Publish date:


Boxing's irremediable romantic, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, ministers to Angelo Dundee's prizefighters 'just for the pleasure'

The stadium was very empty now, thought the doctor, but the wind rushing across the field still seemed to carry the rage of the crowd. "Damn, they were mad," he said, turning to Jimmy Ellis, who had just been awarded an unpopular decision after a bitter, savage fight with Floyd Patterson. Then the two of them (right), breath streaming into the cold Stockholm night, hurried to their car. Back at the hotel the room was silent. The lamps were moved closer to the bed and their shades removed. "The nose is fractured in three places, Jimmy," the doctor said, and then his hands began moving over the face that was conveying so much about what it is like to be a fighter.

"How bad is it cut?" asked Ellis.

"Not very bad," said the doctor. "You've got a lot of dirt in it."

"Well, you take your time. I don't want it to open again."

"Don't worry. What about the nose?"

"Well, I can't breathe through it. I'm swallowing a lot of blood in the back."

"Is it making you sick?"

"No, I'm...."

"Now, Jimmy," said his wife, "tell the doctor. Please tell him."

"'s my hand, my left one. I can't move this hand. I can't make a fist. It's the thumb. It's throbbing like hell."

The doctor worked on the cut first. Like most cuts in a fight, it was a tear, one that rips and opens more throughout a fight. He cleaned the opening and then cleaned it again and again until he was certain the tissue was free of all the foreign particles, rosin, gauze and Vaseline, that can penetrate a wound. Then, with a special tissue scissors, he made an elliptical incision so that the pieces of skin came together, skin meeting skin perfectly all along the line. The suturing was next, single stitches, just one at a time, each placed very closely to the other. "There, Jimmy, it won't open again," said the doctor. "Remember Fernandez? He took 64. That one never opened again, did it?"

Aside from cursory treatment, the swollen, broken nose would have to wait for what would be a one-hour operation back in Miami. But the pain in the thumb, now quite visible on the fighter's pale and shadowed face, was eased by a local anesthetic and a shot of cortisone. Soon the room was dark and the fighter slept.

"You know," said the doctor, walking out of the room, "a writer once asked me what was the most humorous thing I've seen in boxing. Well, I see humor in everything, but, looking at his face tonight, suddenly there never have been any howls in boxing. Never any laughs."

The treatment by Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, boxing's tireless romanticist, was ordinary, except maybe for the stitching, which is often done poorly by others after a fight. What was unique was his presence in Sweden, particularly in Ellis' corner during the fight. The only doctors you hear of or see in boxing are the ones from the commissions, who all look the same, who all say or do the same things, such as filling out reports with vague poppycock or looking at a scale and whispering "192 pounds" to the nearest guy with the biggest mouth. Pacheco is one apart. He is a fixture in the busy camp of Angelo Dundee in Miami, but there are some who dismiss him merely as a dilettante, a peripheral figure in the sport. The dilettante in boxing is a man with position and money who likes to be around fighters. He is also known as a sucker, mainly because most boxing people, fighters and managers, delight in "using" anyone foolish enough to think he belongs to their murky world. "I don't mind being called a dilettante even though I'm not one," says Pacheco. "It's just that the word makes me think of a guy sitting across the room with a powdered wig. I'm not sitting there. I make a contribution."

For eight years now Pacheco has worked with the Dundees, helping them with Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis, Luis Rodriguez, Willie Pastrano, Florentino Fernandez and a hundred other fighters who are just names in the record books. He is a confidant of Rodriguez and Ellis and travels to all parts of the world with them. With Pacheco present, the Dundees and their fighters have medical security: instant advice, meticulous care after a fight and access without snarl through medical channels when a fighter needs specialized attention. He also doggedly treats such a caseload of social disease (the measles of most fight stables) that friends believe he may be the foremost authority in the world on the subject.

Of course, even those boxing people who agree that Pacheco performs a valuable function do so only in a mumble. Encomiums within the society, no matter how spare, are rare—that is, except for the nonsense about cutmen. Ask any cornerman who works on cuts about someone else who does the same thing and he will say, as if he were giving you the combination to the hotel safe, "Great, he's a great cutman." The trouble with this is that it is impossible—despite the club's guarded hints at dark secrets and miraculous solutions—to be a bad cutman if you have diligently spent a reasonable period in a fighter's corner. Pacheco does not work on cuts in the corner, but his presence there seems to provoke distemper and suspicion in and out of the business even though he does not accept or want money for his time and treatment. This attitude of his stuns the sensibilities of the rabble and has produced the observation that Pacheco—besides being sort of a Dr. Paul Ehrlich—is certainly the Albert Schweitzer of boxing.

To begin with, the medical profession in the Miami area did not think much of Pacheco exposing himself—his colleagues considered it demeaning for him even to be seen in a corner. Chris Dundee, the power of the camp and one of the nimblest operators in all of boxing, advised him, "Don't get in the corner, Doc. Don't screw up your dignity." But Chris, when faced with a good thing, is not an obstinate man. Elsewhere in the sport, whose natives have always been afflicted with acute paranoia, the grumbling remains pronounced. Promoters view Pacheco as a man preparing to open some action of his own. Managers, often short on money, see him as a man with money intent on stealing their fighters. Cornermen, a highly insecure group because of the job market, consider him a threat to their daily scuffling. "Only the fighters used to invite my services," says Pacheco. "But some of the resistance to me is over now. I guess they finally realized I'm not a threat, not interested in money. Just the pleasure."

This is fine, but Pacheco's motivation cuts much deeper. Not long ago he outlined an idea for a television series. The location is Miami, one of the medical centers of the South, capital of the lower Eastern Seaboard and gate to the Caribbean. It is also, the plot goes, the home of a million Cuban refugees and a nest where revolutions for South America are hatched—a place abounding with jewel thieves, soldiers of fortune, con artists and enough odd strains of humanity to sustain a television series through infinity. The protagonist is a doctor who moves through these catacombs—including the boxing scene—with ease and knowledge. He is in his late 30s, not particularly handsome, and he lives in an apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay. He is also a relentless student of history and an artist. The doctor is clearly a man of gargantuan dimensions who each week lives a life filled with drama, humor, intrigue and style.

Any similarity between Pacheco and the TV protagonist is not purely accidental. All of the drama and so forth may be at a minimum, but Pacheco in real life is the model for the series. He is not exactly a gentleman walking around in a baggy tweed suit with rimless glasses down on his nose and a pharmacy in his pocket. Swarthy, and with a medium build, he has quick yet weary eyes. His appearance is ultracontemporary, with delicately cut suits and boots from England. His tastes are civilized: attractive women, good food and wine and lively conversation, which he usually directs or misdirects. His apartment across the bay, which has a decor that is a blend of Eastern Parkway Provincial, military archive and art gallery, reveals his interests with a crash: books on battles, generals and revolutions, his own paintings, including one called The Artful Dodger, and a mammoth self-portrait that was created one morning in the wake of a nightmare. A large statue of W.C. Fields looks up at the portrait.

Perhaps it is Pacheco's name that is responsible for the suspicious expression on Fields' face. It has a sinister tone to it that pricks the imagination. Could he be the master intriguer behind some illicit Cuban scheme? Or, yes, with that white suit and long thin cigar, he surely could be the exiled propagandist for the deposed Batista. Unfortunately—and it is a point of great sorrow to him—his life is not that titillating, but not because of lack of effort. When things become static he seems to transfer into another world. On one long drive with Jimmy Ellis, who is not fond of history, Pacheco re-created the Battle of Midway. When Ellis emerged from the car he could still smell the guns and hear the planes, and he felt as if he had just lunched in the cabins of the U.S. and Japanese commanders.

"I like to think of myself," says Pacheco, "as sort of a Renaissance man. People attribute a lot of immaturity to me because I keep trying things, but I have no inhibitions. I couldn't be a writer all the time if my life depended on it. I couldn't be anything all the time. I can't be a doctor all the time, either. My personality is fragmented. If I don't do that, I'll do something else."

Pacheco practices out of two offices in Miami, both of which are in indigent Cuban and Negro neighborhoods. "It's the way I like it," he says, standing below a painting of his that has been punctured by a bullet. "Oh, that—it was just somebody firing at somebody else out there and the shot came through my window. Anyway, this kind of practice suits my personality. Somebody is sick, you treat them and they get well and then you don't see them. You're reduced to frontline emergency room action, and that's what I like. Plus, because many of them don't have much money, they have to work hard, very hard in life. So these are also industrial neighborhoods and I have an industrial injuries practice—people who have cement blocks dropped on their feet, people who have lacerations, have hurt their low back, smashed their hands in a vise, automobile accidents.

"And that all brings in another aspect. You get into forensic medicine, or being an expert medical witness where you have to go to court and testify what you've done for a patient. That appears simple, because all you have to do is say what you've done for somebody, but forensic medicine has gotten complicated because of insurance companies and different attitudes to our treatment. It ends up with you spending a lot of time fighting for your life in court. That is to say, rather than attempt to ascertain the truth your opponent—the defense—would rather discredit you as a doctor. So you really spend time matching wits with an attorney rather than just simply stating what's happened to the patient. You end up in a series of oral examinations, which, if nothing else, sharpens your wits. I find it fulfilling to be able to do it well, and it's not an easy task anymore. I make a lot of money, though, and I give a lot away. I have a lot of friends who alternately make a lot of money for me and some who cause me to lose some."

Pacheco grew up in Tampa in an atmosphere that was at once Old Europe and Old Chicago. For years he lived in his grandfather's house, where certain rituals were strictly observed: long dinners, opera on the radio with Milton Cross on Saturday afternoons, Toscanini on Sunday afternoons. Later the Pachecos moved out and his father opened a drugstore. He also entered politics. From then on the old man carried a 45 and slept with it under his pillow. "It was all over gambling," says Pacheco. "The person or faction that controlled the Spanish numbers game called bolita controlled the town. There were four factions, Spanish, Jewish, Cuban and Italian factions. These people began a war of attrition that kept escalating until there were awesome casualties on all sides. My father was nearly killed, too, but the guy with the chopper missed him and hit the man he was walking with. The only people left standing after it was all over were the Mafia."

The violence, the buying and selling of judgeships in his own house, the whole atmosphere, left his illusions totally wrecked even before he was out of high school. College, despite the numerous changes of scene, bored him; he went to five of them, the University of Tampa, Spring Hill College (a Jesuit school), University of Tennessee, University of Florida and University of Miami. He eventually emerged with degrees in pharmacy and medicine, but it is a wonder, because he seems to have spent considerable time meditating in Civil War graveyards, performing practical jokes and perfecting a somewhat dark sense of humor.

"I was just always on edge," he says. "I'd do anything to liven things up. Like after the war, when we had all those veterans coming back to school. Well, in our fraternity there was this friend of mine who looked like a Luftwaffe type. He was blond, wore a black glove on his right hand and always had a dog with him. He slept not too far from me, but the trouble was, nobody around him could sleep. He was always flying his last mission every night over Frankfurt. He kept doing this until, out of curiosity, a couple of us decided to start talking to him in his sleep.

"He had such a conversation with himself that we knew everybody's name in his crew. We talked to him until finally we cracked his intercom. Then we started shooting him down. The guy would get up wild-eyed because he had it all worked out to a system but he didn't know what was going on. He'd get out of bed and say he had a terrible night, even his dog couldn't sleep. First we'd get him over Frankfurt, then we'd shoot him down at the German border, then over the railroad train, then the English Channel, then his own airfield. We even got him once before he left the runway in England."

Summer work in a Cuban restaurant owned by a friend of his father's provided release from what Pacheco believed to be a dull existence. He worked there for years despite the fact that his father would allow the owner to pay him only $1 a day. He could not have cared less about the money—the scene fascinated him. The restaurant, a headquarters for town characters and warlords, was sort of a playground for him, even though there were some anxious moments. Twice in the same day he spilled hot soup on the lap of a Mafia don, and on one occasion he gave the chef a series of wrong orders and was chased through the restaurant and out into the street. The chef was waving a meat cleaver. "Ever since," Pacheco says, "I've felt that all chefs are crazy. You can't stand next to a 300° oven and not bake your brains down to a pea." It was also at the restaurant, he says, that he developed a fondness for what he calls "nuttiness," for people who are characters and have a blend of charm and roguishness.

For someone who collects such people, boxing is a Klondike. No difficult excavation is necessary—walk into any room filled with boxing people and there are characters overhead, underfoot and coming out of cracks in the walls. The fighters, with exceptions, are probably the most stable, though hypochondria seems to be their one point of union. "I walk into a gym," says Pacheco, "and all of a sudden there is a worm epidemic, countless cases of anemia, and a siege of beriberi. Fighters are also always trading secrets for better health. Like the goat's milk-calf's blood combination. Whitey Bimstein once gave Ellis one of those small vials of life-increasing substance. Water, aromatic spirits of ammonia and a couple of drops of peppermint for flavor. Hell, after that Ellis thought he was Nashua.

"Many of them are also afraid of needles. At the sight of a needle some of them will throw up from fear and nausea. Take Muhammad Ali. You virtually had to run after him to give him a shot in the office. You just had to keep moving around and around so that you're doing sort of a rumba with him. But then there are others like Luis Rodriguez. He doesn't seem to care about pain. He wouldn't even let me numb his knuckles when I put cortisone in them. Others have their problems in the dressing room. Like Tony Alongi. His biggest fight was to make himself leave the room at all."

Like all athletes, fighters have their small superstitions, but they run deep among country Cubans, if an incident during a trip by Pacheco and Rodriguez is any example. The two of them were in Las Vegas for a title fight with Emile Griffith and they were heading for the arena with a state trooper escort. Suddenly Rodriguez realized that he had forgotten to drink from his green coconut. So the caravan screeched to a stop and everyone stood around watching Luis and Pacheco trying to break open a green coconut while traffic backed up for a mile. The troopers, wearing their cowboy hats, looked on in amazement. But a green coconut is difficult to open up even with a land mine. Finally the troopers became involved. First they thought of shooting open the coconuts, but then began beating them with tire irons until the liquid was splashing all over the cars. Then everyone, including the sweating troopers, drank the juice. These days Rodriguez will not even allow a green coconut near him. He lost that night.

"It seemed incredible at the time," says Pacheco, "and sort of like a funny dream, but Sonny Liston was the funniest one of all time that day in Oakland when he was trying to get reinstated. I happened to be out there and just dropped in to listen. He came in with a real smooth-looking Berkeley lawyer, who whipped out his briefcase', pulled out a long legal pad and started a sad dissertation about how Sonny had paid his debt to society, had paid the government so much they were returning him money, how he helped crippled children. He had Liston sounding like Mother Cabrini. Finally Liston—obviously sick of it all himself—lifted up that dinosaur paw and said, 'That's enough. Let me talk to the board here.' So the first commissioner got up and said, 'Now, Mr. Liston, the main things we're interested in here are some of your past connections with Mr. Carbo and Mr. Palermo.' Sonny gave him that black look of his and said, 'Who?'

" 'Mr. Palermo. You know Mr. Palermo.'

" 'I don't know any Mr. Palermo.'

" 'Well, Mr. Frank Palermo.'

" 'I don't know any Mr. Frank Palermo.'

" 'You never talked, had a conversation with, knew, saw, heard of, had any connection with Mr. Palermo of Philadelphia, Pa.?'

" 'Never heard of him.'

" 'Well, it's a matter of record that Mr. Palermo had your contract for the year....'

" 'You mean Blinky! Oh, yeah, Blinky!'

"So," continues Pacheco, "after 30 minutes they get rid of Palermo and move on to Frankie Carbo. Well, here they go with the same thing. 'Ever heard of Mr. Frank Carbo?' 'No,' says Sonny, he never heard of the guy that took half his money. Then, finally, he says, 'Oh, Mr. Gray! Oh, yeah, Mr. Gray!' Sonny said yes, he knew these people, but he didn't have anything to say for them now. He said he never saw them anymore, which was true. They're both doing time. Now they go on to the fight against Clay in Lewiston, Me. The exchange goes like this:

" 'Now, Mr. Liston, it's been said in the press that you threw the second Clay fight. Are you familiar with the term—throwing a fight?'

" 'No suh.'

" 'Are you familiar with the term tank job?'

" 'No suh. I don't know what you mean.'

" 'We're talking about the fight in Lewiston. You said that you had full possession of your powers. You claimed that you just slipped. Why didn't you get up?'

" 'Aw, that. Why that crazy man Clay was standing right over me and he gonna hit me anytime I get up. On one knee he woulda hit me. For a man to get up he's gotta put one arm down on the canvas to get up. That means you is unprotected on that side. And that means you have a hook right there that'll level you right there while you're on all fours.'

" 'Yes, but you were down a long time and you tried to get up and you rolled over.'

" 'No suh. I didn't roll over. I was just tryin' to get away from Clay, who was standin' over me.'

"Well, the Looney Tune went on for a long time," Pacheco concluded, "and finally it came to a close. The commissioners voted affirmative, but the third vote had to come from the men's room, where the other commissioner was. 'Hey, what's your vote, Joe?' they shouted. 'For!' he shouted back. And Sonny left thinking he was Clarence Darrow. The whole scene was what makes boxing for me. That kind of stuff doesn't happen in my office."

Not always, perhaps, but there was the incident with Bundini Brown, a Falstaffian figure in Ali's camp who was around to make the champ laugh. Bundini used to drop by the doctor's office on occasion and there the two would become involved in long discussion. Bundini would try to convince Pacheco that Christ was black and the doctor would argue that George Washington Carver was white. One day Bundini came by and requested a blood test. He was going to get married to a white girl, he said. "You can't marry her here," said Pacheco. "It's illegal in Miami." "Man," said Bundini emotionally, "I served my country in the war, the Big War!" Pacheco tried to tell him that it was a waste of time to give him a blood test but Bundini insisted. Then, wearing a fine blue serge suit, alligator shoes, a nice blue tie and with his girl all dressed up, too, he went to the license bureau. He waited out the line nervously until he reached the clerk and said, "We'd like a license." The clerk looked at him, then at his girl and said dryly, "Hunting or fishing?" Bundini was waiting for the doctor when Pacheco returned to his office. Tears were in his eyes as he described what had taken place. "I was touched," says Pacheco. "He is one of my great Lost Causes. Right up there with the Afrika Korps, the South and the Spanish Loyalists."

For the doctor, boxing will never attain such a distinction, despite all its desolation and the inverted thinking that sustains it. It is his fun house, a retreat from the steady run of cement blocks dropping on feet and the aching low backs. He does make a contribution to the sport, but he makes an even bigger one to himself. He gains dimension, and if he does not feel larger than he should on a certain day, well, there is always his imagination, always the other doctor, played by a "Lenny Bruce type," who moves through a world of excitement. Like the chapter in which the doctor and a champion are en route to a fight and are hijacked to Cuba. Because both are Cuban, they are thrown into a cell. They escape, steal a Russian torpedo boat but forget to free the lines and rip off half the pier. The two end up adrift because neither knows how to navigate.

"I just have a great sense of the ridiculous," says Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, who is—as he says—no Jean Hersholt but certainly the kind of human being Pascal had in mind when he grieved over men not being able to sit in a quiet, empty room.