In 1978, Mike Madden was turning 15 and all he wanted for his birthday was to see Muhammad Ali in the ring.

Trouble was, the heavyweight boxing champion's fights were usually in places like Manila, a bit far-flung for the California teen. But when New Orleans hosted the Ali-Leon Spinks ticket, the Madden family was there, and it was a wish come true for Mike.

"When I was a child, Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable face on planet Earth," said Madden, 57, reached at his home in California. "There aren't a lot of sites like this that exist. You can't go to Vince Lombardi's practice field, you know?"

But Ali's former training camp at Deer Lake?

"His legacy is going to live a long, long time," said Madden, who owns Fighter's Heaven, 58 Sculps Hill Road in the Deer Lake area of Schuylkill County.

After a three-year and approximately $1 million project to renovate the training camp's log buildings into a museum (what Madden calls "a 40-year tune-up"), Fighter's Heaven is welcoming visitors to the idyllic spot used from 1972-1981 as a place for Ali to train away from the limelight. 

A road trip to Schuylkill County is not complete without seeing Fighter's Heaven.

Lovingly restored to its '70s heyday, it's a place where singer Diana Ross and artist Andy Warhol hung out. Scattered around the 6-acre property are rocks painted by Ali's father, Cassius Clay Sr. They are inscribed with inspirational sayings from boxers Ali admired, along with the names of his trainers. 

The gym where Ali trained is there, along with a kitchen, Ali's sleeping quarters, a mosque where he prayed and the bunkhouses for his sparring partners.

The goal is "to remind some and educate others about the remarkable life of Muhammad Ali," said Madden, son of NFL coach John Madden.

It's the No. 1 destination in the area, according to Tripadvisor, where one visitor writes, "What a piece of history in Schuylkill County." Another writes, "Schuylkill County's hidden treasure."

Sam Matta got to meet Ali three times, and he's thrilled with how the training camp has turned out. It's the place where Ali prepared for some the biggest fights of his career, like Rumble in the Jungle and Thriller in Manila, said Matta, media relations manager for Fighter's Heaven.

The videos in which Ali speaks for himself are important at Fighter's Heaven, Madden said.

"When you walk in, you hear his voice and feel his presence," he said.

Boxing champs Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad began their careers sparring at Deer Lake with Ali. His famous interview with talk show host Dick Cavett was conducted there, and visitors can watch it.

"Noted celebrities showed up there, including Howard Cosell," Matta said.

And now, Fighter's Heaven is getting a state historic marker. In March, as the pandemic descended, the camp-turned museum was among 24 new Pennsylvania Historical Markers approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

"It's a huge honor," said Madden, who doesn't know a timeline, but wants to throw a party when the marker gets there.

The property was Ali's camp until his retirement in 1981; most recently it was a karate camp for kids. Madden said he looked up "Deer Lake" a few days after Ali's death in 2016 and saw that the camp was for sale. Within six weeks, he owned it. It's grand opening was held in June 2019, the third anniversary of Ali's death.

Visitors to Fighter's Heaven can walk the grounds and see the gym, complete with a boxing ring. Three videos along with photos that were a private collection of his one-time business manager Gene Kilroy are on view. Kilroy, from Mahanoy City, is Ali's connection to northeastern Pennsylvania.

Fighter's Heaven is an ongoing project, and more videos and photos are on the way, said Madden, who will be in Schuylkill County next week to meet with Matta.

Ali, who died in 2016 at age 74 from complications of Parkinson's Disease, was a Civil Rights advocate and worked to raise public awareness of Parkinson's Disease, which he battled for 30 years. The neurological disorder affects nearly 10 million people worldwide, according to

On a wall at Fighter's Heaven, a framed quote from Ali reads, "Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong."

Fighter's Heaven is open weekends through October, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. It's located off state Route 61 North, 8 miles from Cabela’s at the interstate 78 interchange.

Visit or find it at; Instagram@fighters.heaven; or via tripadvisor.

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