Sculps Hill Road is a steep climb through the woods, nothing unusual in rural Pennsylvania. Yet this Schuylkill County lane leads to a uniquely lofty place—Fighter’s Heaven.
That’s the name Muhammad Ali gave to his famed Deer Lake training camp. From 1972 through 1981, Ali prepared for the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila and many other big fights at this rustic compound he designed himself.
Now, after falling into disrepair, Fighter’s Heaven is making a comeback. California real estate investor Mike Madden, son of NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden, purchased and transformed the 18-building compound into a free-admission museum. Opened in 2019, Fighter’s Heaven is designed to teach the life and legacy of Ali at a place he loved.
“This was Muhammad Ali’s own creation,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s business manager, who helped him establish the camp in the early 1970s. “He wanted log cabins, we did the log cabins. He wanted a little kitchen, we put that in. He wanted a cabin for himself. He wanted the bunkhouses for sparring partners. This was his own creation.”
Fighter’s Heaven—in Orwigsburg, Pa., near Deer Lake—is remote but close to big cities: 2 hours, 15 minutes to New York, and 1:40 to Philly. During the July to October peak visiting season last year, around 1,500 people toured the camp. That number was dramatically lower than planned because of COVID restrictions. Madden is hopeful for steady visits this year, noting that Fighter’s Heaven is friendly to social distancing with its outdoor grounds and spacious gym.
PILGRIMAGE TO SOAK UP VIBES FROM THE GREATEST
In November, Ra’sheen Ali, founder and director of Team DNA Boxing in Cleveland, made the 5 1/2-hour drive from Ohio with his friend Chris Cugliari and eight young boxers.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Ra’sheen told his students. “It didn’t hit them until they were done.”
Ra’sheen’s DNA Level C Boxing Club specializes in working with young people, teaching boxing with an emphasis on social discipline and health, and as a defense against bullying.
At Fighter’s Heaven, the boys saw and posed for photos by Muhammad Ali’s training ring and personal cabin. They climbed on a log pile similar to the one where the champ was famously photographed. Ra’sheen, who shares the champ’s Muslim faith, made it a point to pray in the camp’s mosque where Ali prayed and to sit in the kitchen where he ate. For Ra’sheen, the visit evoked tears and gratitude.
“It just gives you an idea of who Ali was as a human being,” he said. “We can’t get another Muhammad Ali. The Creator, Allah, made only one.”
That’s the experience Madden hoped for when he bought for the camp in 2016. He paid $520,000 for the facility and spent at least $650,000 on renovations. “He put his wallet where his heart is,” Kilroy said of Madden.
The site has a history in boxing that pre-dates Ali’s camp. In the 1960s, furrier Bernie Pollack owned a mink farm there that had an outdoor boxing ring used by fighters, including Ernie Terrell, who trained for his ’67 fight against Ali, which he lost. Ali was introduced to Pollack by Kilroy, a native of nearby Mahanoy City, Pa. Ali started to train at the mink farm but after having rain interrupt his training bought another nearby property from Pollack to build his own camp.
When Ali used the camp, visitors included locals and many celebrities, including Jim Brown, Howard Cosell, Cheryl Tiegs and the Jackson 5. They watched Ali spar, skip rope and hit the speed bag.
IN THE SPIRIT OF ALI, IT’S FREE TO GET IN
Today, visitors to Fighter’s Heaven are allowed—even encouraged— to sprawl out on Ali’s bed or sit in his rocking chair. And, just as in Ali’s day, there is no admission fee. The camp sells merchandise, but all of the money goes to three non-profits: the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and Avenues, a local group helping people with disabilities.
The Deer Lake camp, sitting on almost six acres, is divided by Sculps Hill Road. On one side are eight cabins, a larger residence and the mosque. The other side includes a chalet—where Ali’s family would stay when visiting—a barn and stable, a gym, a kitchen, two bunkhouses for sparring partners and Ali’s cabin. Madden hired Amish craftsmen to refurbish many buildings, including the gym where a ring sits where Ali once trained.
“We do allow visitors and tourists to get in the ring,” said Mick Stefanek, a former seventh-grade social studies teacher who lives at Fighter’s Heaven and serves as its general manager. “They hit the heavy bag a little bit. They really get excited when they walk through the door and see the lights, the pictures, the gym.”
Ali’s simple personal cabin, which originally had no electricity, is another favorite spot for visitors. The cabin now includes a video of Ali being interviewed by TV host Dick Cavett in 1974. “As people are watching that video, they can just look around the room,” Stefanek said.
The mosque, built for Ali’s daily prayers, also features a video of Ali. In this clip, Ali, prompted by a child’s question about his plans after boxing, discusses the fleeting nature of life and his need to be right with God. The camp also contains boulders Ali had hauled in. Ali’s father painted the rocks with names of great boxers, including Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston.
In the kitchen, guests can sit at the long table where Ali dined and told stories. They can read a sign—painted by Ali’s father, a sign painter—listing the humorous “Rules of My KYTCHEN” by the original camp cook, Ali’s aunt Coretta.
“His favorite meal was chocolate cake and ice cream,” Kilroy said. “He would rather have a big piece of chocolate cake than a steak.”
Jonathan Eig’s 2017 biography “Ali: A Life,” describes the importance of the camp to Ali’s later career: “The older he got, the more difficult it became to focus like a champ. At Deer Lake, Ali woke early morning at 4:30 and rang an eight hundred-pound church bell that he had purchased from a local antiques dealer, sending a signal to everyone in camp that he was up early and hard at work.”
Eig also noted that the camp had no gate, with visitors coming and going freely. Ali was a gracious host.
“No matter who the people were, if we were eating at 5 o’clock, he invited them,” Kilroy said. “The cooks never knew how many people to prepare for, 10 people or 20.”
Today, Madden wants to operate the camp in that same open spirit. Stefanek leads 90-minute tours of schoolchildren and others. Madden aims to host corporate retreats at the camp to offset some costs, but he said the priority is to educate the public, especially young people, about Ali’s life.
MADDEN SAW A FOR SALE NOTICE AND POUNCED
Madden’s ownership of the Fighter’s Heaven was prompted by his emotional reaction to Ali’s death in 2016. A huge Ali fan growing up, Madden became frustrated listening to sports radio commentators making basic errors about Ali’s life and career. Fed up with the radio, he used his iPod to play, on repeat, George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All,” the title song for the 1977 biopic “The Greatest” starring Ali as himself. But once Madden started searching the web for coverage of Ali’s death, the frustration returned.
I was reading all these stories like a fact-checker looking for mistakes,” he said. Madden planned to criticize the articles anonymously online before thinking again: “I was ashamed of myself.”
Madden then came across an article online mentioning Ali’s training camp at Deer Lake. Madden did a web search for “Muhammad Ali training camp Deer Lake Pennsylvania.”
“It popped up to be the Butterfly and Bee Bed and Breakfast,” Madden said. He noticed a box on its webpage listing the property for sale.
“I believe in signs, and I believe things happen for a reason,” Madden said. “I had the ‘Animal House’ devil on one shoulder and angel on the other. I was being called out — are you just going to use your Muhammad Ali knowledge to make people who don’t know as much as you feel bad, or can you do something positive with it? And if you want to do something positive, this might be an opportunity.”
Madden, who lives in the Bay Area, called the property’s contact number and then booked a flight to Newark, N.J., and drove to Orwigsburg. He soon owned the camp.
Ali’s death caused a stirring within Ra’sheen as well. As a young boxer, Ra’sheen was trained by Johnny “Dunc” Duncan Jr. He told Ra’sheen of his encounter with a teenage Ali, then Cassius Clay. In 1959, Dunc worked the corner for Art Toombs in an amateur fight against Clay in Ohio. Clay won the three-round decision with a style and charisma Dunc never forgot. “He was so handsome! He was pretty,” he told Ra’sheen.
When Ali died at age 74, Ra’sheen was determined to take Dunc to the funeral. The men drove from Cleveland to Louisville, hopeful but without tickets. They visited Ali’s childhood home and talked with neighbors. They entered the KFC Yum! Center only to be stopped at the escalator for not having tickets.
Ra’sheen turned to the first person he saw, a stranger. He told the woman he was with his 80-year-old boxing trainer who had met Ali and wanted to pay his respects, but they couldn’t get in. She reached into her purse and handed over two tickets.
Now, with Fighter’s Heaven, Ra’sheen found a new place to connect with Ali and to teach young people about him. “I would go back a million times if I could,” he said.
For More Information on Fighter’s Heaven click this http://fightersheaven.com
Daniel Lee is an Indiana-based writer with an interest in history and sports history