Olympic gold medalist in boxing, three-time heavyweight champion, political activist — for much of his 74 years, Muhammad Ali was among the most recognizable people on the planet.
But before he was known as “The Greatest,” Ali was Cassius Clay (his birth name) and was nicknamed “The Louisville Lip” — a nod to both his hometown and his smooth way with words. On a visit to the Southeastern city of Louisville, Kentucky, you can trace Ali’s journey from his boyhood home to his final resting place.
Spalding University, a private liberal arts college, was the site of two important milestones for the future Heavyweight Champion of the World. Ali’s first job was at the school, then called Nazareth College. He manned the library’s front desk and performed custodial duties. More importantly, the former Columbia Gym, now part of Spalding’s student center, is where Ali learned to box. In 1954, then 12 years old, Ali parked his new red bike outside the gym, only to have it stolen. When he reported the incident to the police officer, who also ran the gym, telling him he was going to “whup” the thief who stole it, the officer/trainer suggested that if Ali wanted to fight, he should learn to box. Shortly thereafter, Ali began training at Columbia Gym, which also hosted some of his first fights. A red bike hangs outside the building as a tribute to Ali.
Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville examines his life both in and out of the ring. Upon entering the museum, which Ali was involved in designing, the 14-minute film “If You Can Dream” summarizes Ali’s accomplishments and influence. Pavilions focus on each of The Greatest’s six core principles — confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. Afterward, you can train with Ali (and even shadowbox him) in a re-creation of his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, training camp; watch replays of some of his most famous fights; and relive his lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
Cave Hill Cemetery
Even before Ali was laid to rest there, the 121-hectare Cave Hill Cemetery was a popular stop for travelers who wanted to walk through the arboretum-like setting, take a historical tour, or just see the grave of KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Keeping with Ali’s Muslim faith, his burial site, in a secluded corner of Cave Hill that he selected, is a bit more subdued — a headstone just reads: “Ali.”
Some other Ali-related sites you’ll want to visit while in Louisville:
- Shortly after Ali’s death, officials at Churchill Downs located a photo of the champ’s long-rumored training session at the storied racetrack. While the home of the Kentucky Derby is only available for humans to run on during the Derby Festival marathon and half-marathon, it does host live horse racing in the spring and fall.
- The Brown Hotel’s Muhammad Ali suite (which Ali dedicated) contains photos of The Champ, his boxing globes and autographed memorabilia.
- In October 1960, Ali made his professional boxing debut at Freedom Hall, now part of the Kentucky Expo Center. He won.
- Legend has it that after a restaurant refused to serve Ali because he was black, he chucked his Olympic gold medal off the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge (which locals call the Second Street Bridge) and into the Ohio River. There’s also a competing story that Ali simply lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement years later.
- In 1978, Louisville changed the name of Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard. It runs for 8 kilometers, through downtown, and any of its intersections make for a good photo of Ali’s name on a street sign.
- Louisville honors its “hometown heroes” with giant banners proclaiming them as such throughout downtown. Ali’s mischievous grin adorns the Louisville Gas & Electric building.