Many would argue that Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay in 1942) ranks among the most recognizable personalities in the world. His often outlandish behavior made him an object of attention even before he won his first world heavyweight championship.Refusal to serve in the armed forces put him in the headlines, as did his ultimate victory in court on the issue. He went on to fight in some of the most highly publicized boxing matches in history. As his pugilistic prowess declined, he did not fade into the background as have so many other sports heroes.Instead, his active support of humanitarian causes, ready charm and continued charisma make him a celebrity all over the earth.Opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., has further cemented his position. Dedicated in November 2005, this six-level facility commemorates his career but also serves to spread his concepts of determination and opportunity. Along with preserving the legacy and ideals of Muhammad Ali, the mission statement calls for the center "to promote respect, hope, and understanding, and to inspire adults and children everywhere to be as great as they can be."Artifacts are outweighed by innovative exhibit organization with plenty of video clips and interactive stations. Still, I thought I'd never get my wife past the elaborately equipped 1977 Rolls Royce positioned just inside the building's entrance. Eventually we rode the long escalator to the fifth level, where a 14-minute multi-screen video focused on Ali's personal qualities as much as his athletic accomplishments.
On the main exhibit floors we followed the fighter's life story. A red Schwinn accompanies the anecdote of a young Cassius Clay, furious at having his bicycle stolen. Reporting the theft at a police station, his desire for vengeance gets deflected by Officer Joe Martin, who convinces Clay to take out his frustrations at a boxing training center. If only all such interventions could prove so meaningful.The brash fighter hones his craft sufficiently to win an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960. Arriving home, he makes the decision to turn professional. On display is the contract he signed with a group of Louisville businessmen agreeing to promote his career.Detailed personal timelines remind us of his uniqueness. As a youth, "I caught into how nearly everybody likes to watch somebody that acts different." Ali turned that statement into a marketing coup, with his poems, offhand comments and colorful interviews. Before facing Sonny Liston for the championship in 1964, he opined, "I don't know whether I'll beat him or cage him!" We came to expect such outbursts as part of his show.All his strong statements weren't for generating interest in his fights. At a youth detention center in 1974, he asserted "life is too short to spend any of it in a place like this." We'd all do well to heed his words on giving back — "service to others is the rent we pay for our room here on earth."There's a full-size lunch counter to examine. It's typical of facilities that refused to serve African-Americans, even if one of them had become a world-renowned figure. Civil rights would forever be entwined with the Clay/Ali story.
That story includes his refusal to join the armed forces and the decision to join the Nation of Islam. In 1965 he eschewed his birth name, forever, after choosing to be known as Muhammad Ali. Nonetheless, he espouses a religious tolerance that we'd all do well to emulate.Detailed timelines on the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and '70s will draw in anyone who lived through those turbulent eras.Amidst these timelines and film clips are set six separate stations, each representing a key value for which Ali stands — respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality. Thoughtful, occasionally sentimental, and constantly challenging, these alcoves are quite effective.We made our way to a circular pavilion on the fifth level. Walking its perimeter we passed descriptions of each of Ali's championship fights. Looking down onto a simulated boxing ring, we watched "The Greatest," a stirring recollection of his feats. And if there's any question about his status, we can read the words of Leon Spinks, who wrested the crown from Ali in 1978 — "I'm the best young heavyweight, but I ain't the greatest. HE was the greatest."There's much more to see at the Center. A recreation of his training facility in Deer Lake, Pa., reminds one of the work necessary to stay at the top of one's skills. Visitors can try a bit of athleticism of their own. I watched a few young wannabes shadowbox against the image of a moving boxer; others worked on the speed bag for rhythm. The standing heavy bag, unfortunately out of order, simulates the impact of a fighter's punch.
Interactive stations encourage young visitors to "Walk With Ali." Activities help participants develop a sense of self and purpose — in other words, "How will you become the greatest you can be?" Reflection on personal strengths and goals, hopefully, will lead others to "like Ali, become shining beacons of light."A few galleries offer artistic celebrations of Ali and his world. Sketches and paintings by Leroy Neimann succeed surprisingly well in depicting the electricity inside the ring during a championship match. Photographs by Howard Bingham of poverty-sticken Mississippi communities match the impact of those by WPA photographers decades earlier.We very much enjoyed "Hope and Dream," the creation of Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang. Angelina Jolie underwrote this effort, which solicited thousands of three-inch tiles colorfully and creatively painted by kids all over the world to illustrate their dreams.Our afternoon concluded at "All Ali, All the Time." At individual kiosks, we could view films of 15 of Ali's championship fights. One need not be a veteran boxing fan to see how Clay (and, later, Ali) changed the nature of heavyweight boxing. His quickness and daring must have infuriated early opponents.After all these years, I can see clearly how he beat Sonny Liston in a huge upset to win the title in 1964. (The second Liston fight, unfortunately, was not among the offerings.) Then there are those classics — the Joe Frazier fights, including the Thrilla in Manila. And the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.
Sports fans, history buffs and those simply seeking the story of a major celebrity will enjoy coming to this center. Though Muhammad Ali's life story does not get sanitized here, his oft-repeated claim "I am the greatest" seems to hold up. It's nice to see this shining memorial seeking to inspire those who come after him to their own quests for greatness, too.