“Maybe I was great in the ring, but outside of boxing, I’m just a brother like other people. I want to live a good life, serve God, help everybody I can. And one more thing. I’m still gonna find out who stole my bike when I was 12 years old in Louisville and I’m gonna whup him. That was a good bike.” Muhammad Ali
If not for a stolen Schwinn bicycle, Muhammad Ali might not have become the heavyweight champion of the world.
A replica of that bike is now prominently displayed at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Opened in November 2005, the center traces the career of the man who changed the face of boxing.
A replica of the bike that was stolen from Ali is displayed.
“Sometimes people are faced with obstacles in their lives,” said Jeanie Kahnke, senior director of public relations and external affairs for the center. “And we never know the purpose for it. We thought it was really important to start the story of Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy by representing that beginning with a replica of the bike.”
For our weeklong cruise from Louisville to Nashville aboard the American Countess, my grandson Logan and I arrived in our departure city two days early to visit some of Louisville’s attractions. That is one of the joys of riverboat cruising – getting to see fascinating parts of America from the comfort of a luxurious riverboat. And the Ali Center was definitely fascinating.
At age 12, Cassius Clay rode his red Schwinn to the Columbia Auditorium in downtown Louisville for some free snacks. When it came time to go home, the boy found that his bike had been stolen.
Boiling with rage, the boy told the closest cop that he was going to “whup” whoever stole his bike. If that was the case, policeman Joe Martin said, he had better teach the skinny kid how to box. The 89-pound boxer soon became a fixture at the Columbus Gym where the policeman was boxing coach. Within weeks, Cassius fought his first bout – and won.
An exhibit features the policeman who trained a skinny kid to box.
The legend begins
For the next 27 years, the man who would become Muhammad Ali was in the ring. When he fought his last bout in 1981, Ali had a record 56 wins, five losses and 37 knockouts. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 in Rome shortly after his 18th birthday.
“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given,” Ali said in a written statement when the center opened. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali traveled the world as a humanitarian before his death on June 3, 2016. “I believed in myself,” Ali said. “And I believe in the goodness of others.”
Ali wanted more than a building to house his memorabilia. “I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”
Born in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, the baby was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who was named for the 19th century abolitionist and politician of the same name. His father painted billboards and signs. His mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked as a household domestic. The family lived in a modest bungalow on the city’s west end.
Boxing consumed him. He ran before dawn and shadowboxed through the halls of Central High School. In a display at the center, classmate Hunt Helm remembers that at Central High, Cassius Clay “was known as the kid who drank water with garlic, who drank milk with raw eggs, who wouldn’t smoke, who wouldn’t even drink carbonated soda pop, who ran and shadowboxed as often as he walked, who was very shy, especially around girls.”
“From the age of 12, he trained every day,” his mother said in a statement posted in the center. “He never took part in anything else since he stepped into the gym… When he was 12 he said he’d bring back the Olympic Gold Medal and that he’d be champion of the whole world. I believed him. It’s really been a sacrifice for him. It wasn’t easy, he trained so hard.”
Overlooking the Ohio River, the 93,000-square-foot, six-level center has become a Louisville landmark. The outside of the building has a dramatic mural made of 16,500 square feet of colored ceramic tile. The design, based on photographs of Ali, looks from a distance like his face and figure in action. Nearing the building, the images dissolve into an abstract pattern of colors.
From a distance, ceramic tile looks like Ali’s face and figure in action.
The roof is shaped like butterfly wings, echoing that famous Ali adage: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The center is organized around the core values of Ali’s life – respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, spirituality and giving.
But the center doesn’t shy away from critical aspects of Ali’s life. It’s all there, in chronological order. The conversion to Islam and the name change from Clay to Ali in 1964. The refusal to join the Army during the Vietnam War – “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
As a draft dodger, Ali was prosecuted by the government and lost his boxing license. At the peak of his career, he was suddenly outlawed from boxing for three and a half years. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had acted improperly. Ali won back the heavyweight title, knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round in the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
Visitors are invited to participate in hands-on activities.
Memorabilia from his career includes Ali’s specially made boxing trunks, autographed boxing gloves and a bejeweled jumpsuit titled “The People’s Choice” that Elvis Presley presented to Ali in 1973.
This bejeweled boxing robe was a gift to Ali from Elvis Presley.
A 16-by-16-foot boxing ring – used in the movie “Ali” starring Will Smith – is the backdrop for a 13-minute biographical film narrated by actor Samuel Jackson. Near the ring, visitors can sit in comfortable seats and watch film highlights of Ali fights dating back to the first Clay-Liston bout in 1964.
Also near the ring is a detailed life-size replica of Ali’s rustic Deer Lake, Pa., training camp. Inside the camp’s cabin, visitors can take aim at a red Everlast punching bag and shadow box against a boxer’s shadow.
A boxing ring is the backdrop for an Ali film.
The fourth floor commemorates when Ali used the Olympic torch to light the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Visitors are invited to place their hand in a handprint of Ali’s and discover their own sense of self, sense of others and sense of purpose.
“The goal is to make people think about their own lives, what makes them special, what makes them personally great,” Kahnke said. “We all have different gifts, different character strengths. Everyone can do something that makes a difference in their family, their community, their school. Everyone can achieve a certain level of greatness, can work toward reaching their dreams.”
Bottom Line: Plan to spend extra time in this excellent museum. So much to see and do including watching films of Ali’s fights. Ali wanted the center to encourage others to work for their dreams. From hearing the conversations of visitors from all ages, I think Ali succeeded in that goal.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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