You Can’t Mention Muhammad Ali Without Mentioning Louisville: How This City Inspired The World

The Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) – Muhammad Ali passed away in Scottsdale, AZ on June 3, 2016, at the age of 74. Ali struggled with Parkinson’s Disease for the last 30+ years of his life.

Ali will be buried in his hometown of Louisville, KY on Friday, June 10, 2016 during a private burial service at Cave Hill Cemetery. A public funeral service and viewing will take place at the KFC YUM Center at 2pm on June 10, 2016, to allow the people of the city he loved so much – a chance to say their goodbyes.

Being a 20 year resident of Louisville, KY, the only appropriate way to begin this article is by stating, “The city of Louisville loves you Champ – and thanks you from the bottom of our hearts for standing up for humanity, in and out of the ring.”

If you’ve ever visited Louisville, you are aware of the significant influence that Muhammad Ali’s life has had on this city. Sitting on the edge of Louisville’s downtown skyline is a luxurious six-story, 96,750 sq ft museum boasting the name the Muhammad Ali Center.

The structure was built in 2005, to honor the Champ and his personal values of respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, charity, and spirituality. From a very young age, Ali inspired many around the world to stand up for what they believe in, despite the consequences.


To further honor Ali, the city changed the name of Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Blvd. This memorial passway begins in the eastern section of downtown Louisville and travels through the city’s predominantly black West End, before coming to an end at Shawnee Park.

In 2012, the Kentucky Historical Society and then Councilman David Tandy officially dedicated a historical marker at 3302 Grand Avenue – the childhood home of Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali marker

The home has since been purchased by Pennsylvania trial lawyer George Bochetto and Las Vegas-based investor Jared Weiss, who invested $300,000 in its renovation to open it up for ticketed tours in March 2016.

Muhammad Ali home

Ali was born in the West End of Louisville as Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942. He would later join the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. The West End of Louisville was predominantly black while Ali was growing up and remains that way to this day.

According to the 2010 Census, the West End of Louisville has an estimated population of 90,110. Of that population – 79% are estimated to be African-American.

Although Louisville didn’t officially have Jim Crow laws like many cities in the deep south – racial segregation and discrimination was still a reality for the city’s black residents – and Ali would grow up in that world.

At a young age, Ali would experience racism and segregation which would later fuel his passion to fight for equality worldwide.

  • In 1941, “sit-ins” become a common practice to protest the segregated Louisville public library.
  • In 1945, Eugene S. Clayton becomes the first African-American ever elected to the Louisville Board of Aldermen.
  • In 1948, black Louisville resident Lyman T Johnson files a federal lawsuit against the University of Kentucky challenging the state’s “Day Law” which prohibited blacks and whites from attending the same schools.
  • In 1954, a white couple, Anne and Carl Braden, purchase a home in Louisville’s suburb of Shively on behalf of a black man, Andrew Wade, because realtors routinely wouldn’t sell property in that area to blacks. Once the Wade family moved in, they were immediately harassed by their white neighbors. The Braden’s were later charged with “Communist Conspiracy” for selling the home to a black man and the home was eventually bombed.

As an adult, Ali would state during an interview that as a small child he would often ask his mother why black people were treated differently based on the color of their skin.

At 12 years-old an unfortunate event would change Ali’s life forever. His bicycle would be stolen from his West End neighborhood and during a conversation with police officer, Joe Martin, he said that he wanted to beat up the thief. Martin reportedly told him, “Well you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people.”

In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym. He invited Ali to come and train with him and within a few short months, Ali won his first amateur bout.

Muhammad-Ali kid

In 1956, Ali would win the Golden Gloves tournament for novices as a light heavyweight. The kid was a born natural. From that point his career spiraled into a series of undefeated fights which would eventually lead him to winning a gold medal, as a light heavyweight, at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy.

Ali olympics

He returned to the states – now as a celebrated world champion – and quickly turned professional with financial backing from the Louisville Sponsorship Group. Ali’s lightning speed and agility, combined with his massive 6’3 frame would prove to be too overwhelming for most challengers.

In 1964, Ali became the heavyweight champion of the world after defeating the reigning champion Sonny Liston.

ali liston

After the fight, the world got a chance to hear Ali boast and brag in classic Ali fashion – which would become one of the trademarks of his career.

“Oh I’m so great…Oh I’m so great… And what makes it so good is all these hypocrites can’t call it a fix because I didn’t stop the fight – the doctors had to stop it… Oh I’m so pretty. I’m champ of the world.” – Muhammad Ali

At this point Ali was still going by his birth name of Cassius Clay. However, his upbringing in Louisville never left his mind and because of it – he was constantly seeking spiritual understanding. Later in 1964, he decided to dedicate his life to the Nation of Islam, become a black Muslim, and change his name to Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad-Ali islam

The Nation of Islam is an African-American Islamic religious group founded in Detroit in 1930, by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad. In 1934, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad would take over leadership.

The goals of the religion are to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of African-Americans in the United States and all of humanity.

The Nation of Islam became very popular during the 1960s -1980s amongst blacks who began searching for a religion that they felt resonated with people of African descent better than traditional European Christianity did.

As a Muslim, Ali began to speak out against the Vietnam War. In 1967, he was drafted into the war himself. Still harboring his childhood experiences from West Louisville – Ali refused to go to war, citing that he was now a practicing Muslim minister whose religious beliefs forbid him from fighting.

Muhammad Ali

He famously made this speech while defending his decision to avoid the draft.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?… Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger… I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the world” – Muhammad Ali

One thing is for sure. The discrimination that Ali faced as child in Louisville helped instill inside him, a distinct love for black people as well as for all disenfranchised people across the globe.

As a result of refusing to enter the draft – Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title, thrown in jail, and stripped of his passport so that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to box in any other country.

Muhammad-Ali arrested

During an appearance on the William F. Buckley Show, he was asked why he didn’t escape to Canada after being brought up on charges and being stripped of his title. Ali responded;

“I could be a millionaire fugitive if I was greedy and worrying about myself… I would like to say this… The flesh and the blood of my people is more important… What I’m doing is for myself and for justice for black people. Running will kill it all and make me a coward, so I would rather go to jail.” – Muhammad Ali – 1968

Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War was said to pioneer the practice of fighting for religious freedoms and is also credited with inspiring Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Martin Luther King Jr.

Being leery of losing support for the Civil Rights Movement from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, King reluctantly avoided addressing the war. Once Ali became vocal, King began to voice his opposition of the war as well.

Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for avoiding the war but was able to remain free on appeal. After missing three years of boxing, the Supreme Court unanimously voted 8-0 to overturn his conviction in 1971.

Muhammad-Ali 5 years

Ali regained his title for the second time in 1974, against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. The legendary fight was dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle”.

muhammad-ali-center rumble in the jungle

In 1978, an over-confident Ali would lose his heavyweight title to Leon Spinks but regain it for a third time by defeating Spinks unanimously just seven months later. Muhammad Ali ended his boxing career with an impressive 56-5 professional record which spanned over three decades.

Muhammad-Ali spinks

Not only was he loved and adored in the boxing ring but his neverending fight for equality caused people all over the world to fall in love with his spirit. Over the course of his lifetime, he gave many speeches around the globe, inspiring those to fight for what they believe in.

After retiring from boxing, Ali spent a great deal of his free time performing philanthropy work across the globe. He supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation as well as many other charities. He traveled to many third world countries and donated millions to help those in need.

Muhammad-Ali africa

Creating a monumental moment in sports history, he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, and in 1998, he became the United Nations Messenger of Peace due to his charitable work in developing nations.

Muhammad-Ali torch

In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime commitment to equality.

But overall, the most honorable attribute in Ali’s catalogue is his compassion. Despite being a boxer, Ali never physically challenged or threatened anyone outside of the ring while pursuing equality. He used charm, charisma and his naturally acquired intelligence to fight against racism and religious discrimination.

ali smile

Louisville has always been a tight-knit community that is the epitome of pride and compassion. So much so, that on 11-11-11, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer signed a resolution committing to a multi-year Compassionate Louisville campaign – making Louisville an international compassionate city, the largest city in America with that distinction.

Muhammad Ali shared the compassion and pride that he learned in Louisville with the rest of the world – and that’s why “You Can’t Mention Muhammad Ali Without Mentioning Louisville.”

Brad Harrison is a journalist/motivational speaker/entrepreneur and on-air personality. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications with cum laude honors from the University of Louisville. In October 2015, he started UrbanMaxx Magazine to provide positive role models for Urban residents that reside in at-risk-communities and lack positive leadership in their lives.
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