The doctor who stood in Muhammad Ali’s corner
Ferdie Pacheco 1927-2017
Ferdie Pacheco was Muhammad Ali’s physician during the boxer’s golden years. Known as the Fight Doctor, he was ringside when Ali beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach in 1964 to claim his first world heavyweight championship. After the 10th round in the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier, Ali told Pacheco, “This is the closest I’ve come to dying.” But as the bouts and the blows stacked up, Pacheco became increasingly worried about his patient’s health. He urged Ali to retire after a brutal 15-round battle with Alfredo Evangelista in 1977—and quit as his doctor when the fighter refused to follow his advice. “If a national treasure like Ali could not be saved,” Pacheco said, “at least I didn’t have to be part of his undoing.” Seven years later, the boxer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Born in Tampa, Pacheco was “the son of a Spanish-born pharmacist who had come to America from Cuba,” said The New York Times. After studying pharmacy and then medicine, he “set up two offices in the Miami area as a general practitioner,” often treating poor patients “for nothing or a nominal charge.” Pacheco met Ali in 1960, when the boxer started training at a Miami gym where Pacheco “provided free medical treatment for fighters and their families.” He described Ali as “the most magnificent physical specimen I’ve ever seen.” Pacheco “served as Ali’s cornerman and personal physician” for 15 years, said the Miami Herald. Following a fight against Earnie Shavers in 1977, he sent Ali’s medical exam results to the boxer’s inner circle, warning that the champ had “no shot at a normal life” if he stayed in the ring. “I never heard a word [back],” he said. “Because they knew I was right.”
After quitting Ali’s entourage, Pacheco “launched a career as a television boxing commentator,” said The Washington Post. He spent 19 years in broadcasting, winning two Emmys for his work, and “used his perch” to call for safety reforms in the sport. He later became a prolific author and a successful painter—and increasingly found himself questioning his prior involvement in boxing. “Why was I, an ethical physician with a large charity practice, part of a sport that allowed death?” he once asked. “I never found a suitable answer.”