What was once Muhammad Ali’s home away from home can soon be yours.
Ali’s Deer Lake training camp, where he prepared for his fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, is being turned into a bed and breakfast by the man who once taught the former champion karate.
George Dillman, along with his wife, Kim, purchased the nearly six-acre parcel Ali called “Fighter’s Heaven” last July, 17 years after Ali first offered to sell it to him.
At the time, Dillman didn’t have the money to buy. When the former champion put the property up for sale this time, Ali agreed to sell it to Dillman for the same price he was asking for back then - $100,000 - a price well below today’s market value.
“He is a genuine person,” said Dillman, who also paid closing costs for both sides. “He made good on an offer he extended 17 years ago.”
A quarter mile up a steep, twisting country road, the camp sits perched on ridge overlooking the Poconos, about a 1-1/2-hour drive northwest of Philadelphia.
Ali began developing the site in 1972, and he trained here until his final fight against Trevor Berbick in 1981.
At first glance, it has the look of a frontier compound. The 18 buildings, clustered on both sides of the road and canopied by tall trees, are log-framed, including the 3,000-square-foot gym.
“He was really into cowboy movies, which were big then,” Dillman said. “He loved the look of the Old West, so he had this built like a cabin he saw in a cowboy movie.”
But the 18 giant boulders that dot the landscape are the first clue this isn’t an ordinary camp. Painted on each in big block letters is the name of a great boxer Ali admired.
Joe Louis hangs on a 40-ton rock. A 20-ton lump of coal is Jack Johnson. Rocky Marciano covers a flat rock.
There are other reminders of Ali inside the gym, including the hooks that supported his punching bags, and the movie screen he would spend hours in front of, studying great fighters of the past and upcoming opponents.
His trainers made Ali write and sign a log of each day’s activities on a door frame. One entry, signed “MA,” reads: “Up at 4:45 a.m. (GOOD!), weight before running 228, ran four miles, weight after 226, boxed six rounds, shadow-boxed two rounds, massage.”
There are a series of one-room log cabins that housed sparring partners and staff members. One is painted white, and a minaret juts up from the roof. It was where Ali knelt toward Mecca every day to pray.
At the time, Ali lived in Cherry Hill, N.J., just outside Philadelphia. While he had long dreamed of building a training camp, he never thought it would be in the country.
“It’s in my blood to be around people while I was training,” Ali wrote in his 1975 autobiography, “The Greatest, My Own Story.” “I thought I’d go crazy if I left the city.”
In time, he grew to love the serenity of what he called “the best fighter’s camp in heavyweight history. I’m more at home with my log cabins than I am in my house in Cherry Hill.”
By the time Dillman bought it, the property was run down. “The smell up here was awful,” said Dillman, who said he hauled out 55 tons of trash.
The exteriors of the buildings have been pressure washed. The cabins are being completely redone with new roofs, floors and bathrooms.
The gym, whose foundation buckled when an embankment grew into it, was also fortified and rehabilitated. Dillman, who owns a karate studio in Reading, plans to conduct classes there, but there will also be an Ali museum, filled with photos and other memorabilia.
Guests will be able to run the same hilly route Ali did his road work on, and eat in the same enlarged kitchen where his aunt cooked his favorite meals. A giant stone fireplace provides warmth on chill evenings.
Turkey and deer are frequent visitors. Hawk Mountain, one of the country’s best places to see hawks and eagles, is about a 10-minute drive. The Appalachian Trail, a rugged hiking trail between Georgia and Maine, is about three miles away.
The surroundings invigorated Ali. “I’ve been hiking up hills, cutting down trees and chopping wood, just like the old fighters, and it’s given me more confidence,” he wrote in his book. “I like the quiet of the night when, at first, I couldn’t stand it.”
Dillman, whose name is one of 19 on a granite monument Ali erected on the site in 1980 to recognize his staff, can’t believe his good fortune.
“I was lucky enough to be here while every building was being built, and I wound up the owner of it,” he said.