Ferdie Pacheco, “the fight doctor,” a boxing presence for four decades as the physician in Muhammad Ali’s corner and later a ringside television analyst, died today at his home in Miami. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Luisita Pacheco.
In the early 1960s, Pacheco’s love of boxing drew him to the gritty 5th St. Gym in Miami Beach, where Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, was among the young fighters honing their skills under renowned trainer Angelo Dundee.
Pacheco joined with Dundee when Ali rose in the pro ranks and remained with Ali during most of his reign as the charismatic heavyweight champion.
He played a last-minute role in the fight that first brought Ali the heavyweight title.
When Ali’s “wild-eyed” behavior, as Pacheco put it, caused Ali’s blood pressure to soar at the weigh-in for his February 1964 fight in Miami Beach with Sonny Liston, the boxing commission’s doctor, who took the reading, asked Pacheco to examine Ali away from the circus atmosphere. Finally calm, Ali told Pacheco that he had acted “crazy” to scare the famously intimidating Liston, and when the doctor took his blood pressure it was normal.
Pacheco reported that Ali was fit to fight, and when a battered Liston stayed in his corner as the bell rang for Round 7, Ali took away his championship.
But for all his admiration of what he once called “the most perfect body I’ve ever seen,” Pacheco became alarmed by the blows Ali took over the years, notably in the so-called Thrilla in Manila in October 1975, when he retained his title in a furious battle with Joe Frazier.
And after Ali took a beating in his decision over Earnie Shavers in 1977, Pacheco sent letters to Ali and his camp urging that he retire. He received no response, Pacheco said.
“When Ali wouldn’t quit the exciting world of boxing, I did,” he wrote in “Muhammad Ali: A View From the Corner” (1992), one of several books he wrote. “If a national treasure like Ali could not be saved, at least I didn’t have to be part of his undoing.”
Almost five months later, CBS hired Pacheco to be a TV analyst for Ali’s fight with Leon Spinks. He went on to become NBC’s director of boxing and ringside analyst, as well as a commentator for Showtime and the Spanish-language network Univision. He won two Emmy Awards, one for a series on Ali.
Ferdie Pacheco, the son of a Spanish-born pharmacist who had come to America from Cuba, was born Dec. 8, 1927, in the Ybor City section of Tampa, Florida, a neighborhood of Spanish, Italian and Cuban immigrants redolent with the aroma from cigar factories.
He graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and received a medical degree from the University of Miami in the 1950s, then set up two offices in the Miami area as a general practitioner. He often treated poor patients for nothing or a nominal charge.
After he began visiting the 5th St. Gym, owned by boxing promoter Chris Dundee, Angelo’s brother, Pacheco provided free medical treatment for fighters and their families.
Angelo Dundee recalled that Pacheco had also helped him calm his boxers who were hypochondriacs. “Ferdie would furnish each of the so-called ‘sufferers’ with aspirins and other harmless medications, telling them they were ‘fine,’” Dundee recalled in “My View From the Corner” (2008), written with Bert Randolph Sugar.
Pacheco, by his count, provided medical assistance to 12 world champions trained by Dundee.
He was also an accomplished artist and storyteller.
“It’s not easy to keep up with a man who has so many strings in the bow that he really needs a harp,” Budd Schulberg, author of the boxing novel “The Harder They Fall,” wrote as a contributor to Pacheco’s “Tales From the 5th St. Gym” (2010).
Pacheco traced his love of drawing to his boyhood, when his maternal grandfather, a native of Spain, took him to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. In college, he furnished caricatures for magazines to help pay his tuition. He later painted scenes from his childhood in Ybor City and from the boxing world. “I like realism with color and vivacity,” he said.
Some of his works fetched high prices.
Pacheco was also a prolific writer. In addition to remembrances of what he called the Ali Circus and the characters at the 5th St. Gym, he told of his boxing life in “Fight Doctor” (1977) and of his youth in “Ybor City Chronicles” (1995), in which he described the “old country” ways of his father, Joseph.
Joseph Pacheco “never put on his own shoes, or tied the laces,” he wrote.
“His ritual was to wake up my mother standing by the bed with a cup of espresso and a glass of ice water,” he continued. “When he finished drinking his coffee, she would put his socks on, then his shoes, and tie them.”
In 1970 Pacheco married Karen Maestas, who danced under the stage name Luisita Sevilla. In addition to her, he is survived by a daughter from that marriage, Tina Pacheco; three children, Dawn, Evelyn and Ferdie Pacheco, from his marriage to Elva Sweeney, which ended in divorce; and two grandchildren.
Ali fought until 1981, when he lost to journeyman Trevor Berbick. He later began a slide into Parkinson’s disease.
“I told Ali he must quit because of the damage the doctors were seeing to his brain,” Pacheco recalled in a statement when Ali died in June 2016, but “just like the rest of us, sometimes you don’t like what the doctor prescribes.”
He remembered Ali as “simply the greatest of all time.”
Pacheco became a vocal advocate for enhanced safety measures for boxers. He also had regrets, despite all his good moments in the world of the ring.
“Why was I, an ethical physician with a large charity practice, part of a sport that allowed death?” he once asked. “I never found a suitable answer.”