paradise,” Dundee told me one afternoon over a club sandwich at a hotel in Mexico City in 1993. For some reason, Dundee knew the date that the young Clay first came for his “trial”. It was December 9, 1960. “They all had trials; my guy, Sugar Ray. All had a trial. Nobody just walked in.”
Clay watched and learned from the Havana boys back then. Last week at the 5th St gym, I bumped into George Murray, last seen in Walsall in the university championships a couple of weeks ago. He had sparred, saved the 30 bucks fee and he had a few markers across his eyes to prove it. “The kid was a Cuban with 300 bouts,” George told me. It seemed that most of Dino’s flock were Cuban kids with 300 bouts. The heat coming through the open-shuttered doorway was ridiculous.
How many British amateur boxers can brag about bruises from a sparring session at the 5th St gym in Miami? It reminds me of a young and tender Tim Witherspoon showing everybody in Philadelphia the black eye he got sparring once upon a fairy-tale time with Ali. “I never wanted it to go,” said the ‘Spoon.
Nobody in the 5th Street gym today looks like the men from the day the Beatles arrived; there are no suits, ties, hats. Well, no formal hats. The black and white pictures from that day are a beautiful window on a sport that has changed forever and in other ways, not moved a bleeding inch. A ring is still a ring, the heat is still the heat and the boxing dream is still the boxing dream. A few days before the Daniel Dubois fight, I saw enough ancient warriors sparring in that wonderful ring.
Back in the gym’s prime, Frank Sinatra and Malcolm X might walk through the door. They paid; Dundee assured me. It was not, however, a one-fighter gym; it was not even packed with winners. Sure, Dundee had Luis Rodriguez, Willie Pastrano and Sugar Ramos, all quality fighters, but he also had Evil Eye Finkel and the Mumbler Sobel. Finkel and Sobel had as much right to a bag or a bit of ring time as the champions.
It was at the 5th Street gym that Ali, when he was in exile, made a few dollars for sparring with Jimmy Ellis. In the Seventies, a troubled little bruiser called Mickey Rourke paid his fifty cents to chase something up the steps.
In 1995, I was moved on by a bank security guard when I tried to take a picture of the site. The ornate windows, doors and ring were gone, but the memories lingered. The new gym opened in 2010 and Dundee and Ali went to the opening. Dundee was back the next year to watch David Haye in the ring. Dundee looked like Yoda that day, the sport’s grandest old man back on the ropes: “He belongs in this gym,” Dundee said after watching Haye. That’s a magic moment.
They keep walking in, fighting and dreaming at Dino’s 5th St gym in South Beach, Miami.