Fighter's Heaven | Deer Lake, PA | About
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About

Fighter's Heaven Deer Lake Training Camp

Muhammad Ali training at his Deer Lake training camp in 1978.

On a few acres of mountaintop in northeastern Pennsylvania, far from the big city lights that normally would be associated with the “sweet science”, sits a very important site in the history of boxing. Here Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest fighter of all time, built a training camp near Deer Lake. He called it “Fighter’s Heaven” and trained here for many of his epic battles.

Ali first came to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s to train at Pollack’s Mink Farm in Deer Lake. Bernie Pollack, who was involved in the fight game, was introduced to Ali by Gene Kilroy, a local native and prominent member of the Champ’s entourage. Ali liked the area and purchased the land up Sculps Hill Road in 1972, where he proceeded to build the training camp of his dreams. Ali, himself, hiked the land determining what exactly should be built and where.

Over time, the rustic camp grew to include some eighteen various buildings. Ali built a large log gym, dining hall, bunkhouses for sparring partners, a small mosque where he would pray daily, and small individual cabins for members of his staff and also for the many special guests that always seemed to show up. In a courtyard situated near the gym and the dining hall, a huge outdoor stone fireplace was built that became a favorite gathering spot for camp residents and visitors alike. Staff members would gather here at night with a roaring fire, stars filling the clear night sky, to enjoy the special camaraderie they shared. Many people associated with Ali recall that their fondest memories were the times spent at Deer Lake. Although now obstructed by grown trees, the courtyard once had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Ali had giant boulders trucked in and placed around the camp. His father, Cassius Clay, Sr. (a sign painter by trade), painted on them the names of other famous boxers that Ali admired. The Champ got this idea from Archie Moore’s old California training camp, “The Salt Mine”, where Ali trained briefly early in his career.

The camp was like a small village and had a special excitement and vitality to it. It was also a magnet for the celebrities of the day. Tom Jones, Jim Brown, The Jackson Five, Andy Warhol, Isaac Hayes, Diana Ross, Howard Cosell, Dick Cavett, Flip Wilson, Kris Kristofferson, Dizzy Gillespie, Leroy Neiman, Doug Henning – they all came to Deer Lake to call on “The Greatest”. Former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes got his start there as Ali’s sparring partner. So did Tim Witherspoon and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. When former welterweight champion Kid Gavilan was on hard times, Ali hired him to work at the camp.

Muhammad Ali’s training sessions were open to the public, and many people have fond memories of the Champ’s generosity and accessibility. One on one with people, he was rather quiet and soft spoken, not the loud and boisterous figure that flashed across America’s TV screens. Even after tiring workouts, he felt obliged to spend time with the many fans who flocked to the camp. Many times he could be found sitting on the boulders talking and joking, doing magic tricks, posing for photos, and giving countless autographs. Sometimes, he’d gather up kids to come in and have breakfast with him in the rustic mess hall after an early morning workout. He didn’t seclude himself at the camp. Sportswriters found that Deer Lake was the best place to get alone with Ali. It seemed like the camp was always open to everyone. Probably no other athlete was as accessible to both the press and the general public.

Ali trained at Deer Lake until his last fight in 1981. Before they left for the last time, Ali’s staff pooled their money to buy a granite monument that was placed outside the famous gym. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer, originally thought the Champ’s purchase of land and desire to build a camp out in the country was a bad idea. Ali seemed to thrive on the hustle and excitement of the big city, and he worried that Ali would lose interest after awhile. It never happened. Something about this unassuming site on Sculps Hill Mountain intrigued and revitalized Muhammad Ali. Here he would chop wood and train for long hours during the day, then stay up late at night writing down his thoughts by kerosene lamp in his private, sparsely furnished cabin. In the early mornings, he’d do his roadwork along fog-shrouded back roads, sucking in the fresh country air. The area is a famous migratory path for hawks and eagles, and often they’d soar above the solitary figure running in sweats and heavy work boots. It was at Deer Lake that Ali forged the stamina and honed his pugilistic skills to win two of his and the boxing world’s greatest battles in the ring – the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman and the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier.

The most recognized face on earth chose a modest plot of land near the coal regions of Pennsylvania to build “Fighter’s Heaven” – the most famous boxing training camp ever built.

The story of the Muhammad Ali training camp and how it became part of the Schuylkill County sports history began back in 1971, when a former area resident introduced Ali to the region. Ali’s business manager, Gene Kilroy, knew of this special, quiet place and felt it would be a perfect fit for the champion, who had previously trained in Miami, Florida. Kilroy had a vision for Ali and how things could develop into a self-contained training center.

Years later, as one looks back, Kilroy was right-on-point with his foresight. Now this hallowed place that sits atop Sculps Mountain, in Southern Schuylkill County, has been transformed once again, but not on such a grandiose scale.

This time it is being done to preserve history thanks to Mike Madden, son of legendary Oakland Raiders football coach and Monday Night NFL announcer, John Madden. Madden, in Kilroy’s opinion, is on the verge of preserving the legacy of the late, great champion Muhammad Ali. “People from all over the world will come and visit this place,” cited Kilroy proudly of this place, which he helped to initiate with Ali’s blessing.

The training camp would come to existence solely because Kilroy had befriended local furrier and Pottsville native Bernard Pollack when Kilroy was employed by the Philadelphia Eagles. Kilroy called Pollack a dapper and articulate person and knew he was a boxing fan since bringing Ernie Terrell to train at another Deer Lake location.

Years later Pollack approached Kilroy upon learning that he was now Ali’s business manager. Pollack had a vision and thought this undeveloped mountainous secluded site would be a perfect spot for Ali to train. At the time, Atlantic City officials were pondering the idea of bringing gambling to the dying seaside resort. A well-known business man Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana Restaurants, was on the verge of opening a hotel in Atlantic City. He desperately wanted to have Ali there and offered all the rooms and a boxing facility to train for his fights at no charge. However, Atlantic City was too close to Philadelphia and New York City and the big time media. Kilroy felt it would be too much of a distraction with the media and also the fans. Meanwhile, Pollack, who had six acres for sale, kept reaching out to Kilroy knowing the area he had envisioned was perfect for training: spartan-like, serene, backroads and little traffic. There was no major road leading up Sculps Hill, just a dirt hill with only a few neighbors living in the area. Here Ali could run the hills, spar in the fresh clean air and at the same time keep hidden from the bright city lights. Distractions were far away.

Kilroy finally convinced Ali to take a ride to the area and meet with Pollack. “The champ wasn’t totally sure he wanted to come to Deer Lake,’’ explained Kilroy, “but Bernie Pollack was very sincere and had a vision and knew his site was perfect for Ali to train.” Ali toured the acreage Pollack had for sale and was convinced it would make an ideal training facility. It was Ali’s vision henceforth. He wanted logs for his gym, nothing fancy, just plain. They hired Miller Construction Company to build this site. Slowly the camp started to take a life unto itself. Ali had his own private kitchen, later to be known as Aunt Coretta’s; he built a simple cabin where he would sleep. There was no running water, no heat and no lights. This special site would have never come into existence if it weren’t for Gene Kilroy, who is a native son of Mahanoy City. His roots and loyalty run as deep as the one-time booming Anthracite Coal mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Kilroy always wanted to give back and this was a way of showing his love to the region.

There were many notable people who visited the camp including then-movie actors Richard Harris and Jack Palance. Talk show hosts Mike Douglas, David Frost and Dick Cavett made an appearance and the famed late great sports announcer Howard Cosell. Kilroy always insisted the shows were filmed at the camp, knowing full well it would put this site on the map. Even the Jackson Five were visitors, along with Cheryl Tiegs. Several future boxing champions trained at the camp as sparring partners to Ali. They included “The Easton Assassin” Larry Holmes, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Tim Witherspoon.

But if it wasn’t for Gene Kilroy, this special place would have never come to pass. Kilroy admits that the camp isn’t really in Deer Lake, but Orwigsburg. They kept the name because it sounded more romantic. Now Mike Madden is carrying the torch, and Kilroy sees nothing but great things in the future. Kilroy says it will become a National Historical Site, attracting visitors from all walks of life. Madden has renamed the site “Fighter’s Heaven.” The restoration, which commenced on February 6, 2017, has tried to bring the site back to the way it looked when Ali trained there for many of his famous
fights.

The gym has become a photo museum that features a touch screen video. The photos were donated to Madden by Kilroy, whose personal collection and memorabilia is heavily emphasized in this historical setting. The restoration of the camp also includes the cabin where Ali first stayed and includes a video with television host Dick Cavett. There is also a video in the one-time camp mosque of Ali addressing an audience in Newcastle, England explaining what his thoughts were upon his retirement. In additio n, there are rocks aligned along the outside of the gym. These painted rocks were done by Ali’s late father, Cassius Clay, Sr. The names appearing on the rocks have a historical significance of one-time great fighters that Ali admired.

Fighter’s Heaven consists of almost six acres of land and is divided by Sculps Hill Road. The lower portion of the property includes the Chalet, Barn & Stable, Gym, Kitchen, Ali’s Personal Cabin, and two Bunkhouses.

The Chalet, near the entrance to the camp, is where Ali’s family would stay when visiting the camp. A video in the Chalet has Ali talking about race relations. Horses were kept in the Stable behind the Chalet. The large log Gym has been refurbished inside and out by Amish craftsmen, as were many of the buildings on this historic site. The Gym has a boxing ring in the same spot where Ali’s once stood, and the walls are filled with various photographs and fight posters. There is a touch-screen monitor where visitors can watch highlights of Ali’s boxing career narrated by Howard Cosell. A small room off the back of the Gym was a dressing room where Ali would get massages and relax after workouts.

Behind the Gym is the Kitchen where Ali, staff, and guests would eat their meals. It still contains the original long wood table where they would eat and the original gas stove. Ali’s Aunt Coretta was the original cook for the camp and a reproduction of her “Rules of My Kytchen” hangs on the wall. In later years, Lana Shabazz took over as cook for the camp.

To the right of the Kitchen is the rustic log cabin where Ali slept. It was sparsely furnished and originally had no electricity. Through researching old photographs and films, we have tried to recreate the “feel” of the cabin with similar period furniture. The cabin includes a video of Ali giving talk show host Dick Cavett a tour of the cabin, which Ali obviously was very proud of. Up the hill from Ali’s cabin are two log buildings that served as Bunkhouses for Ali’s sparring partners.

On the upper portion of the property, which includes the parking area, is the Mosque that Ali had built for his daily prayers. In the Mosque is another video in which Ali discusses his views on God and Spirituality.

Also scattered around the upper portion of the property are various smaller cabins where staff members or special guests would stay while at the camp. The large log building at the top of the hill once served as an office.

We hope you enjoy your visit to this historic site and hopefully come away with a better understanding and appreciation of Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy.

Ali had a lifelong mission to help those in need. He supported many various charities, both big and small, including Special Olympics, UNICEF, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Parkinson’s research, and BeatBullying.

  • Ali was on the cover of Sports Illustrated 40 times, and on the cover of Time Magazine 5 times.
  • Ali fought professionally in 12 different countries, and also Puerto Rico.
  • For many years in the latter 20th Century, Ali was known as the most recognized person on the planet.
  • Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Century
  • BBC Sports Personality of the Century
  • Arthur Ashe Courage Award
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Presidential Citizen Medal
  • United Nations Messenger of Peace
  • Philadelphia Liberty Medal
Training Camp History

Muhammad Ali training at his Deer Lake training camp in 1978.

On a few acres of mountaintop in northeastern Pennsylvania, far from the big city lights that normally would be associated with the “sweet science”, sits a very important site in the history of boxing. Here Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest fighter of all time, built a training camp near Deer Lake. He called it “Fighter’s Heaven” and trained here for many of his epic battles.

Ali first came to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s to train at Pollack’s Mink Farm in Deer Lake. Bernie Pollack, who was involved in the fight game, was introduced to Ali by Gene Kilroy, a local native and prominent member of the Champ’s entourage. Ali liked the area and purchased the land up Sculps Hill Road in 1972, where he proceeded to build the training camp of his dreams. Ali, himself, hiked the land determining what exactly should be built and where.

Over time, the rustic camp grew to include some eighteen various buildings. Ali built a large log gym, dining hall, bunkhouses for sparring partners, a small mosque where he would pray daily, and small individual cabins for members of his staff and also for the many special guests that always seemed to show up. In a courtyard situated near the gym and the dining hall, a huge outdoor stone fireplace was built that became a favorite gathering spot for camp residents and visitors alike. Staff members would gather here at night with a roaring fire, stars filling the clear night sky, to enjoy the special camaraderie they shared. Many people associated with Ali recall that their fondest memories were the times spent at Deer Lake. Although now obstructed by grown trees, the courtyard once had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Ali had giant boulders trucked in and placed around the camp. His father, Cassius Clay, Sr. (a sign painter by trade), painted on them the names of other famous boxers that Ali admired. The Champ got this idea from Archie Moore’s old California training camp, “The Salt Mine”, where Ali trained briefly early in his career.

The camp was like a small village and had a special excitement and vitality to it. It was also a magnet for the celebrities of the day. Tom Jones, Jim Brown, The Jackson Five, Andy Warhol, Isaac Hayes, Diana Ross, Howard Cosell, Dick Cavett, Flip Wilson, Kris Kristofferson, Dizzy Gillespie, Leroy Neiman, Doug Henning – they all came to Deer Lake to call on “The Greatest”. Former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes got his start there as Ali’s sparring partner. So did Tim Witherspoon and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. When former welterweight champion Kid Gavilan was on hard times, Ali hired him to work at the camp.

Muhammad Ali’s training sessions were open to the public, and many people have fond memories of the Champ’s generosity and accessibility. One on one with people, he was rather quiet and soft spoken, not the loud and boisterous figure that flashed across America’s TV screens. Even after tiring workouts, he felt obliged to spend time with the many fans who flocked to the camp. Many times he could be found sitting on the boulders talking and joking, doing magic tricks, posing for photos, and giving countless autographs. Sometimes, he’d gather up kids to come in and have breakfast with him in the rustic mess hall after an early morning workout. He didn’t seclude himself at the camp. Sportswriters found that Deer Lake was the best place to get alone with Ali. It seemed like the camp was always open to everyone. Probably no other athlete was as accessible to both the press and the general public.

Ali trained at Deer Lake until his last fight in 1981. Before they left for the last time, Ali’s staff pooled their money to buy a granite monument that was placed outside the famous gym. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer, originally thought the Champ’s purchase of land and desire to build a camp out in the country was a bad idea. Ali seemed to thrive on the hustle and excitement of the big city, and he worried that Ali would lose interest after awhile. It never happened. Something about this unassuming site on Sculps Hill Mountain intrigued and revitalized Muhammad Ali. Here he would chop wood and train for long hours during the day, then stay up late at night writing down his thoughts by kerosene lamp in his private, sparsely furnished cabin. In the early mornings, he’d do his roadwork along fog-shrouded back roads, sucking in the fresh country air. The area is a famous migratory path for hawks and eagles, and often they’d soar above the solitary figure running in sweats and heavy work boots. It was at Deer Lake that Ali forged the stamina and honed his pugilistic skills to win two of his and the boxing world’s greatest battles in the ring – the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman and the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier.

The most recognized face on earth chose a modest plot of land near the coal regions of Pennsylvania to build “Fighter’s Heaven” – the most famous boxing training camp ever built.

Gene Kilroy Connection

The story of the Muhammad Ali training camp and how it became part of the Schuylkill County sports history began back in 1971, when a former area resident introduced Ali to the region. Ali’s business manager, Gene Kilroy, knew of this special, quiet place and felt it would be a perfect fit for the champion, who had previously trained in Miami, Florida. Kilroy had a vision for Ali and how things could develop into a self-contained training center.

Years later, as one looks back, Kilroy was right-on-point with his foresight. Now this hallowed place that sits atop Sculps Mountain, in Southern Schuylkill County, has been transformed once again, but not on such a grandiose scale.

This time it is being done to preserve history thanks to Mike Madden, son of legendary Oakland Raiders football coach and Monday Night NFL announcer, John Madden. Madden, in Kilroy’s opinion, is on the verge of preserving the legacy of the late, great champion Muhammad Ali. “People from all over the world will come and visit this place,” cited Kilroy proudly of this place, which he helped to initiate with Ali’s blessing.

The training camp would come to existence solely because Kilroy had befriended local furrier and Pottsville native Bernard Pollack when Kilroy was employed by the Philadelphia Eagles. Kilroy called Pollack a dapper and articulate person and knew he was a boxing fan since bringing Ernie Terrell to train at another Deer Lake location.

Years later Pollack approached Kilroy upon learning that he was now Ali’s business manager. Pollack had a vision and thought this undeveloped mountainous secluded site would be a perfect spot for Ali to train. At the time, Atlantic City officials were pondering the idea of bringing gambling to the dying seaside resort. A well-known business man Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana Restaurants, was on the verge of opening a hotel in Atlantic City. He desperately wanted to have Ali there and offered all the rooms and a boxing facility to train for his fights at no charge. However, Atlantic City was too close to Philadelphia and New York City and the big time media. Kilroy felt it would be too much of a distraction with the media and also the fans. Meanwhile, Pollack, who had six acres for sale, kept reaching out to Kilroy knowing the area he had envisioned was perfect for training: spartan-like, serene, backroads and little traffic. There was no major road leading up Sculps Hill, just a dirt hill with only a few neighbors living in the area. Here Ali could run the hills, spar in the fresh clean air and at the same time keep hidden from the bright city lights. Distractions were far away.

Kilroy finally convinced Ali to take a ride to the area and meet with Pollack. “The champ wasn’t totally sure he wanted to come to Deer Lake,’’ explained Kilroy, “but Bernie Pollack was very sincere and had a vision and knew his site was perfect for Ali to train.” Ali toured the acreage Pollack had for sale and was convinced it would make an ideal training facility. It was Ali’s vision henceforth. He wanted logs for his gym, nothing fancy, just plain. They hired Miller Construction Company to build this site. Slowly the camp started to take a life unto itself. Ali had his own private kitchen, later to be known as Aunt Coretta’s; he built a simple cabin where he would sleep. There was no running water, no heat and no lights. This special site would have never come into existence if it weren’t for Gene Kilroy, who is a native son of Mahanoy City. His roots and loyalty run as deep as the one-time booming Anthracite Coal mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Kilroy always wanted to give back and this was a way of showing his love to the region.

There were many notable people who visited the camp including then-movie actors Richard Harris and Jack Palance. Talk show hosts Mike Douglas, David Frost and Dick Cavett made an appearance and the famed late great sports announcer Howard Cosell. Kilroy always insisted the shows were filmed at the camp, knowing full well it would put this site on the map. Even the Jackson Five were visitors, along with Cheryl Tiegs. Several future boxing champions trained at the camp as sparring partners to Ali. They included “The Easton Assassin” Larry Holmes, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Tim Witherspoon.

But if it wasn’t for Gene Kilroy, this special place would have never come to pass. Kilroy admits that the camp isn’t really in Deer Lake, but Orwigsburg. They kept the name because it sounded more romantic. Now Mike Madden is carrying the torch, and Kilroy sees nothing but great things in the future. Kilroy says it will become a National Historical Site, attracting visitors from all walks of life. Madden has renamed the site “Fighter’s Heaven.” The restoration, which commenced on February 6, 2017, has tried to bring the site back to the way it looked when Ali trained there for many of his famous
fights.

The gym has become a photo museum that features a touch screen video. The photos were donated to Madden by Kilroy, whose personal collection and memorabilia is heavily emphasized in this historical setting. The restoration of the camp also includes the cabin where Ali first stayed and includes a video with television host Dick Cavett. There is also a video in the one-time camp mosque of Ali addressing an audience in Newcastle, England explaining what his thoughts were upon his retirement. In additio n, there are rocks aligned along the outside of the gym. These painted rocks were done by Ali’s late father, Cassius Clay, Sr. The names appearing on the rocks have a historical significance of one-time great fighters that Ali admired.

Facility & Map

Fighter’s Heaven consists of almost six acres of land and is divided by Sculps Hill Road. The lower portion of the property includes the Chalet, Barn & Stable, Gym, Kitchen, Ali’s Personal Cabin, and two Bunkhouses.

The Chalet, near the entrance to the camp, is where Ali’s family would stay when visiting the camp. A video in the Chalet has Ali talking about race relations. Horses were kept in the Stable behind the Chalet. The large log Gym has been refurbished inside and out by Amish craftsmen, as were many of the buildings on this historic site. The Gym has a boxing ring in the same spot where Ali’s once stood, and the walls are filled with various photographs and fight posters. There is a touch-screen monitor where visitors can watch highlights of Ali’s boxing career narrated by Howard Cosell. A small room off the back of the Gym was a dressing room where Ali would get massages and relax after workouts.

Behind the Gym is the Kitchen where Ali, staff, and guests would eat their meals. It still contains the original long wood table where they would eat and the original gas stove. Ali’s Aunt Coretta was the original cook for the camp and a reproduction of her “Rules of My Kytchen” hangs on the wall. In later years, Lana Shabazz took over as cook for the camp.

To the right of the Kitchen is the rustic log cabin where Ali slept. It was sparsely furnished and originally had no electricity. Through researching old photographs and films, we have tried to recreate the “feel” of the cabin with similar period furniture. The cabin includes a video of Ali giving talk show host Dick Cavett a tour of the cabin, which Ali obviously was very proud of. Up the hill from Ali’s cabin are two log buildings that served as Bunkhouses for Ali’s sparring partners.

On the upper portion of the property, which includes the parking area, is the Mosque that Ali had built for his daily prayers. In the Mosque is another video in which Ali discusses his views on God and Spirituality.

Also scattered around the upper portion of the property are various smaller cabins where staff members or special guests would stay while at the camp. The large log building at the top of the hill once served as an office.

We hope you enjoy your visit to this historic site and hopefully come away with a better understanding and appreciation of Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy.

Muhammad Ali Awards

Ali had a lifelong mission to help those in need. He supported many various charities, both big and small, including Special Olympics, UNICEF, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Parkinson’s research, and BeatBullying.

  • Ali was on the cover of Sports Illustrated 40 times, and on the cover of Time Magazine 5 times.
  • Ali fought professionally in 12 different countries, and also Puerto Rico.
  • For many years in the latter 20th Century, Ali was known as the most recognized person on the planet.
  • Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Century
  • BBC Sports Personality of the Century
  • Arthur Ashe Courage Award
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Presidential Citizen Medal
  • United Nations Messenger of Peace
  • Philadelphia Liberty Medal