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
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.