I had no intention of going to the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach that afternoon in 1966. My fighting days were over, my light heavyweight championship lost. Even the pleasure of seeing my old friend Muhammad Ali, who was training for a fight, wasn't a strong enough lure to bring me back to the boxing loft where I had spent too many years—usually at Ali's side—trying to hone a body that tended more to fat than to muscle. Instead, heavy and happy, I went to visit another old friend, a Miami Beach cop named Steve Mills, who was in Mount Sinai with a minor blood disorder. Little did I know then that within a few hours Ali and a kid I had never met would teach me the meaning of the word champion.
After a few moments of small talk, Mills asked me how my new job was going. I was a representative of the South Florida Dairy Institute, sort of a goodwill ambassador. I said the job was easier than fighting. Mills then asked me if I would do him a favor. Just a few rooms down the hall, he told me, was Kenny Feldman, a friend. He was 21, a fight fan, and dying from leukemia. Mills asked me if I would stop by and say hello.
They told me later that young Feldman had lost 40 pounds in a month. As I entered the room, he smiled and said, "Hi. Hey, I know you. You're Willie Pastrano. You're the champion."
I nodded. I was almost afraid to speak. "You got me, man," I said. "But I think you're the real champion."
Feldman smiled again. He pointed toward a table near his bed. On the table was an 8 x 10 photo of Muhammad Ali, and on each side of the picture were bouquets of flowers. "There's the champion; my champion," Feldman said. "He's the greatest."
When I left the hospital I drove to the gym on Fifth Street. On the way out a doctor had told me that Feldman had at the most 10 days to live. I decided I would ask Ali to autograph a picture for him. Upstairs in the gym, I told Ali about the dying youngster. He listened attentively as I described the table with his picture and the flowers.
All Ali said was "Sure." He asked me to wait while he finished training. After he had dressed, he turned to his brother Rahman and said, "I'm going to the hospital with Sweet Pea. You all take the other cars and follow us." Ali called me Sweet Pea, which was just a play on words to go with the "P" for Pastrano.
Off we went: Ali and me in my car, Rahman and some of Ali's party in a red El Dorado and the rest of the group in a chauffeur-driven Fleetwood limousine. When we entered the hospital lobby, the place almost came apart. In less than a minute the lobby was jammed with doctors and nurses and patients.
As we approached the elevator, Ali placed a hand on my shoulder. "Say, Sweet Pea, is this a black boy or a white boy?"
"He's white and he's Jewish."
Ali shook his head. "Ain't that something."
It took two packed elevators to get all of us up to Kenny's floor. There was such a mob there I thought we'd never make it to the room. But Ali's voice boomed with authority: "You all move over. I'll be back after I see a sick friend of mine. Come on, Sweet Pea, let's get truckin'. "
I was the first to enter Kenny's room. He was asleep. I turned and placed a finger to my lips. Quietly, Ali followed me into the room. The rest of his group came in after us. Slowly, I went to the right side of Kenny's bed, Ali to the left.
There was a chair on Ali's side of the bed, and I thought he would sit down, but he didn't. Instead he leaned over the pale young man, as though he were going to caress him. From the other side, I leaned over. We stood there, head to head, about a foot from Kenny's face. Behind us I could hear feet shuffling, the mumbling of voices, and from the hall the loud conversation of doctors and nurses.
The noise must have awakened Kenny. His eyes fluttered, opened. Then they opened wider, in disbelief. He tried to talk, but no words came out. His eyes watered and a tear slid down his left cheek.
Ali forced a smile and said, "What we got here? One of my fans? Come on, man, sit up on your pillow. You ain't sick, you're just showing off."
With that, Kenny laughed, and he even managed to sit up a little. Ali picked up a Ring magazine from the bedside table and autographed it.
"Here," Ali said, handing the magazine to Kenny, "I hereby ordain you my No. 1 eternal fan."
By now Kenny had control of his emotions. His speech was shaky at first, but he managed to say, "There's so much I'd like to ask you, but I just can't remember any of it now."
Ali's voice was gentle. "That's all right, my man. I feel the same way myself most of the time."
Reaching up, Kenny put his right hand on the back of my neck, his left on Ali's neck. He studied our faces. Then he said, "You both look so much older."
Everyone in the room laughed. Blushing, Kenny tried to apologize. "I didn't mean it that way. I know you're young but—I can't explain it—you look older than you're supposed to be."
Ali made a face at him. "Old? Ain't I pretty? Why, Sweet Pea here is the onliest man pretty as me that ever stepped into a ring. And here you say old?"
"He just means me, Ali," I said. "I'm 30 and I feel 50."
Kenny smiled and said, "I mean a different kind of old."
Then the door to the room flew open, and doctors and nurses poured in. For a split second Ali's face had a strange, compassionate look of helplessness. But it vanished as quickly as it had come. He shook hands with Kenny and stood up. For a moment he studied Kenny's face; then he said, "Good luck," and left.
As Ali went out, Kenny reached up and hugged me. "Thank you, Willie."
I couldn't say anything. I squeezed one of his hands and left the room. Ali was just getting on the elevator. The car was packed, but Ali's handsome face stood out above them all. As the doors glided to a close, I blew him a kiss with my right hand. He nodded. Then he was gone. Nine days later Kenny Feldman, the eternal fan, died.