For more than a half-century, the world was an audience for the larger-than-life exploits of Louisville native Muhammad Ali, born 75 years ago this month. He embodied “unbridled spirit” in and out of the boxing ring long before it became the slogan for his home state.
His death last June, observed by a world audience, has renewed reflection on his life and its impact on his fellow Kentuckians and well beyond us—and how his legacy can be carried forward.
In the ring, he made his name with 56 professional wins, five losses, and 37 knockouts. And for a rivalry belonging to the ages with fellow heavyweight Joe Frazier (“One could not rise without the other,” Ali wrote). And for his flamboyant confidence and self-promotion and poetic pronouncements earning him the nickname “the Louisville Lip,” as well as global renown and regard predating cable and the internet.
Out of the ring is where the spectacular athlete became human legend and an even greater champion.
At a riven time of church bombs, police dogs, and fire hoses trained on African Americans, Ali refused to be quiet, bowed, or afraid: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be, and think what I want to think,” he said.
He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Ali when he converted to Islam. At the height of his 1960s boxing career, he refused on religious grounds to be drafted into the Army to fight in the Vietnam War; he was stripped of his heavyweight title, fined, sentenced to prison, and banned from his livelihood. He took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a unanimous decision, sided with him, another bout won, allowing him to resume his career.
Later in his life, he showed us how to meet adversity again, his grace and spirit shining through a body immobilized and a voice stilled by Parkinson’s disease. And the world, a different one, in part because of him, paid tribute after tribute when he died.
As Ali moved, as he stood, as he spoke, and even when he couldn’t move or stand or speak anymore, he lived his credo: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
Lonnie Ali, who was married to Muhammad for almost 30 years, says, “He genuinely loved people. It’s a very important component of his legacy, that we connect with each other.”
Always a giver
The Muhammad Ali Center, a beautiful museum and cultural center in Louisville, honors his career, his life, and his core principles of confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality. The Humanitarian Timeline, a new exhibit featuring Ali’s service to others, reveals that he donated $2,519 from his first professional fight at Freedom Hall in 1960 to what was then Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital. He was 18 when he won that fight.
In their life together, Lonnie says they would go to hospitals and juvenile detention centers because Ali wanted to visit the kids. “He took time with each and every person,” she says. Sometimes they would visit burn units, a harrowing experience that left her “an emotional mess” while Ali would do magic tricks for the patients. “God made him that way,” she says. “He’s always been that way.”
Lonnie says once they were walking in Los Angeles on their way to visit youth in a detention center. They passed a man who looked down on his luck. Without a word, her husband turned back and caught up with him and put some money in the man’s hand. When Ali returned, she noted that the man hadn’t asked for anything. “He looked like he needed it,” Ali told her.
“Ali in All of Us”
This generosity of spirit is the legacy of her husband that Lonnie Ali seeks to honor and extend, and this is the spirit she wants to evoke and build upon with the new “Ali in All of Us” initiative. The movement continues the legacy of Muhammad Ali in a concrete and actionable way: by inspiring service and acts of kindness globally.
“It doesn’t have to be structured,” she says. “It can be taking dinner to someone, volunteering at a library, helping someone who is sick, or just being patient with someone.”
She calls it her birthday present to her husband, who would have been 75 years old on January 17.
“If he knew he was still inspiring others to help,” Lonnie says, “he’d be so happy.”
“Ali in All of Us” will continue her late husband’s tradition of connecting by deed and example with people he never met but who knew him, and were affected by him.
Epitome of his beliefs
Michael Eaves, a Hopkins County native, helped cover Ali’s funeral services in Louisville for ESPN. A studio anchor for the network, he previously worked at WLKY/WDKY TV in Lexington.
His first memory of Ali was seeing him lose to Leon Spinks on television in 1978, and then a few months later seeing Ali win in a rematch to become the first three-time heavyweight champion.
But, as he was for many others, Ali became more than a boxer to Eaves.
“Besides giving me a reason to be proud to be a Kentuckian,” he says, “he also proved that a black man from Kentucky could accomplish just about anything he desired.”
Ali’s own devotion to his beliefs also was a lesson, Eaves says.
“He was so committed and steadfast in his beliefs that even those who opposed his views eventually came to respect the man who held them,” he says. “You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who personally encountered him that left that moment without a belief that he truly cared about the well-being of every person he met, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or gender. He was the living epitome of his beliefs.”
As Eaves covered the memorial events upon Ali’s death, he saw the unity in the expressions of love and affection and the diversity of those who paid respect as other transcendent moments in the history of this person and this place.
The world was an audience again for the larger-than-life exploits of Muhammad Ali as he came home one last time.
“I’m not sure there’s another person alive today who could produce the outpouring of love and respect that we saw in Louisville during that weekend. If you were to think of any two traditionally opposing groups—conservative vs. liberal, Christian vs. Muslim, etc.—you would have found representatives from each of those groups at his memorial events,” Eaves says.
“Muhammad Ali may have been the most unifying human to ever walk the Earth, and he took his very first steps in Kentucky. How cool is that?”
2014 All-Time Kentucky Athlete
In 2014, Kentucky Living readers chose Muhammad Ali the All-Time Kentucky Athlete in the annual Best in Kentucky reader vote. Here is what Ali had to say about receiving the award:
I am overwhelmed and humbled by this award. As a child and young adult, I had dreams of achieving my goal to become the World Heavyweight Champion yet I never imagined I would be named the All-Time Athlete in Kentucky. What I am today, I owe in large part to my parents and the support I received from the Louisville community and people all over Kentucky. They gave me a sense of ‘anything is possible’ and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. From the friends and neighbors I grew up with, to my teachers in school, and the shopkeepers and business owners on 4th Street and beyond, they all played a part in my success.
I’ve always been proud of my Kentucky roots and heritage and I intend to continuously make my Kentucky family proud of me and the Ali Legacy—which is also a Kentucky Legacy.