Ali, forever the people’s champion

sports Updated: Jun 06, 2016 08:43 IST

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY: Muhammad Ali travelled the world as a fighter and humanitarian, but he always came home to Louisville.

His Kentucky hometown was where Ali, as a gangly teenager, began to develop his boxing skills — the dazzling footwork and rapid-fire punching prowess. The three-time world heavyweight boxing champion never forgot his roots, returning to his old West End neighbourhood and visiting high school classmates even after becoming one of the world’s most recognisable men.

Now the focus shifts back to Ali’s hometown as the world says goodbye to the man who emerged from humble beginnings to rub elbows with heads of state.

Ali, slowed for years by Parkinson’s disease, died on Friday at age 74 in an Arizona hospital. His funeral is scheduled for Friday afternoon in Louisville.

Ali chose his hometown as the place for one of his lasting legacies: the Muhammad Ali Center, which promotes his humanitarian ideals and showcases his remarkable career. Ali and his wife, Lonnie, had multiple residences around the U.S., but always maintained a Louisville home.

The city embraced its favourite son right back. A downtown street bears his name. A banner showcasing his face — and proclaiming him “Louisville’s Ali” — towers over motorists near the city’s riverfront.

Lifelong friend Victor Bender knew Ali ever since they were boyhood sparring partners. Bender remembered Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — as a dedicated athlete who worked tirelessly to hone his boxing skills. He also remembered Ali’s human touch — his willingness to reach out to others. “Only health changed him,” Bender said in a September 2014 interview. “When he was healthy enough, he could talk with anybody. He loved children. He’d reach out and touch anybody, because he loved people.

“Sometimes his handlers would say, ‘Look, we’ve got to go. We’ve got to meet the schedule.’ And he’d say, ‘The schedule will have to wait.’”

Ali’s boyhood home — a small, single-story frame house — still stands in the working-class neighbourhood where he grew up. The bright pink home on Grand Avenue was renovated by its current owners and opened for Ali’s fans.

Ali announced his conversion to the Muslim faith soon after upsetting Liston in 1964 to win the heavyweight crown for the first time. Ali moved away in the early 1960s but never lost contact with Louisville.

The Ali Center includes exhibits recalling the turbulent 1960s that Ali came to personify. Ali was refused service at a Louisville restaurant after he returned home as an Olympic gold medal winner. Other exhibits recall Ali’s role as a civil rights supporter and opponent of the Vietnam War.

Louisvillians embraced him as their own again as they mourned his passing. They flocked to the Ali Center and to his boyhood home along with out-of-town visitors paying their respects.

First Published: Jun 06, 2016 08:43 IST