Muhammad Ali: In Louisville, he’s finally The Greatest

I’m guessing that even in Australia, the passing of Muhammad Ali was big news. Here in his hometown of Louisville, it’s hard to imagine a bigger story in memory. The pro boxing story you’ll doubtless read about; this is the local story.

 

Ali’s relationship with his hometown is complicated. His imprint is on this city, and vice versa:

 

** Born Cassius Clay to a sign painter and a housekeeper, he took up boxing as a 12-year-old after his new bicycle was stolen from in front of the downtown Louisville Service Club as he munched free hot dogs and popcorn. He found a policeman who taught boxing at the Service Club, and six weeks later won his first amateur fight. Soon after he won again on a local boxing TV show. Eventually he won six state and three national amateur titles before winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He was greeted by hundreds of fans at the airport and led a 30-car motorcade to Central High School, his alma mater.

 

Soon after, he signed his first pro contract with 11 Louisville businessmen and won his pro debut in Louisville before heading to San Diego to train under former world champion Archie Moore.

 

Just 3½ years later, he became world heavyweight champion with a TKO of Sonny Liston. But from 1961 to 1978 — through most of his career, including the time lost when he refused induction into the military — there was no tangible connection between Ali and his hometown, except that one reason he gave for refusing military service was the racism in Louisville. He never fought a title fight in Louisville and had never made any significant investments in the town.

 

There was a spiritual connection, however. For many Louisvillians, especially younger ones, Ali was the city’s conquering hero. His major fights drew front-page coverage in the newspapers, and fights were telecast live to massive local audiences. He was a rare source of pride in the city when it struggled through the 1970s against suburban flight, a largely abandoned downtown, nationally publicized unrest over school busing and a crumbling industrial base. He also was a polarizing force for those opposed to his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

 

And then Louisville started to rebuild, constructing a music and theater center on the river, renovating two other auditoriums and creating a pedestrian mall to bring folks back downtown. In the middle of that, in 1978, the city approved the renaming of Walnut Street — a four-mile-long major thoroughfare through downtown and its predominantly African-American West End — as Muhammad Ali Boulevard. It was also a polarizing debate in the city; the proposal passed just 6-5 amid criticism of his anti-military stance, his personality and his conversion to Islam.

 

Ali’s career ended as the city began its rebirth. And both were transformed after. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the mid-1980s, and Louisville revamped neighborhoods and began a conversion to a more service-oriented economy. It began an ambitious project to transform an urban riverfront into parks and recreation land, a project just now nearing completion 25 years later. Ali made more appearances at sporting, charity and public events. Though he didn’t live in Louisville, he could be seen somewhere every couple of months or so. The conquering hero had returned.

 

His lighting of the Olympic torch in 1996 stirred more sentiment. And then, in 2005, the Muhammad Ali Center, an $80 million, six-story museum and cultural center, opened downtown. The center not only chronicled Ali’s history but his six core values — dedication, confidence, giving, spirituality, respect and conviction. Its programs since, often focusing on child development and conflict resolution, have gained regional and national renown. Its first director said half of the money raised to build the center came from Louisville, and 58 percent of its visitors the first year lived in Kentucky.

 

Since then, he’s been added to the “Hometown Heroes” campaign, which features 60-foot-high posters of 32 esteemed Louisvillians in various locations around town; and his childhood home, at 3302 Grand Avenue, has been restored and re-opened as a museum. Hundreds of folks have paid their respects there in the past few days.

 

It’s tough to find many folks around here any more who don’t regard him with reverence and respect. His death has engendered blanket local media coverage:

**  A 24-page special section in Sunday’s Courier-Journal newspaper (actually produced five years ago in anticipation and updated this week), plus dozens of videos and photos. The link is www.courier-journal.com

 

** Virtually every local newscast in town features biographical film and audio plus countless anecdotes, former acquaintances, local incidents, etc.

 

** On Sunday two of the four local stations broke into programming to televise the landing of the jet from Phoenix to deliver Ali’s body to his hometown. It’s assumed all four will televise all day on Friday, when a motorcade will leave the funeral home at 9 a.m. and begin a 20-mile procession that will end with an eight-mile loop through downtown and West End streets and past numerous locations connected to Ali to Cave Hill Cemetery just east of downtown, where Ali will be buried in a private ceremony. An eclectic collection of prominent Louisvillians are buried at Cave Hill, including Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, KFC founder Harland Sanders, Kentucky Derby founder Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., several former U.S. senators and congressmen, and many notable businessmen and civic leaders whose names appear on buildings and street signs throughout town.

 

** At 2 p.m. the 23,000-seat downtown basketball arena, the KFC Yum! Center, will host a memorial service open to the public (15,500 tickets will be distributed in a box-office sale starting Wednesday morning; the line can form at 6 a.m. and it’s expected the tickets will sell out probably by noon) with eulogies from President Clinton, Bryant Gumbel and Billy Crystal, among others. It will be streamed live and telecast on the Jumbotron outside the arena for those unable to attend.

 

I’ve lived in the Louisville suburbs for almost 27 years and worked on the local newspaper sports section for 25, but our paths never really crossed. I saw him at a local college football game in the early 1990s, and as he rode near the stands at halftime, the charisma was apparent even then. My former colleagues all say that the well-traveled anecdote was true – when Ali was in a room with other celebrities, the celebrities all gravitated toward him.

 

We’ll be wall-to-wall Muhammad Ali for the next week, from the somber to the curious — Sunday morning, a swarm of bees coincidentally collected just a few feet from the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” sign outside the Ali Center. The butterflies are about the only ones in Louisville yet to pay tribute. But I’m betting they join the rest of us tomorrow.

About Glenn Brownstein

I'm a red, white and blue supporter of the red, white and black who became a footy fan through ESPN telecasts in the 1980s and a buddy who founded the American version of the game. Yup, I chose the Saints, but I'd like to think they chose me, too.

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Glenn. Lovely take

  2. Thanks for those insights Glenn. Did he maintain a lot of friendships in Louisville?

    I look forward to hearing how it all goes.

  3. Fantastic stuff Glenn.

    You speak of a long period where Ali had not maintained a tangible connection to Louisville. You said he spoke of the racism he’d encountered in Louisville. It makes me think of names, events, Birmingham, Selma tumultuous events that helped make Ali who he was. The Civil rights campaigns of the 1960’s and the great Muhammad Ali go hand in glove.

    Friday will be an amazing day. Saying farewell to THe Greatest is something millions of us would wish to be present for. All the best for the day Glenn.

    Vale, Muhammad Ali.

    Glen!

  4. John, he had a lot of friends in town. Some were prominent members of the African-American community, but one of his closest was John Ramsey, a white local longtime TV and radio host, who will be one of eight pallbearers on Friday and who flew out to Phoenix last week for the final days.
    Also besides the 15,500 tickets for the main service, another 18,000 tickets will be available for a 30-minute Islamic prayer service Thursday at Freedom Hall, the old basketball arena and site of Ali’s last local fight in 1961 when he was still Cassius Clay. It’s still used for state fair horse shows, other sporting events and loads of trade shows.
    I won’t get tickets to the service as I have a conflict Friday but I’ll watch some of it, maybe downtown on the jumbo TV screen outside the arena. It’s going to be quite a day.
    If anyone in Australia wants to watch, the stream will be available on AliCenter.org. It starts at 4 a.m. Saturday AEST.

  5. Rick Kane says:

    Hi Glenn

    Thank you for the very considered overview of the magnificent Ali and his hometown blues. I was really moved reading about the Ali Centre (and his 6 core values). They were simple and striking. I was a little less moved by the KFC Yum! Centre!

    Ali, like others through the 60s and 70s (here I’ll revert to what I know and mention Lennon and Dylan), set a pace that appeared to many, at the time, contradictory and adversarial but with time has proven to be a path to the enlightenment the best of people strive to reach. Whether Ali got there or not, he certainly raised more ideas than most for the rest of us to work through into how we can reach higher.

    I do like that in whatever the struggle/fight between Ali and Louisville was all about that, one, it was resolved (to a reasonable degree) and two, Ali won.

    Cheers

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