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The 'Greatest' place: Former Ali trainer preserves champ's spirit at camp

DEER LAKE, Pa. - It was the place where Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Andy Warhol, Mike Douglas, the Jackson Five and many other celebrities came to watch Muhammad Ali work and hold court. No, it wasn't the desert town of Las Vegas, but a mountain hideaway in central Pennsylvania. In the small community in the coal country of Pennsylvania, outside Pottsville, just off Route 61 on Sculps Hill Road, Ali built his training camp. And there one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century formed the second stage of his career and trained for some of his biggest fights. From 1972 until he retired in 1981, there was no place more important to Ali or central to his career than his Deer Lake, Pa., training camp, which he named "Fighter's Heaven." In his biography, "The Greatest," Ali called his Deer Lake camp "the best fighter's camp in heavyweight history. I'm more at home up here with my log cabins than I am in my house in Cherry Hill." (Ali's New Jersey home in the 1970s.) There are several places that define the life of Muhammad Ali. There is the city of Louisville, Ky., where Ali grew up to become an Olympic gold medal winner. There was the since-razed Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, where Ali learned how to become the heavyweight champion of the world. However, Ali's Deer Lake camp is still standing and still connected to the days when it served as the center of the boxing universe. These days, though, "Fighter's Heaven" is a karate school, bed and breakfast, and shrine to Ali thanks to one of the fighter's old friends who fulfilled a promise he made in 1980. When George Dillman heard that Ali had put the camp up for sale in 1997, he was not about to pass on the chance to buy it. Dillman, who was running a karate seminar in Chicago, had an opportunity to purchase the camp - it consists of 18 buildings, including a main gym - for $100,000 in 1980. "I didn't have the money, and I really didn't know what to do with it," said Dillman, who estimates that Ali put about $1.5 million into the camp. "There are 18 buildings here. It's like a small village." The second time, Dillman was ready. In those 21 years, Dillman, 59, became a legendary martial arts instructor and a member of the Black Belt magazine Hall of Fame. He had both the money and the vision to make the deal and he contacted the real estate agent who was handling the sale of the camp. "I said to the agent, `I want you to make him an offer.' I said, `You can't do this through his attorney, you have to talk directly to Ali,'" Dillman said. "I offered him $100,000. He said, `I'm not going to offer him $100,000.' I said, `Yes you are. You draw up the agreement of sale and present it to him.'" The agent, who was instructed not to accepted any bids lower than $350,000, told Dillman that the bid was too low. However, Dillman insisted and gave the agent a $10,000 check with one condition. "You have to talk to Ali personally. His attorney don't know me. You have to tell Ali that George Dillman wants to buy the camp. Don't say some guy wants to buy the camp. You tell him George Dillman is offering to buy the camp for $100,000." Dillman knew that once Ali heard his name, he would remember the commitment he made. After all, Dillman was hard to forget. He ran the back mountain roads of Deer Lake with Ali, worked out in the ring with the champion and he and his wife Kim taught Ali's wife, Belinda, the art of self defense. "You might not know who I am, but Muhammad Ali will know who I am," Dillman told the real estate agent. "You tell him that in 1980 we sat on the steps of his chalet, and he offered me this camp for $100,000. I didn't have the money to buy it then. I do now." The next day, Dillman got a call from the agent, who spoke directly to Ali. "He told the agent, `That was 1980, this is 1997, and inflation has raised things,'" Dillman said. But Dillman stuck to his offer, amending it to include attorney and real estate expenses - about $15,000. "I got a call back from the agent saying he accepted the offer. He was a man of his word, and he promised to sell me the camp for $100,000." The deal was struck in June and the settlement was in July. It was a dream come true for Dillman - and maybe his destiny, an unusual one for a kid who came out of the coal mining country of Central Pennsylvania. Dillman first met Ali in 1967 at a New York sports banquet. Dillman performed karate that night, and Ali was intrigued by the workout. "We talked about working out together," said Dillman, who is about 5-foot-9 and at the time weighed about 150 pounds. Ali was 6-3, 215 pounds. "He asked why he should work out with me, and I told him that he might be heavyweight champion of the world, but I could do martials arts, and in a real fight I could beat him. He laughed, but he was amazed that I thought I could beat him. He wanted to see what I had to offer." Dillman, at the time a military policeman with the U.S. Army, was stationed in Washington. Ironically, while Dillman was assigned to protect the Pentagon from demonstrators, Ali was refusing to be drafted into the Army. Later, after leaving the military, Dillman was transferred to Reading, Pa., and started a karate school. One day in 1972 he was having lunch at a local deli with his wife, who is also a black belt in karate, when she suddenly stopped the conversation. "Don't look now, but Muhammad Ali is standing right behind you," Kim said. Dillman got up and went over to the boxer. "I asked if he remembered me. He said, `I don't remember your name, but you're that karate guy who said he could whup me.'" The two began talking and Dillman took Ali on a tour of his karate school. "He said, `You still think you can whip me? What would you do if I spun a left jab at you?' He threw a left jab at me. I blocked it and I threw a left roundhouse kick that just touched his groin, a tap. Then I stepped in with an overhand right. He said, `Maybe we should work out,'" Dillman said. Three days later, when Ali began jogging on the back roads of Central Pennsylvania, Dillman was running with him. He was the champ's regular running partner until 1975 when Ali's third wife, Veronica, took his place. The relationship between Ali, who built the camp in the summer of 1972, and Dillman changed slightly when they stopped running together. Dillman was less and less a presence at the camp. However, he remained close to Ali and visited him when he trained for various fights near the end of his career. Dillman went on to become a world wide legend in karate. He was known for his pressure point fighting style and his displays of karate that he performed on television shows like Real People and the Mike Douglas Show. But his best times were those days at Deer Lake, where he saw some remarkable things. "We were all sitting in the kitchen once, with Ali and Mike Douglas, when Elvis called," Dillman said. "He called because he heard Mike was up at the camp and he wanted to apologize because the story had gotten out that Elvis had shot out his television set while the Mike Douglas Show was on. He wanted to let Mike know that he wasn't mad at him. He was mad at a guest on the show who had said something about Elvis." There are no celebrities at "Fighter's Heaven" these days. Photos of them with Ali and Dillman are displayed throughout the main gym, which Dillman has cleaned up considerably since his purchase. The camp had a number of groups and fell into disrepair. Dillman estimates he hauled out 55 tons of trash when he first took over the place. "They never had the trash taken away," he said. "They just put it in rooms or piled it up outside. Weeds were growing, and roofs were falling apart. I couldn't believe the shape the camp was in. It was gorgeous in its heyday." Dillman has done his best to restore the camp. Big boulders, on which Ali painted the names of fighters - Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Jack Dempsey, Jerry Quarry, Sonny Liston, among others, as well as a big black one for Jack Johnson - line the driveway and the path around the main gym building. Outside the 3,000-square-foot gym, a five-foot tall headstone is planted in cement with the words, "Ali's Staff" on it. Carved in the stone are the names Howard Bingham, Drew Bundini Brown, Jimmy Ellis, Gene Kilroy, Wali Muhammad, Abdul Raham, Luis Sarria, Lana Shabazz, James Anderson, Booker Johnson, Pat Patterson, Ralph Thornton, and Lloyd Wells, with the date 1980, when Ali had it put in. Under the names "Workout Partners" are listed - George Dillman, Kim Fritz Dillman, 1972 to 1975. There is no boxing ring inside. Instead, there are mats used for karate seminars. The walls, though, are filled with photos of Ali and Dillman with various celebrities who came to Deer Lake. One of the photos is of Dillman on the Mike Douglas Show using his elbow to break four blocks of ice weighing over 1,000 pounds. There used to be a life-sized Leroy Neiman painting of Ali on one wall, but Ali had it cut out of the wall and took it with him. Dillman had a local artist paint a mural of Ali in the corner of a ring. It shows the champ with his second wife Belinda, the Dillmans, Bundini Brown and Angelo Dundee. The hooks, from which hung the heavy bags that Ali pounded, are still in the ceiling. The old movie screen, that Ali used to watch old fight films on, is still on the wall. "We used to sit here and watch fight films together, with Ali eating ice cream," Dillman said. "He loved ice cream. . . . He loved Jack Johnson. He watched every fight film he could get of Jack Johnson." Dillman restored the kitchen building and is in the process of fixing up all of the cabins in which sparring partners and trainers used to stay. Some of the original furniture is still in the cabins, including the one where Ali slept. Unlike other sports, there are not many shrines for the sport of boxing, but Deer Lake surely qualifies. It is a place where Ali worked to achieve greatness, but it was also the place he went to in order to come to grips with his own mortality. "When Ali found out he got Parkinson's, he came up here to stay for a while, to be alone," Dillman said. After all, this was the place where Ali was most at home with his extended family. Pat Patterson, a former Chicago police officer who worked as Ali's bodyguard, described the intimacy they felt at Deer Lake in Thomas Hauser's book, "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times": "The best times I had were up at Deer Lake," Patterson said. "It was like we had our own little village. Everybody got to be themselves, the family really came together. We'd sit there, talking about whatever crossed our mind. And believe me, it was very special to have those moments with Ali. The rest of the world saw the fights and the glory. But we were there at six o' clock in the morning, when he came back from running with ice under his nose. We laughed with him at night, shared good times and bad."

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