Muhammad Ali Center celebrates life of 'The Greatest'

Updated: October 30, 2005, 4:00 PM ET
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The relationship between this city and native son Muhammad Ali always comes back to a story of the brash Olympic boxing champ, then known as Cassius Clay, tossing his 1960 gold medal into the Ohio River in disgust over entrenched racism.

But the story may be apocryphal - Ali later told friends he simply misplaced the medal - and as the years passed Louisville and Ali eventually came to appreciate each other.

Now, Ali's hometown is ready to unveil a lasting tribute, a museum celebrating the life of one of the 20th century's most recognizable figures.

The Muhammad Ali Center opens Nov. 21, chronicling the life of "The Greatest" inside and outside the ring, emphasizing his peaceful values and vision of global tolerance, and setting the record straight about that infamous gold medal.

"People will be surprised when they visit the Ali center," said museum spokeswoman Jeanie Kahnke. "Many people only know of Ali as a boxer and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world. What they may not know about him is how he has been a charitable individual for most of his life. That has only grown since he has retired from the ring."

Ali, now 63 and battling Parkinson's Disease, is expected to attend a star-studded opening gala Nov. 19, along with celebrities Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, James Taylor and B.B. King. The event is attracting guests from England, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, Jamaica and Barbados.

"There are very few in the world who affect people the way Ali does," Kahnke said. "We've heard from people who are suffering from diseases and young kids who were born 15 years after Ali's last fight. Ali gives them the strength to achieve their own goals and fight for their own beliefs."

Ali retired in 1981 with a 56-5 record, 37 knockouts and an Olympic gold medal. By then, the legendary fighting career was only part of his story.

He became the world's best-known Muslim, took a peaceful stand against the Vietnam War that cost him his heavyweight title and has worked in his later years as a United Nations peace ambassador, helping raise awareness and money for the world's poorest nations.

Organizers broke ground on the $75 million, 93,000-square-foot project in 2002. Experts on the Vietnam War, Islam, civil rights and other areas helped create a center related intimately to Ali's life. Some of the exhibits were reviewed by longtime Ali coach Angelo Dundee and biographers Robert Lipsyte and Thomas Hauser.

"When you think about boxing, you just see the athlete on a stage," said curator Susan Shaffer Nahmias. "For many years, Ali's story stopped at the ring. This center shows a picture of Ali through a voice that isn't a sports writer."

Numerous exhibits highlight parts of Ali's life often buried beneath his athletic prowess.

One exhibit aims to set the record straight about the story in Ali's autobiography of him flinging his light heavyweight Olympic gold medal into the river. His since-denied story says he tossed the medal in disgust over continued racism in his hometown after he was refused service in a restaurant and harassed by a group of racist motorcyclists.

Other displays recall the lighting of the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when a trembling Ali hoisted a golden torch as spectators frantically clicked cameras and stood to give him a loud, emotional ovation.

"He held the torch with the world watching and, somehow, his disability enhanced his persona," said Tom Owen, a Louisville historian and professor. "He continues to have an energetic spirit. You see that man ascending to light the Olympic torch. What city wouldn't want to embrace a native son like that?"

Longtime friend Howard Bingham, a Life magazine photographer who has shot hundreds of pictures of Ali since the 1960s, said it was one of the champ's defining moments.

"I told him, 'Ali, this is a time when the world is saying thank you for what you have done and sacrificed, and how you've helped people throughout your life,"' Bingham said.

In a hands-on area designed to look like Ali's training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., visitors can learn how to shadowbox and hit a speed bag. Onlookers can gawk at the Olympic gold medal Ali he received in Atlanta to replace the one from 1960.

There is also hope the center will become a place where world leaders can come, share their viewpoints and cultivate peace. The Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice, based at the University of Louisville, plans to hold seminars at the center to promote peacemaking and conflict resolution.

"We are not a world capital. But I believe they have hope that disputing peoples will come here," Owen said. "I would love to see Muhammad Ali come back and put his blessing and his encouragement at those tables of reconciliation."

Ali, who currently lives in Michigan with his wife, Lonnie, has long hinted at moving back to the city where he grew up.

"He is the most recognized figure in the history of this city and when visitors ask about him, I point to the center," Owen said. "We hope he has a long and continuing life and hopefully, one day, he will come home."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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