Fighter's Heaven | Deer Lake, PA | Man aims to turn Muhammad Ali’s training camp in Schuylkill County into a museum
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Man aims to turn Muhammad Ali’s training camp in Schuylkill County into a museum

Man aims to turn Muhammad Ali’s training camp in Schuylkill County into a museum

DEER LAKE, Pa. (AP) — Technically, Mike Madden found the property for sale online, made some calls and made a deal to make it his.

Technically, he plans to open a museum on the premises in which the public will pay to see what he’s done with the place over the last two years.

In reality, the son of famous NFL coach and TV announcer John Madden makes a compelling argument that it isn’t that way at all.

“This place found me,” Mike Madden said with conviction, while looking over his baby: The former training center for world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who made this 6-acre complex in Deer Lake, Schuylkill County, about 40 miles from Lebanon, his home whenever he was getting ready for a fight during the 1970s.

His mission since purchasing the property not long after Ali died two years ago Sunday was to keep his legacy alive with a museum that he hopes will generate just enough to help him cover costs that have already exceeded $1.1 million — a purchase price of $520,000 and renovations of around another $600,000.

Profit is not driving Madden in this labor of love. Only an obsession for making sure one of his heroes is remembered the exact right way.

Madden, 54, was a college student when he met the champ. He was already a fan, but the meeting solidified it. On the day of Ali’s death, his mind began to race after hearing what he described as some so-called experts “butcher the facts of his life” during a radio interview.

That led Madden, a California resident and real estate businessman, to Google the next day, and to his surprise, find that the Deer Lake training facility was for sale. He pounced immediately and hasn’t looked back.

Except when prompted.

“The camp was just sitting here,” Madden said before pausing to think of the next word.

“Rotting,” Ali’s longtime business manager and Mahanoy City native Gene Kilroy, who was sitting next to him, interjected.

“Yeah, it was just rotting,” Madden continued. “And it was just a shame. . Here we’ve got six acres of the most famous guy that’s ever walked the planet — his history is right here. This is where he got ready for his biggest fights, and we can do something with it.”

In less than two years, Madden’s restoration of the dilapidated property is just about complete.

Most of the 18 cabins that had fallen into ruins, including the gym, kitchen, mosque and Ali’s living quarters, have been restored to fascinating, museum-quality luster.

The boxing ring, immaculate, sits in the middle of the gym, where the walls are adorned with photos and posters promoting many of his fights.

Also on the wall is a TV monitor. Touch the screen and on comes a Howard Cosell-narrated biography of Ali’s career.

In the mosque is another TV that features a clip of Ali’s response to a boy’s question about what he plans to do after boxing.

At the living quarters that featured no electricity (at Ali’s request), careful attention was paid to restoring the inside to look the same as it had back in the day.

One exception, of course, is the touch-screen TV in that structure too. There, you can watch highlights of talk-show host Dick Cavett’s visit and interview with Ali.

Cavett was hardly the only celebrity to pass through. The Jackson Five and Frank Sinatra were among those to stop in.

Then there was Easton’s Larry Holmes, who originally was hired to spar with Ali on the premises and incredibly went on to defeat him in the ring near the end of Ali’s career.

All of those visions dance in Madden’s head, but perhaps none so vividly as the false narratives he heard on the radio two years ago and vowed to do his part to extinguish.

“Seeing it was for sale, it was one of those ‘Animal House’ moments,” Madden said. “It was like I had an angel and a devil. Are you going to just be bitter about the way he’s being remembered, or are you going to do something about it?”

Madden acted to make sure Ali is remembered as the civil rights leader and great athlete he was; not what some make him out to be as an unfeeling draft-dodger early in his career and demented, punch-drunk, has-been long after he retired.

Now he and Kilroy and camp manager Sam Matta are almost there. Yet some logistical problems still must be solved before they can turn the complex into a real-life “Field of Dreams.”

There’s barely enough room for a handful of vehicles to park, for example. To that end, Matta said they’re exploring the option of a remote lot with shuttle buses to the property. Until that problem and a few others are solved, the camp can’t be opened to the public

It may not matter, though. Ali’s legacy means they’re likely eventually going to get busloads of people to this camp one way or another. And by the time everyone leaves, Madden said, they will have been presented a full and accurate portrayal of the man Ali really was.

“He would spend just as much time with the little kid writing for the high school newspaper as he would a Jerry Izenberg from the Newark (Star-Ledger),” Kilroy gushed. “He was that kind of guy.

“This is the thing that’s going to keep the legacy of Ali alive,” he said.