Jessica's Reviews > Tales from the 5th Street Gym: Ali, the Dundees, and Miami's Golden Age of Boxing

Tales from the 5th Street Gym by Ferdie Pacheco
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May 24, 11

bookshelves: gangstas-don-t-die, dicklits, groups-of-people, phys-ed
Recommended for: chauvinists; boxing fans
Read from May 11 to 23, 2011

As someone who spends at least fifteen hours each week in a boxing gym and who's planning a move to Miami, I not surprisingly enjoyed this book very much. Unfortunately, I had to dock it a star, and I'd be docking it more if Ferdie Pacheco weren't like seven hundred years old and in most respects charming and adorable.

The first time that he shared his scornful opposition to women in boxing, I tried to let it slide and hoped he'd either explain that comment in more detail later, or at least not bring it up again so that I could try to forget it. But like a guy blowing a good fight in the very last round, he threw in another even more disparaging, off-handed, and unjustified slur against female boxers on one of the very last pages, and it really kind of made me hate this book, and him, which is too bad, because up until then I'd been planning to look him up when I got to Miami and ask if I could adopt him as my grandpa.

Pacheco is a self-described Renaissance man, a doctor who ran a free clinic in the Miami ghetto and worked the corners of many great fighters, while also cultivating his talents as a sports broadcaster, painter, and writer. He is self-aggrandizing in a cheerful, endearing, and understandable way, and this book is a collection of his and his buddies' reminiscences about the legendary Fifth Street Gym in South Beach, most famous as the place where Muhammad Ali trained. The stories and characters entertained me a lot, though I can't imagine someone who isn't into boxing caring about anything in this book. As a dishy, authentically voiced ramble through a lost age of boxing, it was a clear win. It's a loosely structured tribute to the deceased Chris Dundee, force behind the Fifth Street Gym and Miami boxing, whom Pacheco is determined to keep written into the history of the sport. The book's tone is that of old codgers sitting around talking shit and sharing memories, and it does give a sense of the flavor of the gym, the boxing scene, and its characters. It's filled with good pictures, which are well placed: every time I'd think, "I wonder what that guy looked like," I'd turn the page and there'd be a snapshot of Ferdie with the character in question.

In short, it was a fun read, but as a self-respecting lady I can't get behind it. Honestly, as I said, I know Pacheco's like seven hundred years old, and one of the things that made this book seem authentic and fun was the fact that he's not so PC (yes, there are a few racial comments that provoked a bit of cringe, though probably nothing you're not likely to hear in a gym). And really, I kind of don't give a shit that Ferdie Pacheco doesn't think that women shouldn't fight. That doesn't surprise me at all, given the exclusively male old-timey boxing world he describes, and he's entitled to his opinion, as long as he's not actively trying to stop women from boxing. What pissed me off was that he didn't find it necessary to explain why, like it should be totally obvious to everyone why someone would think something so stupid. But actually I have no idea what his objection is based on! Having read this book, my conjecture is that he feels that women are valuable only as good-looking sex objects, and so maybe he's worried a lady fighter could mess up her face, thus rendering herself worthless. If that's the thinking, okay, but c'mon: spell it out for me! I don't hate you for having a sexist sports view (full disclosure: I have one myself [I can't stand female baseball radio announcers], which I can explain but of course not justify, as it's against all my feminist principles), I hate you for not explaining what it is, and talking about female athletes in a degrading and condescending tone. Whatever the explanation is, I'd love to hear it. I know it can't be about women not being able to tolerate pain: the toughest champion that ever passed through the Fifth Street Gym never had to give birth to a baby.

Anyway, the two-star review's just a protest -- think of it as points docked for a shitty low blow -- as I did for the most part enjoy this book. Actually the most interesting part to me was learning in passing about an important fight in boxing history; Pacheco gives some interesting context and insider details on this, as he does throughout the book. In 1962, the Cuban Benny Paret was fighting New York-based Emile Griffith for the third time, in a nationally televised fight at Madison Square Garden. Prior to the fight, Paret had taunted Griffith publicly and repeatedly as a maricón. What's interesting is that according to Pacheco (though not borne out by all sources), Griffith actually was openly gay -- a boxer, in 1962 -- and his male lover was well-known enough that Paret pointed the man out at the weigh-in and threatened to beat him up too! I don't know how true this account is, since it contradicts what I've read elsewhere, but it's fascinating and my point is that Pacheco tells a good story. Anyway, what happened during the fight was famously horrible: Griffith -- perhaps enraged by the insults, one theory goes -- beat Paret so savagely in the twelfth round that he knocked him into a coma, and Paret died. (Griffith is still alive, though he has very serious dementia as a result of his long boxing career and reportedly also from being attacked outside a gay bar in 1992; according to the Internet there's a documentary called Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story that I'd kill to see.) In describing this Pacheco discusses, as he does throughout the book, the unpretty issue of death in boxing, and I kind of like the ethical questions he asks himself, as a doctor who loves boxing, and the honesty of his being unable really to answer them. Even as the most casual boxing fan, I ask myself some of these questions too, and I like that he doesn't entirely let himself off the hook or resolve that tension. He points at all his efforts to make the sport safer, but admits that there is something inherently wrong with the blood sport he loves.

In closing: I liked Ferdie Pacheco a lot, and I'm sorry that he's a sexist pig because he seems like he's probably pretty awesome to hang out with. I still sort of wish he were my grandpa anyway, even if he thinks women are stupid or weak or whatever it is that he thinks, and if that kind of attitude doesn't bother you and you're interested in the history of Miami boxing, you'd probably really enjoy Tales From the Fifth Street Gym.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Jessica Okay, so I've done some research and it turns out that a) Pacheco has actively tried to stop women from boxing professionally and b) he is opposed to women fighting for a variety of reasons, primarily, it seems, because it's unfeminine, makes them ugly, and -- he is convinced -- gives them breast cancer!

Oh, whatever. He's like seven hundred years old.


Jessica It is really really hilarious that a man who is aware of the inevitable effects of a professional boxing career on any human's brain would defend his archaically sexist and homophobic views with this transparent crap about trying to protect women from a possible increase in risk for breast cancer

I would knock this down to one star, except all that crap's in his other book. He must have had an editor this time who made him take out his ridiculous explanations.


message 3: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! He's not even curmudgeonly stiff and willing to come around, like Clint Eastwood with Hilary Swank?


message 4: by Manny (new)

Manny Yes, I was thinking about Million Dollar Baby as well. So how accurate is that movie, since you clearly know a great deal about the world of female boxing?


message 5: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Gah! Goodreads won't let me like this. But, I do, even though I have to give up now and come back later.

BUT! I just realized you will not be in New York probably when I come visit. (not that I know when I can come visit, but sometime at the end of the summer, maybe?)


message 6: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink Great review. I wonder what Pacheco thinks about women kickboxing?


Jessica I actually don't know anything about women's boxing; probably if I did I wouldn't have been so shocked by a sexist opposition to it. Also, I never did manage to see Million Dollar Baby, soooo.... sorry!

Meredith: I'm moving to Miami at the end of July, but I'm visiting Portland the first week in June so maybe I can catch up with you then!


message 8: by Manny (new)

Manny You're a woman who spends fifteen hours a week in a boxing gym, and you've never seen Million Dollar Baby?!

Well, now that I consider it, I've never seen Searching for Bobby Fischer, and no one can understand that either. Maybe there's a pattern here.


message 9: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow That would be sweet! Let us know!


message 10: by Ben (new)

Ben Just be ready for the racism, Jessica. Non-Hispanics are treated like shit in Miami.


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