Ali: 1942-2016

Flowers and stuff B&W (1 of 1)On Friday night when word began circulating that  Muhammad Ali, civil rights leader and three-time heavyweight champion of the world, had fallen ill, the worldwide response was immediate sadness, and when his death was announced shortly after, the grieving began. 

On Friday night when word began circulating that  Muhammad Ali, civil rights leader and three-time heavyweight champion of the world, had fallen ill, the worldwide response was immediate sadness, and when his death was announced shortly after, the grieving began. 

Ali Memorial (5 of 18)After a decades long fight with Parkinson’s, The Champ’s death shouldn’t have been a surprise, and yet somehow, it was.

He was a titan, whose death seemed unimaginable. As tributes accumulate around the world, grief and memes inundate social media and the world wide web, and funeral plans are made for Friday, Louisville mourns the passing of her greatest son.

Ali was, of course, born Cassius Clay here in Louisville, Kentucky. Though many celebrities change their names, there have been none whose decision sparked quite as much buzz and gossip – no doubt because Ali’s change actually meant something in a time when America itself was struggling with change.

Ali Memorial (10 of 18)Clay started boxing at 12 and began wracking up titles, winning numerous golden gloves. He went to the Olympics in Rome in 1960 and won the gold. At the age of 22, he won his first heavyweight championship, becoming the youngest boxer to ever hold the title. He went on to win the title two more times, once after his ejection from the sport due to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

Untold volumes have been written chronicling every jab and step of his storied career. I’ll leave those descriptions to the sports writers.

In this day and age of constant celebrity worship, it’s easy to feel like you have a personal relationship with your favorite. Ali is no exception and perhaps even more prone to personal deification than most. The protean puncher was so many different things in his life.

Many are quick to claim Ali as their own; Louisville sure isn’t quiet about its love for him. But have a care with how you speak. Don’t say he transcended race. Don’t say he belonged to all of us. Though he shared pieces of himself with people of many races and creeds, Ali was unapologetically, happily and beautifully black. It’s in his very name, which most sports writers refused to even use in 1964 when he joined the Nation of Islam shortly after his rise to fame. He was friends with Malcolm X, and in fact, Martin Luther King Jr. claimed to have been inspired by Ali to start speaking out against the war in Vietnam.

Ali Memorial (9 of 18)In his autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” Ali claimed that he threw his Olympic gold medal off the Clark Memorial Bridge in disillusionment after being denied service at a “whites only” restaurant. The story has been denied by some of his friends, but whether or not it’s true, it’s a story that Ali chose to tell and a perfect example of the way that he used his achievements and his voice to champion the cause of equality. He didn’t transcend race; he held it up for the world to see.

Like many, I am more impressed by the man’s achievements outside the ring. As a pacifist since kindergarten, it meant a lot to me to be able to hold up one of the toughest men who ever lived and point to his conscientious objection.

At the time, and even now in the days after his death, people called Ali a draft dodger. It’s hard to think of a more ridiculous statement. During Vietnam, popular draft dodges included moving to Canada, enrolling in college or using money or family connections to serve in the Coast Guard. Ali didn’t dodge – he stood his ground.

Ali Memorial (12 of 18)Ali understood the power of words and deeds, and he used the one to back up the other. He went to jail for what he believed in. He sacrificed his prime fighting years for what he believed in. He waited while his case wound its way through the courts, eventually being settled by the Supreme Court in Ali’s favor. While banned from boxing, Ali toured the country speaking against the draft at universities.

The draft ended in 1972. Ali outlived it by three decades. He didn’t dodge; he delivered body blows.

It’s impossible to know exactly how much boxing took out of Ali and how much it affected his onset of Parkinson’s – expect experts to weigh in and argue in the coming days. It’s also difficult to know if any of The Champ’s symptoms stemmed from non-Parkinson’s related Traumatic Brain Injury. TBI is still being researched, and sports-related injuries are always hotly contested.

But there is no question that Ali faded in his later years, beginning with the end of his career and subsequently the announcement of illness a few years after his retirement.

Ali Memorial (17 of 18)In his illness, Ali took fewer bold stances. The Champ was fighting for his life against a degenerative disease. The fact that he kept it at bay for as long as he did is a credit to his strength.

To a generation of millennials and Gen X-ers, he is a kindly grandfather, not a virile pot-stirrer, not a smart mouth sultan of smack talk. He faded, but there is no end to reports and personal stories, especially in Louisville, that suggest there was still plenty of Ali in there.

So many people in this town have little stories about him. They’ll tell you about when they were a kid and an older African-American gentleman approached them, did a magic trick, smiled with a twinkle in his eye and marched off. Maybe they met him at a fundraiser for charity; Ali was always quick to give back to causes in his hometown. Perhaps they got one chance to tell him that their dad always watched the fights with them and that a loved one thought he was the greatest.

Ali Memorial (3 of 18)His goodwill and grace through illness makes it easy to forget his spitfire days. Don’t. It’s become easy to focus on his charm and his athletic achievements without consideration to the firestorms he created. Don’t.

It’s indeed also worth remembering that the young hell-raiser wasn’t without his own faults. His skin was several shades lighter than his long time rival Joe Frazier, and Ali never let Frazier forget it, often taunting him with racially charged terms like “Gorilla” and “Uncle Tom.” Trash talk was a regular fixture of Ali’s fight strategy and easy to admire, but Frazier claims that the verbal abuse had lasting effects on him emotionally.

Not that his greatness is likely to be forgotten, not around the world and not here in his hometown. The Muhammad Ali Center is a shining jewel in our revitalized downtown. It’s just a few blocks away from Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and if you’re so inclined, you can take Muhammad Ali Boulevard down to the West End and visit Ali’s boyhood home.

Throughout the weekend, well-wishers and mourners visited both, lining the streets with flowers, boxing gloves and heartfelt homemade signs. On Friday before The Champ’s funeral at the KFC Yum! Center, a memorial procession will wind its way past all the sites. The city has launched a special website,, to help fans and mourners navigate the city, and foreign dignitaries and celebrities including Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumble will speak at the funeral. Ali will be laid to rest in Cave Hill Cemetery, and his grave will no doubt become a destination for tourists and fans who will stand in his final resting place and remember the greatest of all time.

For me, I’ll go down to the Second Street bridge and think about the power of words and gestures and standing up for what you believe in – even when it costs.

And I’ll go ahead and say we ought to change the name of that bridge. Doesn’t The Muhammad Ali Bridge sound like a winner? VT

Story by ELI KEEL
hotography by ZACHARY ERWIN