By Budd Bailey
For a non-major league city, Louisville certainly has more than its share of top-notch attractions when it comes to sports. There’s Churchill Downs, which on the first Saturday in May becomes the place to be because of the Kentucky Derby. In town is the Louisville Slugger Factory, with its iconic bat that stretches a few stories high leaning against the building. Both are terrific stops on a vacation itinerary.
But that short list doesn’t include another must-see exhibition. The Muhammad Ali Center is close to 15 years old these days, and the boxing champion has been gone since 2016. Still, this is the place to go if you want to learn what the fuss was all about.
And what a fuss it was. Here’s the short version. As Cassius Clay, he rose through the boxing ranks to become Olympic champion in 1960. From there it was on to the pros. He was ridiculously fast, ridiculously handsome, and ridiculously chatty. There had never been anyone like this in sports, more or less. Clay really did shake up the world when he beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.
Then things got really interesting. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam. Much of America wasn’t prepared for that. After several title defenses which gave him a legitimate claim to boxing greatness, Ali refused induction to the military on religious grounds – and instantly put a bull’s-eye on his back to much of America. He was stripped of his title and not allowed to fight for more than three years.
From there, all he did was return to the ring, take part in some of the most memorable boxing matches in history, win a Supreme Court decision over the draft induction, and become the most recognizable face in the world. Ali was a complex character, but his impact on sports and society was huge.
That means it takes a six-story building to tell the story, and that facility is right on the Ohio River in his native downtown Louisville. A walk through the Center starts with a movie on his life. Then there are exhibits on Ali’s core principles, such as giving, respect and spirituality. There’s a big room devoted to the three-time champion’s career as a boxer, match by match. One area gives visitors the chance for some hands-on experience in the sport – hitting a speed bag, shadowing boxing, bouncing around a ring, etc. Note: the speed bag is tough to master.
On the way downstairs to the next level, there’s a viewing area to watch another film that’s projected on to a boxing ring. It’s a great way to watch it, considering the subject, and the ring is the one used in the Ali bio-movie starring Will Smith. From there, you can sit and watch some of Ali’s big fights in the entirety, view photos and paintings, see some awards won by the Louisville native, and so on. Yes, Ali’s torch from the opening of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta is on display. It takes a few hours to go through it all, but boxing fans will feel as if it was only a couple of rounds.
The messaging here is a little heavy-handed, but it’s difficult to argue with a museum that reminds its patrons that such qualities as dedication are worth obtaining. Youngsters certainly will be reminded that you too can someday be “king of the world!”
It’s a world-class way to remember a legend; Louisville did this right. If you arrive in that Kentucky town for the Derby, save room on your schedule for the Muhammad Ali Center.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)